CB 12 Member Tries to Derail Washington Heights Plaza to Preserve Parking

A board member looking to stoke outrage over a proposed public plaza at a health care campus says the 70 percent of car-free households in the district don't have a stake in how the street is used, since they don't need parking.

This is what opponents of the Haven Avenue plaza want to preserve. Photo: Google Maps
This is what opponents of the Haven Avenue plaza want to preserve. Photo: Google Maps

A Manhattan Community Board 12 member is trying to drum up opposition to a proposed public plaza in Washington Heights to preserve a handful of on-street parking spots.

Columbia University applied for the plaza, on Haven Avenue between W. 169th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, through the DOT Plaza Program. If the project comes to fruition, motorized traffic would be limited to emergency vehicles on that segment of the street, which is flanked by health care facilities including NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Columbia and DOT hosted a series of one-day pop-up plazas and workshops to gauge interest in a permanent public space. According to NY City Lens, each one-day event was attended by over 3,000 people, most of whom expressed “overwhelming support for a permanent plaza.”

The project [PDF] has support from NewYork-Presbyterian, in addition to local organizations including the Washington Heights and Inwood Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, and Broadway United Businesses, according to DOT.

Though the majority of people in the district don’t own cars, CB 12 has a long and sordid history of putting the needs of the community second to motorists’ insatiable appetite for free curbside parking. True to form, CB 12 is threatening to quash the Haven Avenue plaza over 17 or so parking spots.

DOT won’t build the plaza unless the board signs off. Board members have insisted DOT identify additional parking elsewhere before giving the plaza their endorsement. “Until you can do that,” CB 12’s Elizabeth Lorris Ritter told DOT at a recent meeting, “it would be difficult to be fully supportive of this proposal.” (In the comments section of the NY City Lens piece, Ritter called the plan a “terrific proposal,” but reiterated that parking was a concern.)

Some on the board are framing the plaza, which would be open to the general public, as an encroachment by Columbia upon the neighborhood. “They’re providing their community with this plaza,” said CB 12’s Anita Barberis. “It’s not for us. We don’t sit out there with a latte that costs 10 bucks. It’s for the students.”

At least one board member at the meeting noted the relative lack of public spaces in Upper Manhattan, according to the NY City Lens story, and indicated support for the project. “We don’t have places like this in our community,” said Maria Luna. “For people in our community that are limited [physically] … I think this is a plus.”

NIMBYs, however, have apparently badgered the board into postponing a vote. CB 12 member Ayisha Oglivie, who chairs the board’s committee on housing and human services, is capitalizing on the delay by attempting to stoke outrage over the project. Oglivie circulated a flyer urging people to come to a meeting, which CB 12 staff told me is not sanctioned by the board, to be held this evening. The flyer implies the plaza would harm the environment by causing motorists to cruise for parking.

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Oglivie, who told me over the phone she’s not acting as a member of the board, said she and others are not opposed to a plaza per se. But there is no real-world version of the plaza that would satisfy her demand to preserve all the parking on the block. (She would accept a plaza if Haven Avenue is decked over to maintain the parking underneath, she said.)

Oglivie said people who own cars in the area close to the proposed plaza can’t afford to pay for off-street parking. When I pointed out that NYC households that own cars tend to be wealthier than those that are car-free, she said that does not apply in Washington Heights — though when the 2000 Census was taken, relative incomes of car-owning vs. car-free households in the district were in line with the city as a whole.

I asked Oglivie if the the car-free majority in the district should take a back seat to the 30 percent or so who do own cars. She replied that since they don’t need parking, car-free residents don’t have a stake in how the street is used.

“You can come and look at the block surrounding the perimeter of the plaza,” said Oglivie. “Apparently those people own cars. So whoever doesn’t own a car in the district seems to be quite irrelevant to me right now.”

When CB 12 members think the 70 percent of Washington Heights and Inwood households that don’t own cars don’t matter, the board can’t be trusted to act in the best interest of the public.

If you’re interested, tonight’s meeting begins at 5:30 at 104 Haven Avenue, a couple of blocks north of the proposed plaza location, and according to the flyer will last until 9 p.m.

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