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

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.”

  • Daphna

    Enough members of CB10 are hostile to any sort of road re-designs and traffic calming that those improvements will continue to be shot down until different people are appointed to that community board. Inez Dickens (NYC council member) is unlikely to change the incumbents she has appointed, which means it is imperative that Gale Brewer (Manhattan boro President) appoint new people to CB10, and imperative that she not reappoint those who stand against street improvements.
    Certain CB10 members continually and irrationally throw asthma into the discussion as if traffic calming will raise asthma rates. These members are completely unwilling to believe DOT’s studies that show that no congestion will be created or exacerbated by the improved street designs. They cling to the idea that congestion will become worse no matter how much evidence to the contrary is produced. There is no hope to educate people with this type of mindset. Gale Brewer needs to appoint new people and not reappoint people who are obstructionist towards safer streets, and who are damaging to the residents of their community.

  • Daniel

    The Franklin Ave. redesign South of Eastern Parkway met a similar fate. It carries almost no car traffic but for has two 9ft wide lanes left over from when it was a two way street. The DOT wanted to make one 11ft lane + bike lane. But the CB9 transportation committee was concerned that this might make the women who ride their bikes down it with their kids in the morning feel safe, and then this would just lead to more bicyclists.

  • Daphna

    It took substantial activism over a period of years to overcome the negative stance of the chairs of Manhattan Community Board 7’s Transportation Committee towards traffic calming. Andrew Albert and Dan Zweig, the co-chairs of CB7 Transpo Committee, fought street improvements for years. Supporters had to turn out to the committee meetings and the full board meetings month after month in large numbers for years. It also likely took Andrew Albert and Dan Zweig realizing that since both Helen Rosenthal (city council) and Gale Brewer (boro President) support improved streets, that if they continued to fight traffic calming, they would risk their reappointment to the community board.
    CB9 and CB10 need the same help from supporters of safer streets. Advocates need to start showing up in large numbers at the committee and full board meetings. But the greater help, and faster way of achieving change, could be accomplished if different people are appointed to the community board. Maybe Gale Brewer’s office needs to receive letters from complete streets supporters encouraging changes in CB9 and CB10 membership.

  • BBnet3000

    The “keep more cars moving at a ‘more efficient speed'” dogma is a false economy anyway. We’re not going to improve our air quality by cramming more cars into wider streets even if they are moving a bit faster.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. Modern cars are most efficient (meaning they pollute the least per mile driven) at speeds of 45 to 55 mph. For a whole host of reasons those types of speeds are not compatible with urban areas. The best way to reduce pollution is to either reduce the number of motor vehicles, or to create government incentives to hasten the eventual transition to electric vehicles. Better yet we should do both given that any type of motor vehicle, even a Tesla, creates negative externalities.

  • Emmily_Litella

    I just don’t buy that they fear ‘gridlock’. Do they really think that having to drive in a slightly more lawful and respectful manner for a couple of blocks will hurt their livelihood or happiness? My guess is that opponents, who may feel powerless in many interactions with government, derive from easy NIMBYism a fleeting moment of gratification from victory, or even just the act of protest.

  • Joe R.

    It could be that as well. Based on what I read here about community boards, it seems some of the members have control freak tendencies. Unfortunately for us, transportation issues are one of the few areas where community boards exert some pull.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “It is sad to read that Margaret Forgione will come back to CB10 with a more watered down plan.”

    Privileged interests want rationalization to go with their privileges. Thus they want something that is really nothing, rather than nothing.

    DeBlasio is the type to give it to them, because that’s the careerist move. He doesn’t want the serfs to know that he’s in favor of keeping the privileged insiders privileged, with everyone else forced to pay a toll to survive in their city. It’s bi-partisan feudalism. Most people, and everyone in younger generations, is a serf.

    What works? What worked with Bus Rapid Transit on 125th Street? All right, forget it! Rip away that fig leaf.

  • KillMoto

    While that’s 100% true, the case against the “air quality and asthma” red herring are even stronger. Electric cars and hybrids emit nothing when stopped or at slow stop & go speeds. But increasingly, standard gas driven cars automatically put the engine to sleep when stopped. Late model Audi and BMW cars do this, and the technology will quickly proliferate as CAFE mileage standards continue to increase. Heck, even the garden variety city bus can do this. All the new busses in Boston extinguish their diesel engines when stopped.

  • Joe R.

    That’s very true. More and more gas cars are using electric drive — ironically not just because of CAFE standards but also to fill in gaps in the torque curve of a gas engine for better acceleration. In low speed/low acceleration situations those cars are often powered entirely on electric drive, emitting nothing. In fact, in many cases the smallish battery might be good for 5 to 10 miles at urban speeds, so the gas engine never kicks on until the car reaches a highway.

    We all know the whole asthma/air quality thing is a red herring excuse against road diets. I’m glad people here found so many ways to blow holes in it.

  • ahwr

    so the gas engine never kicks on until the car reaches a highway.

    You’re assuming people don’t floor it when the light turns green, or after a stop sign, or after they zip around a bike. Unless you’re real gentle with the gas pedal the engine kicks on when you’re accelerating from a stop, even when the terrain is flat. A strong cyclist accelerates faster than a lot of hybrids operating solely on electric power. A series hybrid like the volt that is designed to be entirely powered by the electric motor is a different story, I’m talking about non plugin versions of the prius and other parallel hybrids.

  • jooltman

    Pedestrians don’t turn out to public DOT meetings in the same numbers drivers do because they expect their government officials to install life-saving infrastructure without their input. Too bad that assumption is not longer true with the DOT.

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