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Tonight: Speak Up for Much-Needed Pedestrian Space in Washington Heights [Updated]

Rendering: NYC DOT

Tonight Manhattan Community Board 12 will vote on a proposal to repurpose one block of street space in Washington Heights for a public plaza. The board's transportation committee endorsed the project, but a small number of parking-obsessed car owners, including one CB 12 member, are determined to maintain the status quo.

[Update 6/27/18: CB 12 endorsed the Washington Heights Haven Avenue plaza proposal. Construction timetable TBD.]

Haven Avenue's southern terminus is a dog leg that curves eastward between W. 169th Street and Fort Washington Avenue. Health care facilities, including NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, line this segment of the street on both sides.

Currently, curb space on the west side of the street is taken up by free parking for roughly 17 cars. The eastern curb is a no standing zone normally occupied by illegally parked UPS and FedEx drivers and motorists with placards.

Curbs on Haven are currently reserved for car owners, illegally parked delivery drivers, and placard abusers. Photos: Brad Aaron
Curbs on Haven are currently reserved for car owners, illegally parked delivery drivers, and placard abusers. Photos: Brad Aaron
Curbs on Haven are currently reserved for car owners, illegally parked delivery drivers, and placard abusers. Photos: Brad Aaron

In 2016, Columbia University, which is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian, applied to the DOT Plaza Program to convert this block of Haven to public space [PDF]. If the project moves forward, motorized traffic would be limited to emergency vehicles, and existing off-street parking lots for hospital employees would be eliminated.

A series of one-day pop-up plazas and workshops hosted by Columbia and DOT in 2016 and 2017 drew thousands of people each, according to DOT. The project has garnered letters of support from more than a dozen groups, including the Washington Heights and Inwood Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, and Broadway United Businesses.

NewYork-Presbyterian is one of the city's -- and the country's -- largest hospitals. It's also an employment hub served by the A and C trains, the 1 train, and a half-dozen bus lines. Despite the dearth of bike infrastructure in the area, bike racks along Haven are bursting.

A row of bike racks catty-corner to where the plaza would be. Racks on Haven itself were just as busy.
A row of bike racks on Fort Washington Avenue and W. 168th Street, catty-corner to where the plaza would be. Racks on Haven itself were just as busy.
A row of bike racks catty-corner to where the plaza would be. Racks on Haven itself were just as busy.

With just two DOT plazas in Manhattan north of Harlem, there is a clear need in Washington Heights for car-free space. The Haven Avenue plaza makes so much sense it's a wonder it hasn't happened before now.

Still, it's not a done deal. DOT won't allow the plaza unless CB 12 approves it. Though the proposal cleared the board's transportation committee, car owners who live nearby are claiming ownership of the street. Their champion is CB 12 member Ayisha Oglivie, who has been waging war on the plaza for months.

Last October, after NIMBYs browbeat the board into delaying a vote, Oglivie convened a meeting to engender opposition to the project. She was dismissive of the 70 percent of local households that don't own cars, telling Streetsblog, "[W]hoever doesn’t own a car in the district seems to be quite irrelevant to me right now.”

Right now, public amenities, like the Fort Washington Greenmarket, are crammed onto the sidewalk so people can park for free.
Right now, public amenities, like the Fort Washington Greenmarket, are crammed onto the sidewalk so people can park for free.
Right now, public amenities, like the Fort Washington Greenmarket, are crammed onto the sidewalk so people can park for free.

Columbia and DOT have compensated for the 17 curbside spots with on-street spaces elsewhere, and Columbia is offering garage spots at a discount. But those whose lives revolve around securing auto storage that everyone else pays for will not be appeased.

For insight into how plaza opponents think: Oglivie was amenable to decking over Haven Avenue so 17 car owners may continue to park for free. Off the wall as that is, given Community Board 12's record of prioritizing parking above all else, it can't be laughed off.

If you'd like to lend some sanity to tonight's proceedings, the meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Alianza Dominicana Building, 530 W. 166th Street.

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