Calling the PPW Redesign a “Trial”? That Was Brooklyn Borough Hall’s Idea

Here we are again, a few days away from a court hearing that could finally put the Prospect Park West lawsuit to bed. At issue in Brooklyn Supreme Court next Wednesday will be the seemingly tangential matter of whether the redesign of Prospect Park West was designated a “trial” or “pilot” project by NYC DOT. If it was not, the plaintiffs’ case has no standing in court, because the statute of limitations ran out a few months before they filed their complaint.

Borough President Marty Markowitz

Streetsblog has been reporting on this project for more than two years now, and in all that time — throughout the community board presentations, open houses, and yet more community board presentations — not once have I seen or heard someone from DOT call the PPW redesign a trial. In fact, at one of the few meetings we didn’t report on — an April 29, 2010 Community Board 6 Transportation Committee meeting — DOT bike and pedestrian director Josh Benson explicitly said the project was not a trial. So where does this “trial” idea come from?

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jim Walden, has embarked on an extended expedition ostensibly in search of the answer — issuing FOIL requests and subpoenas to NYC DOT and City Council Member Brad Lander’s office. He recently told the press, “We believe clearly, given [Lander’s] own public statements, that the DOT told him in no uncertain terms it was a trial program, it was a trial bike lane.”

Well, after some digging, we found out who wanted the Prospect Park West bike lane to be a “trial” project, and it wasn’t DOT. It was Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Flash back to February 2010. Brooklyn Community Board 6 had voted in favor of the Prospect Park West bike lane the previous June. Then in October, Markowitz, with the backing of former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall, had written to current commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, demanding that the project be shelved indefinitely. In preparation for a March 1 meeting between Markowitz and DOT brass, Borough Hall transportation policy point man Luke DePalma sent a memo prepping the borough president [PDF]. He concluded with the following piece of coaching:

DOT still plans to implement this project.
You should restate your opposition and concerns, and insist that this bike lane, if installed, be done on a “pilot” or trial basis. This will give DOT a chance to monitor the impacts the lane might have on the traffic during the spring and summer.

So, by a count of one to zero, this memo from the borough president’s office refers to a “pilot” or “trial” project more than all the DOT presentations on PPW combined.

At the March 1 meeting, DOT informed Markowitz that the redesign was moving ahead and would be installed soon. The borough president was not pleased. As a concession, DOT told Markowitz they would not pour any concrete as part of the project in 2010.

In a May 6, 2010 email to Markowitz [PDF], prompted by a message from Brooklyn College dean Louise Hainline (before she became head of the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes”), DePalma described his understanding of the arrangement between the borough president and DOT:

DOT’s original plan from 2009 was to install a full build-out of the PPW bike lane with raised concrete medians, etc. Because you raised issue with the plan, DOT pledged to hold off on the full build out of the permanent structures, until a “testing” period could elapse during the summer/ fall that would illustrate that the bike lane could work without incident. Weinshall’s statement that this “temporary” installation is “bogus” is her opinion and I can’t comment on it.

I’m not naive- I realize that it is almost certain that DOT will make this bike lane permanent and that this “trial” is intended to placate opposition…

Apparently, this piece of horsetrading between DOT and Markowitz is a key underpinning of the NBBL contention that the PPW project is a “trial” or “pilot.” But the lack of concrete does not make a street redesign any less final, and conducting an evaluation after implementing a project does not make it provisional.

In a trial, the assumption is that achieving a permanent state — be it banishing cars from a park, or bringing a new pharmaceutical to market — is contingent on meeting some criteria. Here’s how DOT described the process in their 2010 report on the Midtown pedestrian plazas [PDF]:

Green Light for Midtown, the pilot project implemented by the New York City Department of Transportation in 2009, addresses a problem and opportunity that was hidden in plain sight, that of Broadway’s disruptive and dramatic diagonal path across the midtown grid…

The goals of Green Light for Midtown are to improve and maximize mobility and safety while providing additional benefits to the West Midtown community. This evaluation report uses a comprehensive set
of quantitative information to assess how well the changes achieved the project’s goals.

With PPW, the assumption has always been that the change is permanent but reversible in the event of total failure. The Kent Avenue and Grand Street protected bike lanes are made out of thermoplast and paint too. Like the Prospect Park West bike lane, they are easily reversible, and like PPW, they are not trials. DOT has also conducted evaluations of several street redesigns, including the First and Second Avenue protected bike lanes, without ever designating them trials. With those projects, as with Prospect Park West, the agency was measuring the effect of permanent changes.

In their complaint [PDF], attorneys for the bike lane opponents cite instances where Lander and members of his staff referred to the project as a “trial,” but they fail to mention that DOT’s Benson publicly corrected that perception at an April 29, 2010 community board meeting. From Benson’s sworn affidavit [PDF]:

I distinctly recall one of the representatives stating that the PPW Project would be a trial project, and I immediately corrected this publicly by stating that the PPW Project was not a trial project, but that after its installation it would be monitored with adjustments made as deemed appropriate.

The fact is that the plaintiffs received ample signals that, while representatives were tossing around the word “trial,” the city itself didn’t consider the project to be one. Hainline appears to have grasped this after conferring with Weinshall. In a May 6, 2010 email exchange with Markowitz [PDF], she wrote:

I ran into Iris Weinshall in the elevator at 9 PPW today, and she says that “temporary” is bogus (which is what you said too).

And Markowitz, in response, seemed to acknowledge that the “trial” or “pilot” language was not the city’s official designation: “only the Mayor can derail this plan…all of our local city council members support this proposal and are using the ‘pilot’ as a cover.”

Despite DOT’s public correction and Markowitz’s frank analysis, Hainline persisted in calling the project a trial. Her insistence is on display in a July, 2010 message to the NBBL email group [PDF]. Hainline forwarded an email from Community Board 6 district manager Craig Hammerman in which he referred to the PPW “formal evaluation.” But when she passed Hammerman’s message around to the group, Hainline called it a “trial.” You can distinguish her text from Hammerman’s by the different fonts:

By October, NBBL’s liaison to city government, former deputy mayor Norman Steisel, was emailing his objections to Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith (and a dozen other city officials) in a message with the subject “Prospect Park West Bike Lane Trial” [PDF].

When the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, they could not cite any instance where a DOT official called the project a trial or pilot. This is the best Walden could do:

Furthermore, Respondents stated at various times that the results of the study would be released for public scrutiny and that the bicycle lane would not become permanent until after the study data was released and reviewed. For example:

a. In her August 13, 2010 letter to New York State Assembly Member Brennan and New York City Council Member Lander, Commissioner Sadik-Khan stated an intention to present “the findings from the monitoring period at a public forum” early in 2011, where the “public [would] be encouraged to respond to this data and provide any additional input.”

b. Commissioner Sadik-Khan, in her October 22, 2010 letter to CB 6 Chairperson Bashner, promised to report back to the Board in “early 2011 to provide information” on utilization of the EBL [sic] and its impact on safety. In addition, she solicited the “counsel and guidance” of CB6 and looked forward to working with it “in a spirit of partnership and cooperation.”

c. In her November 17, 2010 letter to Steisel, Commissioner Sadik-Khan assured him that “the community process did not end when the project was implemented” and that DOT intended to “present and discuss [its] findings with members of the community following the study period.”

There’s no doubt that the people who are now suing the city wanted the Prospect Park West redesign to be a trial. But referring to it as a trial amongst themselves and to the officials they sought to sway doesn’t make it so.

  • Park Slope Parent

    Note to Jim Walden: the fact that Louise Hainline put the word “trial” in quotes does not mean she was actually quoting anyone other than herself.

  • 106th Street

    Here’s a choice quote from Brooklyn College Dean Louise Hainline in her 5/6/10 email to Markowitz:

    “[Iris Weinshall] confirmed that neither of the streets around Central Park have bike lanes, on the west below 96th St. (what a surprise!).”

    What do you think she meant by that?

  • Mike

    That briefing memo reads like a puppet master pulling the strings of an empty suit.
    Really, read it: it basically assumes that Marty knows nothing at all.

  • Anonymous

    Real journalism rather than quoting press releases. Nice work.

  • Shemp

    Unsurprisingly Iris is wrong – the entire length of CPW has a bike lane.  

  • urban fan

    This May 6th email exchange between Louise Hainline and Marty Markowitz is amazing. In it, we see Iris Weinshall getting Louise all spun up about the “trial” issue and offering her services. We see Marty saying “Sadik-Khan is a zealot and she believes her opinions are divinely inspired.” And we see Louise tacitly acknowledging that she simply didn’t get involved in the years-long pulic process: “I learned about this project late,” she writes.

    Then, most remarkable, we see Louise feeding Marty nearly every one of the irrational talking points that he put forward later that summer. Louise tells Marty:

    – The PPW redesign will “funnel” Grand Army Plaza traffic into two lanes of PPW. (Note: When two lanes of GAP traffic become two lanes of PPW traffic… that’s not much of a “funnel.”)

    – DOT’s redesign of PPW has some nefarious linkage to the MTA’s elimination of the B69 bus on PPW.

    – “Not everyone who lives in Brooklyn can get around by public transit or bikes!” (Note: Because, you know… putting a bike lane on PPW has made it so impossible to get around Brooklyn in a car.)

    – The city is looking to lay off teachers and here they are putting “a third of a million” dollars into a bike lane! Louise then acknowledges her own spin: A third of a million “sounds better than $300,000” she tells Marty.

    – It seems “weird to be putting a bike lane next to a large open space made for biking.” (Note: Yeah, hey, that’s crazy putting a bike lane alongside Prospect Park, the most popular destination in Brooklyn for bike riders! Weird.)

    – “Then there is the question of how valid the counts” are. (Note: So, apparently, Louise was debunking DOT’s counts before they were even done.)

    OK. I need to go take a shower now. This stuff makes me feel ill.

  • Morris Zapp

    I think it means Louise Hainline needs to get out more.

  • Excellent, excellent piece of investigative journalism.  I love how the story just keeps unfolding. Thank you Ben, Noah, and all the SB supporters whose contributions helped make this possible!

    Note to Corp Counsel: review these documents before the hearing on the 20th so that you’re ready to cross-examine Marty with them, should Judge Bunyan allow him to testify.

  • Punctual

    And why write “trial” if it actually was a trial.  In that case, she wouldn’t have needed quotation marks.

  • 106th,

    This is the “Brooklyn Can’t Get No Respect” meme.  The theory is, city government is run by a bunch of Manhattan snobs, who would never put a bike lane next to their precious Central Park, but are now cramming a bike lane down Prospect Park West which is every bit 5th Avenue’s equal.”  The problem with the theory, of course, it that the facts contradict it, as Luke points out. Central Park West has a bike lane along the length of it, and 5th Avenue and 59th Street are both designated or suggested bike routes. The key reason there can be no bike lane along 5thAvenue in Manhattan is because it carries enormous amounts of bus traffic (which PPW doesn’t).

    Part of the amazing thing about these emails is to see how the NBBL crowd (mis)perceives themselves–as a bunch of scruffy outsiders fighting city hall, when in fact they are the elite fighting their own neighbors.

  • Brooklyn Collegiate

    When will CUNY discipline or reprimand Dean Hainline for her explicit violation of CUNY rules. She continuously used her work email for political purposes, emailing political figures and aides in an effort to garner support for a pet project.

    If CUNY does not take any action against her, it is tacitly endorsing the next employee’s violation of this rule, no matter how benign or offensive the cause.

    Does Brooklyn College have a newspaper or journalism department? This would make a great subject for students.

  • Actually, Hainline says that a third of a million dollars “wounds” better than $300,000. Typo? Maybe. But perhaps a very Freudian slip from a doctor of psychology.

  • urban fan

    One of Marty’s never-ending complaints is that Manhattan imposes its will on the outer boroughs and Brooklyn always gets the short end of the stick. Marty has always presented himself as the scrappy, outer borough, little guy standing up to Manhattan’s elite bullies. This has been a constant theme of Marty’s throughout his Borough Presidency. I think Louise is consciously playing to this but also, it seems from her comments, that long-time residents of PPW might have their own similar issues: “We may not live on Central Park West, but…”

    I think that younger, newer residents of Brooklyn have a hard time relating to this outer borough inferiority complex of the 70s and 80s-era gentrifiers. We are here because we think Brooklyn is way better than Manhattan. We wouldn’t live there if you paid us.

  • Anonymous

    I believe Hainline moved to PPW in the late 1990s.  She’s hardly the 70s/80s gentrifier of PPW and the park that a few other members of NBBL, such as Lois Carswell, in fact are.

  • kevd

    Does he?  I’d guess not.

  • Mr. Kittles

    It is becoming apparent that the only chance that the NBBLers could have had to win their lawsuit was by hiring Ben Fried.

  • Mr. Kittles

    The old design of PPW was then a cannon!  Because going from two lanes to three is like shooting cars out of the barrel of a gun.

  • Zuckerberg

    NBBL also called the bike lane a trial on its Facebook page, which makes it, like, totally true.

    http://www.facebook.com/groups/133693466650297

    “Drivers, Riders, walkers, Handicap, Seniors, Parents, Schools, visitors
    and dog walkers…The Mayor and the DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan
    implemented this plan and after a trial period and community push back
    they decide whether to make the bike lane PERMANENT, Show them why this
    is not working”

  • Zuckerberg

    NBBL also called the bike lane a trial on its Facebook page, which makes it, like, totally true.

    http://www.facebook.com/groups/133693466650297

    “Drivers, Riders, walkers, Handicap, Seniors, Parents, Schools, visitors
    and dog walkers…The Mayor and the DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan
    implemented this plan and after a trial period and community push back
    they decide whether to make the bike lane PERMANENT, Show them why this
    is not working”

  • Berlin

    It is fascinating the degree to which this whole “trial project” argument has been an essential part of the NBBL campaign since the very beginning.

  • Berlin

    It is fascinating the degree to which this whole “trial project” argument has been an essential part of the NBBL campaign since the very beginning.

  • Berlin

    It is fascinating the degree to which this whole “trial project” argument has been an essential part of the NBBL campaign since the very beginning.

  • Look up “frivolous lawsuit” in the dictionary and there is a a reference to this.

  • PPW rider

    I wonder if Louise Hainline, Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel still think it was a good idea to turn the PPW redesign into a legal issue with FOIL’s and personal emails being bandied about in the media rather than just, you know, participating in the local political process with the rest of the community.

    It’s quite a can of worms they opened up, isn’t it?

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