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West Siders Speak Up Against Costly Rotunda Project

12:01 AM EDT on August 18, 2020

Cyclists and drivers mix in the traffic circle atop the Riverside Park Rotunda. Photo: Eve Kessler

An Upper West Side civic group is asking the city to re-examine a controversial plan for the reconstruction of a local landmark, arguing that the project lacks crucial safety features and represents an extravagance in a time of tight budgets.

Streetopia Upper West Side wrote to the Department of Transportation and the Parks Department on Monday to question the necessity of the Riverside Park Rotunda reconstruction, a $200-plus-million project that is to start at the close of the year and conclude in 2024.

“[W]e remain opposed to this work,” the group stated, questioning “necessity of the DOT portion of this project” and “whether cheaper solutions were explored.” 

The project will rebuild the 79th Street bridge carrying the Henry Hudson Parkway; renovate the 83-year-old Rotunda, a Robert Moses-era landmark; and replace the traffic circle that sits atop the Rotunda. It has encountered opposition for years from local activists who say the plans for the traffic circle — where motorists exiting the parkway mix dangerously with cyclists riding to the Hudson River Greenway, the nation’s busiest bike path — do not do enough to promote bicycle safety. 

Cyclists entering the traffic circle atop the Riverside park Rotunda from 79th Street. Photo: Eve Kessler
Cyclists entering the traffic circle atop the Riverside park Rotunda from 79th Street. Photo: Eve Kessler
Cyclists entering the traffic circle atop the Riverside park Rotunda from 79th Street. Photo: Eve Kessler

Last year, Community Board 7, which represents the Upper West Side, formally disapproved of the DOT’s plans for the traffic circle, which include a painted bike lane, but not the protected facility the board requested.

“The Board’s resolution underscores the need for the separate bike lane to be a protected lane and not just paint on a heavily used roadway,” CB7 Chairman Mark Diller told Streetsblog recently. The board, however, registered its approval of the historical preservation of the Rotunda, which has never been renovated and is falling apart; the project has been on the docket of city planners since the 1990s.

Streetopia UWS went a step further, however, by “questioning the optics of investing this much money on a Parks project in a high-income neighborhood when parks (and people) in lower-income neighborhoods lack basic services,” during “a pandemic that is exposing such egregious disparities between the haves and the have-nots.”

“Many will find it appalling to spend tax dollars this way," wrote Lisa Orman, the director of Streetopia UWS. “This project is projected to take approximately four years to finish and to be in place for at least 30 to 50 years. We question spending this kind of money to restore a Robert Moses-era structure to a state of good repair without remediating a design that presents a danger to bicyclists now and for generations to come.”

As a capital project, the Rotunda reconstruction will be paid for by “general-obligation” bonds, essentially a city-issued IOU; only the debt service for the bonds will be paid out of general revenues. 

Even so, it is moving forward as the DOT’s $1.1 billion budget is being cut by 12 percent because of coronavirus shortfalls and many other projects are being put on hold, Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said recently.

Officials with the DOT and Parks said the agencies had received the letter and would review it.

Full disclosure: Streetopia Upper West Side is a project of OpenPlans, as is Streetsblog.

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