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Scenes From New York’s Broken Public Process for Street Redesigns

4:47 PM EDT on March 13, 2015

Even the most modest, common-sense street safety improvements can run into a brick wall at public meetings in New York City. The latest case in point: A DOT plan to improve pedestrian safety on two blocks of an extra-wide, low-traffic section of Lenox Avenue in Harlem, which became the subject of a two-hour Manhattan Community Board 10 committee meeting on Tuesday.

This design for a quiet stretch of Lenox Avenue, at 146th Street, is too much for auto-centric residents to bear. Rendering: DOT [PDF]
According to project opponents, this design for a quiet stretch of Lenox Avenue, at 146th Street, will make asthma rates worse. Rendering: DOT [PDF]

The heart of the plan [PDF] covers Lenox Avenue between 145th Street and 147th Street, where the avenue ends. Currently, the street has two lanes in each direction with a wide striped median. DOT proposes converting the northbound half to one lane. Between 145th and 146th Streets, DOT would add a concrete median with parking on both sides. North of 146th Street, the concrete island would give way to a striped median next to the MTA's Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot. The project would add five parking spots on these two blocks.

Meeting attendees said most of the nearly two dozen people at the hearing were residents of Esplanade Gardens, an apartment complex surrounded by surface parking lots on the east side of this stretch of Lenox Avenue.

“It basically seemed like everyone who was at the meeting was a driver. There were no pedestrians from Esplanade Gardens. It was incredible," said one board member. "It’s very much a NIMBY thing."

“They seem to be people who drive regularly, and seem to be concerned about the needs of drivers only,” said Abena Smith, president of the 32nd Precinct community council. “There were a few people in that room, and they’re not all representative of the entire community.”

Smith, who lives at 143rd and Lenox, sees the pedestrian safety benefits of the proposal, but said she could see why Esplanade Gardens residents might worry it would make traffic congestion worse, especially during game days at nearby Yankee Stadium.

She was not, however, impressed with the tenor of opponents at Tuesday's meeting. "Many of the individuals that were there, there seemed to be a bit of a hostile feel directed towards DOT," she said. “It was highly reactive, as opposed to someone having any suggestions."

Committee member Barbara Nelson, who has led the charge against plazas and road diets elsewhere in the neighborhood, took the lead in opposing the proposal, according to people who attended. She joined Esplanade Gardens residents, who questioned DOT's crash data, raised the fear that the plan will worsen air pollution and asthma rates, and demanded more enforcement against jaywalkers.

“Things were just a little bit crazy in there, I felt,” Smith said of the meeting.

DOT is also proposing a ban on left turns from southbound Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to eastbound 145th Street. The intersection has one of the borough's worst crash records, with high volumes of turning drivers conflicting with pedestrians in the crosswalk. The plan would direct drivers would instead be directed to make a U-turn at 144th Street to return to 145th Street for a right turn. Many at the meeting raised concerns that drivers would instead take 144th or 146th Streets, adding traffic to residential streets.

One of the neighborhood's most dangerous locations is the intersection of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, which has subway entrances and lots of vehicle and pedestrian traffic going to and from the Bronx. Although the intersection is the gateway to one of the Harlem River bridges, a DOT bicycle and pedestrian priority, the agency is proposing only minor changes to the junction, such as extended median tips, a short painted median, and realigned car lanes.

DOT Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione said the agency would come back to the committee with an amended plan next month, according to meeting attendees.

“It’s not a situation where we should do nothing," Smith said of DOT's plan. “We’re not all going to get what we want. In anything, we have to compromise.”

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