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Bill de Blasio

Mayor Backtracks On Fixing the ‘Christmas Crush’ for Midtown Pedestrians

2:22 PM EDT on October 31, 2019

Ghost of Christmas past: This was Rockefeller Center before the Adams administration stepped in. Photo: Stunt Queen

Mayor de Blasio is the grinch who stole Christmas from holiday season pedestrians!

The car-loving mayor is already walking back a long-overdue plan revealed on Wednesday to create more room for the thousands of pedestrians who flock to the Rockefeller Center area for yuletide tourism, saying on Thursday that a plan to take away two travel lanes on Fifth Avenue to make way for larger, temporary sidewalks was "premature."

“Whoever at the Department of Transportation let that get out there — maybe it was an accident, maybe someone was trying to further their own agenda — but it was premature,” the mayor said. “It was not signed off by City Hall.”

The mayor's resistance on reducing areas where cars can go is well-known. But the Department of Transportation and NYPD proposed "Holiday Pedestrian Mitigation Plan" was a no-brainer, given that de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill both promised to take action to protect pedestrians endangered by the Christastime rush. The DOT "agenda" called for removing a travel lane on both sides of Fifth Avenue — where tens of thousands of people visit daily to shop, gaze at holiday displays, and of course bask at the massive Christmas tree in front of 30 Rock — and giving it to more populous road users. Streetsblog obtained the letter on Wednesday afternoon.

But later that night, DOT had already started backpedalling, saying “nothing has been finalized” — an indication that someone had already gotten read the mayor's personal riot act. And by Thursday, Hizzoner was calling out a whistleblower within the agency for leaking the letter.

It's unclear what “agenda” the mayor is talking about — given that pedestrian safety is a pillar of his own Vision Zero initiative, which calls for the city to "use every tool at its disposal to improve the safety of our streets." But the mayor is frequently pressured by car owners — and their enablers in the media — to maintain every existing inch of public space for the movement and storage of automobiles. He has consistently resisted calls for more pedestrianization or even for areas where cars cannot go — conditions that existing in pretty much every city on the planet.

In the letter, DOT had said that the pilot would kick off shortly after Thanksgiving when NYPD and DOT would install two-foot barriers on both sides of Fifth Avenue between 48th and 51st streets to create temporary sidewalks. The current three travel lanes for autos and trucks would be reduced to two, and the current two bus lanes would be reduced to one (see graphic below).

The city planned... to remove one travel lane and one bus lane to make room for more pedestrians on Fifth Avenue. Source: DOT
The city planned... to remove one travel lane and one bus lane to make room for more pedestrians on Fifth Avenue. Source: DOT

The street changes would almost double the amount of pedestrian space on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center, according to the letter.

“The additional room creates 40 percent more pedestrian space along these three blocks of Fifth Avenue during the holiday season this year in order to reduce pedestrian congestion and improve both the safety and overall experience of countless New Yorkers and tourists visiting the area at this special time,” said Edward Pincar, DOT’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner.

Dozens of safe-street advocates and pols cheered the plan, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Manhattan Council Member Keith Power, who even want DOT to take its pilot a step further by pedestrianizing the chaotic area around Rockefeller Center.

On Thursday, Powers was not pleased, tweeting his disappointment over the mayoral turnaround:

Streetsblog asked Powers if he was "frustrated" with the mayor, and he dodged the question, answering to a higher authority.

"My goal is to make sure it happens ASAP," Powers tweeted in response. "Personally, I believe an agenda for safer streets and more public space is a positive."

The Fifth Avenue Association — a business improvement district which represents and supports local shops along the busy strip — was also fully on board with DOT's plan to reallocate travel lanes for pedestrian space. Its president said the group is supportive of anything that makes it easier and safer for the thousands of people to get where they want to go during the holiday.

“We support any initiative to make conditions on Fifth Avenue better for the thousands of people who want to be there over the holiday season," said Jerome Barth.

Barth told Streetsblog Thursday that he had not received any complaints about the plans from business owners in the area, and that the Association had seen several previous iterations but fully supported the one DOT came up with. Barth had also not heard of any changes since the Mayor's apparent backpedal.

"Considering what happened in the past, the response has been positive. It's a well-considered plan that would still allow foot traffic to greatly expand," said Barth. "We were in communication with DOT over the past few weeks about this plan and previous iterations of the plan, and were were comfortable with the version that had been put forward — we were looking forward to its implementation."

After initial publication, City Hall sent the following statement: 

“The mayor wasn’t assailing the plan, but the fact that the letter had been sent out prematurely. The City is still in various stages of discussion with MTA, NYPD and other stakeholders regarding the plan’s feasibility and addressing their concerns. We haven’t made a decision on the project yet," said spokesman William Baskin- Gerwitz. "No letter regarding the matter should have been sent until discussions had concluded and a decision had been made.”

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