Anatomy of a Failure: Why Did the Mayor Backpedal on DOT’s ‘Christmas Crush’ Fix?

This was Rockefeller Center last Christmas season. Photo: Stunt Queen
This was Rockefeller Center last Christmas season. Photo: Stunt Queen

Mayor de Blasio was caving to the Police Department he supposedly runs when he threw his own Department of Transportation under the bus last week for apparently leaking details of a plan to create more room for the thousands of pedestrians who flock to the Rockefeller Center area for the holiday season.

A source with direct knowledge of what happened between the release of the DOT plan last Wednesday and the mayor’s walk-back a day later said someone at the NYPD told City Hall that the plan had not been approved by 1 Police Plaza — and that this mayor defers to the cops when it comes to “security.”

DOT “got ahead of themselves” and shared the agency’s plan to convert a travel lane on each side of Fifth Avenue between 48th and 51st streets into pedestrian space before the NYPD even know about it or supported it, the source said.

The good news is that the mayor may end up circling back to the very same plan he delayed — if Police Commissioner James O’Neill signs off on the plan, according to the source.

“The NYPD will support it in the end, if the mayor tells them to,” the source said. “But the NYPD does whatever the fuck it wants unless they are directly told otherwise by the mayor. So someone at PD told City Hall that the police department hadn’t signed off on this, so it was tabled.”

Certainly, the so-called “Holiday Pedestrian Mitigation Plan,” which was supposed to start shortly after Thanksgiving, was “tabled” in a particularly ham-handed fashion.

One day after the DOT released it, the mayor was asked about it at a press conference on an unrelated topic. Rather than admit that the plan shared his Vision Zero agenda, he assailed the “agenda” of an agency worker.

“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.”

A City Hall spokesman later told Streetsblog that Hizzoner is still assessing the plan and was only critical of the fact that the letter was sent out early.

“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.”

Another source said it’s not typical for DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg to run amok without keeping City Hall in the loop.

“It seems un-Polly like to not let City Hall know what’s happening, but it seems very de Blasio-like to throw staff under the bus,” the source said — though one source at City Hall said DOT does that all the time, albeit only on the small stuff (which, in actuality, this three-block, one-month pedestrian plan is). 

The mayor looks particularly powerless to control his own NYPD especially given that nearly everyone — including the local business-boosting group, local pols and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer — was on board with the idea of taking space from private car owners to ensure safety for tens of thousands of pedestrians.

Brewer, Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and the Fifth Avenue Association even want the city to do more to pedestrianize the area around Rockefeller Center.

Another source familiar with the matter told Streetsblog on Friday that he has “no idea” what happened behind closed doors, but that it seems par for the course as de Blasio starts his hunt for a new gig since becoming the 46th President of the United States didn’t pan out as planned.

“I’d expect more of this kind of stuff,” the source said. “Myriad of expensive real estate interests and a guy looking for a new job. Insert your Jon Orcutt quote here.”

Streetsblog did in fact reach out to Orcutt, the former DOT director of policy, who said the kerfuffle was probably a result of the DOT’s letter to a community board suddenly generating news coverage that made the mayor spit out his coffee.

“They probably got ahead of some internal briefings,” Orcutt said. “It’s possible some in City Hall, like a deputy mayor’s office, had been informed of the project, and the news still caught the mayor personally by surprise. Perhaps there was unanticipated blowback from outside of government and the mayor needed a reason to say the plan was not a done deal.”

NYPD did not respond to our questions. If the agency does, we will update this story.

In the meantime, here’s how our editorial cartoonist, Bill Roundy, saw the whole thing:

You're a mean one, Mister Mayor. Cartoon: Bill Roundy
You’re a mean one, Mister Mayor. Cartoon: Bill Roundy

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