Battery Park City Residents Don’t Want South End Avenue Safety Redesign

What South End Avenue could be. Source: BPCA
What South End Avenue could be. Source: BPCA

A coalition of condo owners and residents in one of the wealthiest sections of the city is pushing back against an already-approved plan to widen sidewalks and create a pedestrianized zone simply because they don’t want to pay for it, and don’t want to lose their ability to double-park.

The Battery Park City Authority in 2018, together with the city and residents, developed plans for a redesign of South End Avenue in the eponymous neighborhood — where the median family income is more than $200,000 — to help calm traffic and make the area safer for pedestrians and cyclists by expanding sidewalks, and installing bike lanes and medians to narrow the width of the over-wide thoroughfare that encourages speeding.

Community Board 1 unanimously supported the plans [PDF], but now, as the authority is getting ready to restart a design and construction process that was delayed because of Covid-19 and unrelated resiliency projects, some residents are pushing back, saying the changes won’t personally benefit them or increase the value of their homes.

“Right now, when I get home on a weekend, I pull up in front of my building, I have to double-park to unload my car and because the street is so wide, it is not a problem because people can get around me. With the proposal you have, I wouldn’t be able to do that,” Pat Smith, a member of the board of managers at Battery Pointe, a Battery Park City condominium complex, told Community Board 1 on March 7, speaking for all people with cars and vacation homes. “My building runs the entire length of South End Avenue and you’re going to come here and tell me I must widen my sidewalks by five feet, adding to the cost of maintaining those sidewalks and reducing my ability to double park and unload my car on a weekend?”

The proposed work is divided into three sections along South End Avenue: the north section, between Liberty and Albany streets; the central section, between Rector and Albany streets; and the south section, between Rector and West Thames streets.

In the north section, the authority proposed installing a bike lane on Liberty Avenue, relocating the Citi Bike docking station, expanding the South End Avenue sidewalk by five-to-six feet, and installing a median at Liberty Street and South End Avenue, near the entrance to the Gateway Plaza Garage, where according to the Department of Transportation, there’s a large cluster of crashes. And further changes to curbside parking regulations, including adding additional loading zones, would create 12 new parking spaces where there’s currently none.

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In the central section, designs also include extending the curb, planted medians, and installing a raised intersection at South End Avenue and Rector Place.

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And in the south section, in addition to the expanded curb and planted median improvements, the authority also wants to relocate a popular Citi Bike docking station that haphazardly sits in the median on West Thames Street to outside West Thames Playground south of Battery Place, to hopefully eliminate the danger posed by buses driving into the median thanks to double parked trucks blocking the curb.

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Locals claim that work should proceed on South End Avenue between Liberty Street and Albany Street, but that south of Albany Street, all the dangers there have magically been resolved, thanks to the installation of a singular traffic light at South End Avenue and Rector Place in 2019. Since 2016, there have been 93 reported crashes along South End Avenue, causing 16 injuries, including to three cyclists and nine pedestrians, and three fatalities, one of whom was a pedestrian, according to Crash Mapper.

“South of Albany Street, I’m not sure there really is a compelling need. I do think that it’s something that needs to be re-evaluated in light of what’s happened since a really excellent plan was put together,” said Robin Forst, a public member of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee.

Other residents agreed, and claimed that giving more space to pedestrians on the currently overcrowded sidewalks will actually bring more harm than good.

“We don’t want to widen our sidewalks,” said Smith, to audible agreement from other community members during the virtual meeting. “When you cut into the traffic lane and widen the sidewalk, you are inviting motorized two-wheeled vehicles to ride on the sidewalk, and you are increasing the danger to pedestrians.”

Residents like Smith and Forst say they don’t want to foot the bill for yet another expense, but this street redesign would come at no additional cost to them. Due to the arrangement governing the state-owned land on which they live, instead of property taxes, Battery Park City residents pay what are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOTs, in addition to civic fees and ground leases, which together cover the cost of local upkeep and help fund other projects, like affordable housing developments, across the city.

In the case of the South End Avenue redesign, instead of being passed onto the city, money for the project would be devoted directly to pedestrian safety and traffic calming in Battery Park City rather than elsewhere. Still, the residents say they don’t want their money being used for that, especially as some homeowners are in the middle of a bitter battle with city and state officials to renegotiate their buildings’ current ground leases, most of which don’t expire for nearly two decades, citing burdensome rising costs.

“An evaluation and analysis (is needed) as to the cost and the benefit of what it will bring us as a community, and a community that’s facing challenges in terms of the real estate market, and in terms of the ground rent,” said Forst.

The irony over Battery Park City residents’ opposition to the streetscape redesign is that they’re the same ones who have already directed scores of millions of dollars (in addition to funding from the city, state, and feds) towards protecting their low-lying coastal neighborhood from another disastrous storm like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — resiliency efforts that include more green space, shoring up the East River-fronting esplanade, and reducing carbon emissions, all to aid in the fight against climate change.

Nonetheless, several board members even suggested during last month’s meeting that the previous resolution in support of the project be tossed out entirely.

“The resolution is very dated, things have changed. How quickly will it bring the changes that are actually positive?” said Battery Park City Committee member Robert Schneck, who claimed that widening the sidewalks would “make problems for emergency vehicles.”

But other Battery Park City residents say the changes to the neighborhood since 2018 — like more people, and more people wanting space outside — are only more of a reason to expand the sidewalks, and make the area safer and more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists, not less.

“What also changed was people started spending more time outside, seeking spaces to walk outside,” said one Battery Park City resident during the virtual meeting, who gave the name Lanna M, and who said she just moved to the neighborhood during the pandemic. “The streets are simply way too wide, this is prioritizing car traffic and making it very uncomfortable for people. I do see the value of the project. This seems like a very relevant change.”

But Lanna is seemingly in the minority. Six Battery Park City condo boards, which represent more than 1,000 households, passed a resolution in 2019 opposing the project on the grounds that the traffic light that was installed earlier that summer, since the plan was proposed, is good enough.

“There is no need for any further street work in this area,” says the resolution, which was sent on Sept. 25, 2019 to then-Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, then-Council Member Margaret Chin, and Battery Park City Authority President Benjamin Jones. “Residents feel that the proposed changes would do more harm than good and would be a needless expenditure of the money we pay to the Battery Park City Authority. Now that DOT has decided to install a traffic light in this intersection, the solution developed by the Committee and the BPCA is no longer needed. Implementing the solution also will result in substantial disruption of the street in front of our home, negatively impacting our quality of life.”

And it continues with what can only be read as a threat.

“Please do not underestimate the feelings of the people in this community or think that this issue will just go away,” the resolution says.

The Department of Transportation declined to comment, deferring to the Battery Park City Authority. And a BPCA bigwig told Streetsblog in a statement that “pedestrian safety and traffic calming measures are the priorities” driving the redesign, but that it will also continue to work with the community to address and evaluate current needs. The RFP will be issued in the coming weeks, according to a spokesperson for the BPCA, after which time the community will have more chances to weigh in on the design.

“As the design process begins, current traffic and pedestrian patterns and streetscape conditions that differ from previously-examined conditions will be evaluated by the selected firm so that the plan for the corridor can be updated where necessary,” said Gwen Dawson, BPCA Vice President, Real Property. “Using the previously completed concepts as a baseline, we’ll also be able to refresh considerations of appropriate street width dimensions, traffic calming solutions, and infrastructure changes to create a safe and vibrant South End Avenue corridor for all.”

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