ANATOMY OF A DEBACLE: DOT Eliminates Open Street on West End Avenue

When cars are banished, culture can flourish, as this Time Lapse Dance performance Thursday on the Upper West Side shows. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
When cars are banished, culture can flourish, as this Time Lapse Dance performance Thursday on the Upper West Side shows. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Here’s what passes for sound transportation planning these days:

The Department of Transportation has abruptly scuttled the Upper West Side’s only north-south open street, claiming the nine-block stretch of West End Avenue between 87th and 96th streets could not continue unless community members stepped forward to “manage” and “enforce” the newly safe street — and now the local council member is plotting strategy with a pro-car activist with no transportation expertise and a record of sexist social media posts.

The agency announced the community partnership requirement for the first time at a Community Board 7 meeting last week — then waited all of 24 hours before shutting down the open street anyway, returning it to its prior status as a traffic sewer. (The agency has not responded to requests from Streetsblog for more information about its decision to close the open street.)

The Upper West Side’s open street on West End Avenue was not the city’s best. Unlike universally admired open streets such as 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights or several in Greenpoint, West End Avenue is a wide two-way street with no median, too many travel lanes, and too many drivers seeking a shortcut through a residential neighborhood.

But many instances over the summer showed its potential.

During the spring and early summer, when many Upper West Siders fleeing the city, the West End Avenue open street offered residents a quieter neighborhood, low traffic, a slower pace and, most important, a safe place to get outside at a proper distance. Some residents pulled out lawn chairs; others taught their kids to ride bikes. One doorman led the neighbors in nightly 7 p.m. “whoop” for essential workers.

A local radio station — Bar Crawl Radio — even set up on the street on Thursday nights.

All of this is possible when through traffic is banished (as Clarence Eckerson’s video below shows).

But, by the end of summer, the streets filled up with more cars. People who had bought vehicles during COVID expected to park them, for free, on the streets. As a result, the open street disintegrated right before the DOT’s eyes: Barricades were broken or not set up properly, drivers routinely flouted the “Local Access Only” rule; walkers didn’t feel safe in the street anymore.

To fight back, StreetopiaUWS, Council candidate Sara Lind, the American Society of Landscape Architects and Jody Sperling co-hosted “WEA Walk” to reclaim the space for the community, as Streetsblog reported. With cars banished, the roadway became a place for a Black Lives Matter mural, a “Get Out the Vote” drive, a Census information station, an outdoor classroom and park-let, a bike boulevard demonstration project, and a performance space for Sperling’s Time Lapse Dance troupe.

“It was all done in a safe, physically distant way, with masks on and gallons of hand sanitizer at the ready,” said Lisa Orman of StreetopiaUWS. “Many people, especially our elderly neighbors, marveled at how safe the street felt with people and life on it. Without these activities, they had stopped using the street.”

No good deed goes unpunished — that very same day, the organizers received an email from the DOT communicating the agency’s displeasure with the decision to activate the street for the people. (Officially, the group was told that it had no formal agreement with the city to activate the space, though other open streets have activities frequently.) Somehow, a nerve had been touched at the DOT.

After the open street event, two residents, Jessica Spiegel and Christina Weyl, surveyed locals for their feelings about the open street (almost 500 people have commented). The survey found that a majority of locals wanted a year-round open street, though most thought it needed to be improved. Residents appreciated the reduction in noise, the slower pace, the additional community space.

“It was especially important for the elderly, particularly for elderly neighbors who are otherwise housebound or concerned about maintaining six-foot distance on the sidewalks and parks,” Weyl said. “We also heard about picnics, impromptu concerts, COVID-safe Halloween celebrations, and children learning to ride their bikes, among other stories.”

Fast forward to the Nov. 10 CB7 Transportation Committee meeting. Spiegel and Weyl weren’t allowed to speak until after a pro-parking, pro-driving agitator Tag Gross presented a PowerPoint on traffic back-ups on West End in the upper 90s. Gross has no formal training or professional background in traffic engineering, but the Community Board thought it wise to offer a “balanced” approach. (Feel free to watch his performance here, at about 1:48.) Gross is also repugnant on Twitter, repeatedly posting offensive, misogynistic commentary on female leaders:

Tag Gross advises Council Member Helen Rosenthal on transportation policy, despite a public record of misogyny and hate — and no transportation background.
Tag Gross advises Council Member Helen Rosenthal on transportation policy, despite a public record of misogyny and hate — and no transportation background.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who has invited Gross on prior occasions to educate her about traffic, did not respond to an email seeking a reaction to Gross’s Twitter posts (Gross also did not respond to an email from Streetsblog). Rosenthal said she is meeting with Gross again this week to discuss “traffic” on the Upper West Side, and it is unclear if she is seeking out the perspective of the majority of area residents who do not own cars (and certainly did not buy them during the COVID crisis expecting to be able to leave them, for free, on the street).

At the CB7 meeting, Rosenthal said without explanation that the NYPD can’t continue to do the barrier placement anymore and, instead, said that a community partner would have to do the job if the open street were to continue. She claimed that she had looked high and low for such a partner, but none emerged. (Hint: That partner was likely the same group that was chastised by DOT a month earlier for doing what the agency now says it needs.)

Rosenthal’s presentation was the first time the community heard that a community partner was needed. This was never announced at a CB7 meeting or in a Rosenthal newsletter or in an alert by the NYPD or a in tweet by the DOT.

Finally, Spiegel and Weyl presented their findings and their recommendations. For the winter, they suggested that the open street be made weekends-only before returning full time in the spring. They would work to identify a list of willing volunteers to help with daily barrier placement, as the residents of Jackson Heights and Corona have done on their open street.

Rosenthal and the DOT gave assurances that they wouldn’t change the open street without coming back to the community.

The next day, the DOT removed the open street, alerting the community in a tweet.

The DOT claims that it is open to reinstating the open street, once a community partner is identified and enters into “formal agreements” with the city agency. The community partner is expected to place the barriers and take them down daily, check them in the middle of the day, be on the street to help if a car or emergency vehicle needs to get through, erect signage, alert the community of COVID related rules, enforce the street.

“That’s a lot of transportation responsibility being off-loaded to community groups by an agency in charge of transportation,” said Orman.

Orman took a broader view of the debate over this one open street to a more structural problem at DOT.

“This is basic structural discrimination against walkers and bikers — or, really, anyone who doesn’t drive or park a motor vehicle,” she said. “There are no formal agreements required of drivers who want to pollute our air, terrorize our children as they walk to school, or create such unpleasant noise pollution that people are literally losing their minds. Do we require drivers to enter into community partnership agreements to get around safely?”

Orman also referenced the DOT’s requirement that a “community partner” maintain bike corrals or curb extensions, as Streetsblog has reported. “Drivers aren’t expected to sweep around their cars or clean snow from the street,” she said. “Yet every single time we work to make a street safer for walkers or more pleasant to live on or less auto-dominated, we, the people, are expected to make it work.”

The Department of Transportation did not initially comment for this story. After its publication, the agency responded with a statement:

In response to traffic safety concerns, DOT engaged with elected officials and Community Board 7 to identify potential community partners to assist with daily management of the program, including barrier placement and monitoring of traffic conditions. Unfortunately, to date, we have been unable to identify a community partner to manage the West End Avenue open street. DOT remains open and willing to engage with any interested local partners who would like to bring West End Avenue or other streets on the Upper West Side back into the program.

Streetsblog followed up with several questions about that answer:

  • Where does this “community partnership” requirement come from?
  • Is it similar to the need for a management partner for bike corrals or curb extension plazas?
  • In either event, can you tell me the city rule or law that requires the public to partner with a city agency before life-saving street safety improvements can be made?
  • And if such a rule exists, can you give me examples of when drivers have been asked to partner with the city on a road redesign project?

We will update this story if the agency responds.

StreetopiaUWS hopes to continue the West End Avenue open street in a weekend-only format this winter before a full-time open street in the spring. Volunteers can reach out at weaopenstreets@gmail.com or follow the group on Twitter at @OpenStreetWEA.

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