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Manhattan CB6 Has A Plan To Fix Third Avenue, Too

12:01 AM EDT on June 22, 2021

Manhattan’s Third Avenue, as it exists now. Pretty bad! Photo: Google

There's more than one way to build a better street.

Manhattan Community Board 6 wants the city to get on board with a plan it commissioned to build a better Third Avenue, one that also leaves room for a future mayor to institute an improvement plan for the street put forward by Transportation Alternatives activists this year.

The CB6 plan, which was put together by Sam Schwartz Engineering after the firm studied the car flow on the existing traffic sewer, would remake Third Avenue between East 26th and 32nd streets by extending the sidewalks into the road — a change that would cut the travel lanes down to two lanes, while leaving plenty of space for pedestrians, outdoor dining and sidewalk furniture.

The traffic engineers made a couple of suggestions of what could be done with the space, including one where the open restaurant areas are on the sidewalk, and another one, which board members said they preferred, where the sidewalk extension stayed clear and street furniture and dining areas were on the original sidewalk.

Now here is a better Third Avenue. Photo: Manhattan CB6 and Sam Schwartz Engineering
This curb-extension approach (which is in Lower Manhattan) could work for Third Avenue in Midtown. Photo: Manhattan CB6 and Sam Schwartz Engineering

Per the Sam Schwartz study of the area, Third Avenue does not need its current five travel lanes. About 2,000 vehicles per hour cross Third Avenue at East 34th during the average daytime peak, but more than 2,000 pedestrians per hour walk the cramped sidewalks of the same area during the peak hours of the day.

"Sidewalks tend to be pretty narrow on that stretch of Third Avenue, so it was already a problem," said CB6 Transportation Chairman Gene Santoro. "Then, with COVID and outdoor dining and everything else, it became a real problem. So this is the solution."

Santoro said that the plan has supporters both on and off the community board, and that board is waiting to hear about next steps on the proposal, including a meeting with the Department of Transportation's Manhattan office.

"The basic idea was we'll get some drafts of ideas that we can bring to the DOT, hoping that that will nudge them to move faster, because we'll have something there that they can look at. And they can jump on and finesse whatever way they want, do their own studies and all the stuff that they normally do. But at least this gives them an indication of what the neighborhood is interested in," said Santoro.

A fix like this would also no doubt help with street safety along the road — and the evidence is just two blocks away. On First Avenue between 34th and 42nd streets, which was once similar to Third Avenue until it got a parking-protected bike lane and a bus lane among its six lanes, there were 78 reported crashes in 2019, injuring just six pedestrians and no cyclists. On the corresponding stretch of Third Avenue, however, there were 180 reported crashes in 2019, killing one pedestrian and injuring five cyclists and five pedestrians.

CB6 Chairman Kyle Athayde said that the effort to make a better Third Avenue dated back to November, 2020, amid previous questions over how to make more room in an area rich with sidewalk cafes. The current proposal has managed to get support of small businesses in the area, as well as the streets-are-for-people crowd. The secret? Teamwork.

"Quite often, the small businesses that are on these streets aren't being part of these conversations," said Athayde. "It's all about one or the other, whether it's about cars or people walking. But this idea is about being systematic, and really inclusive and bringing everyone to the table."

Athayde said that small business owners didn't wind up being a pinch point on the plan because the store owners on Third Avenue saw the potential for the larger sidewalk to give them a Fifth Avenue type sidewalk experience, where the wider walking lane entices people to stop and stare at storefront before possibly walking in and buying something.

Further along in the future, the proposal suggests there's room for a protected bike lane on Third, which puts the study in line with the Transportation Alternatives proposal for a Third Avenue that has a pair of bus lanes, a pair of grade-separated bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

Paul Krikler, the safe streets advocate who works with Transportation Alternatives and brought the plan to light, said that he sees the CB6 plan as a sign that everyone in the area is getting behind the idea that Third Avenue can be better, and Athayde said the good vibes are definitely shared.

"Absolutely the proposals overlap," he said. "The thing that Paul suggested is something that's maybe farther down the line in terms of time, feasibility and financial ability to do it. And this is more like, 'What can we do now for the near-term future that that we can execute as quickly as possible so that people get what they need?'"

A spokesperson for the DOT said the agency is reviewing the proposal.

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