A Streetcar’s Desire: Smooth Ride to Approval

For decades, dating back to the Koch administration, plans for a 42nd Street river-to-river light-rail system have periodically been proposed every few years, only to go off the tracks. Now, proponents of a new 42nd Street corridor light-rail system, perhaps emboldened by the banishment of the more prurient elements of the Times Square of yore-prostitutes, sex shops and drug bazaars-are geared up to drive out that other urban scourge: automobiles.

Last Monday, April 18, Community Boards 4, 5 and 6, along with Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, held a meeting at the Marriott Marquis for the release of studies examining the impact of Vision42, the light-rail project proposed by the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group.

The new plan calls for the permanent closure of 42nd Street to car traffic and the creation of a boulevard to incorporate a light-rail system. The redesign would feature approximately 16 stops along its route at grade level. The two-and-a-half-mile route would extend to the East River and south to a terminus at 35th Street, and would extend west to 12th Avenue and then south to 39th Street.

According to the studies commissioned by Vision42 and carried out by the planning and design company Halcrow and the consulting firm Urbanomics, the project will cost from $360 million to $510 million, depending on the type of rail system employed. It would also raise property values in the affected area by $3.5 billion and provide $527.4 million in increased annual net benefits to the city, primarily through increased city and state tax revenues.

Another study commissioned by Vision42 and carried out by Sam Schwartz L.L.C., a transportation-engineering firm, concluded that any traffic congestion caused by the closing of 42nd Street would be adequately mitigated by changing parking rules and traffic-signal timing, as well as by increased traffic-regulation enforcement. Most controversial, though, was traffic engineer Dan Plottner’s claim that if 42nd Street were closed to vehicles, much of the concomitant traffic would disappear.

Area residents lined up after the presentation to make comments and ask questions, with several from Manhattan Plaza, a large complex at Ninth Avenue and 42nd Street, baffled at the “counterintuitive” traffic projections. Nevertheless, Mr. Plottner held his ground, apparently exasperated at times, with Roxanne Warren, the chair of Vision42, explaining to the assembled crowd, “It’s the converse of ‘If you build more highways, more people will drive.’” Supporters of the Vision42 plan also took the mike and claimed that traffic in Newark and Jersey City, N.J., improved dramatically after a light-rail system was built.

But Vision42 must still seek the approval of the community boards whose districts would be affected by the project. And although the boards’ recommendations are non-binding, they are taken into account by the various city agencies that have to sign off on the project before it can move forward.

Last Wednesday, April 13, the transportation committee of Board 6, whose district would include the eastern terminus of the Vision42 project, attempted to hold a full board vote on the light-rail plan. The vote was held over until May after board members objected that they needed to study all of the available information, most of which was released at Monday night’s community forum.

The vote promises to be spirited, as Lou Sepersky, the chair of the board’s transportation committee, has expressed doubts to The Observer that a rail-based, fixed-line transit system is the best option, especially considering the massive infrastructure extant underneath the roadway, which would have to be altered to accommodate a railway. But Ed Rubin, the chair of the board’s land-use committee, expressed tentative support for Vision42. When asked how the current plan stacked up against earlier light-rail proposals, he replied, “It’s better. The priority should be for people, not cars.”

Advocates of a 42nd Street light-rail system have tried to implement their plan in the past. As recently as 1993, Boards 4, 5 and 6, along with the Manhattan Borough Board, recommended against a light-rail proposal that would have closed off the southern half of the street to eastbound automobile traffic. Among other issues, the community boards cited increased traffic and congestion-along with a non-transparent planning process and the exclusion of other mass-transit options from the studies-as reasons for their resolutions recommending denial of the light-rail proposal. The City Council ultimately approved the plan, but then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani quietly scrapped it in 1999.

Anthony Borelli, the district manager of Board 4, was one of the last to mount the podium to address the Vision42 presenters, and he extended an invitation for them to make a presentation to his board. “There are some devils in the details,” he said, “and we need to work them out.”

Key-Card Quandary Quelled

Tenants of Peter Cooper Village, the mammoth housing project along First Avenue between 20th and 23rd streets on the East Side, have been embroiled in a dispute with their landlord, Metropolitan Life, for the past few months over the issue of replacing their old mechanical keys with new electronic key cards. In addition to privacy concerns (the card-reading system can store information about the comings and goings of individual tenants), the tenants were upset over MetLife’s overzealousness to curb illegal sublets-a prime reason, they say, for the company’s adoption of the new electronic key cards.

MetLife insists that the key change is merely for added security. The switchover was due March 30, with a possible rent strike looming if the problem remained unresolved. But a New York Supreme Court judge, while allowing MetLife to change the locks, ordered the company to give building access to tenants who refused to turn in their old keys until he made a decision on April 18.

According to Jack Lester, the lawyer representing the Peter Cooper Village Tenants’ Association, the ruling on Monday allows MetLife to change the locks of the housing complex to the electronic-key system, but with several caveats: MetLife is not allowed to emboss tenants’ photographs on the cards, as was originally planned, nor will the tenants’ names be visible on the cards. Most important, according to Mr. Lester, is that the issue must be ruled on by the Department of Housing and Community Renewal within 120 days. He said that he expected the DHCR to rule in the tenants’ favor. Mr. Lester said that MetLife’s ability to track the comings and goings of tenants through the system’s electronic records would also be decided at the hearing. “We say that’s a breach of privacy,” said Mr. Lester. “The legality of that will be addressed.”

Richard Shea, a spokesman for Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, explained that the key cards are “part of a larger overall security improvement” for the complex. “We believe it’s our goal to provide higher security to our tenants and their guests.” When asked if the key cards were also an effort to weed out illegal subtenants, Mr. Shea conceded that “a system like this does present an additional obstacle to subtenants.”