Astor Place Re-Do Gets Mixed Reviews

A city plan to remake the area around the cube sculpture at Astor Place moved into its infancy on the evening of May 19 with the tepid endorsement of Community Board 2 at its monthly meeting.

The Department of Transportation wants to make over the busy Astor Place–Cooper Square intersection, at the juncture of the West and East Village.

The D.O.T.’s proposal calls for widening the Astor Place subway station’s pedestrian triangle, located between Broadway and Fourth Avenue and between Eighth and Ninth streets; the expansion of Cooper Park, located south of the Cooper Union architecture, art and engineering school; the widening of the median strip on Third Avenue between Ninth and Fourth streets; and, most controversially, the closure of Astor Place east of Lafayette Street in order to turn it into a pedestrian plaza.

The board approved all of the proposed changes except the Astor Place closure, citing possible traffic displacement as well as the prospect of unruly skaters rolling amok. Currently, the small block of asphalt runs directly in front of developer Related Companies’ much-derided neo-International-style “Sculpture for Living” luxury-loft building. (According to a spokesperson for Related, the company was unaware of the D.O.T.’s proposal and therefore unable to comment on it.)

Board 2’s vote was at odds with the recommendations of the joint Astor Place task force that it formed with neighboring Board 3 (the project overlaps the district boundaries). That task force approved all of the D.O.T.’s proposals, albeit with some caveats: that the Astor Place closure would maintain the Stuyvesant Street view corridor to its east; would incorporate and respect the historical significance of the block and the original Native American trail on which it was built; and would include features to dissuade large crowds from gathering. The task force also stipulated that a clear maintenance plan had to be developed for the space. At its April 2005 meeting, Board 3 overwhelmingly voted in favor of the task force’s recommendations.

Shirley Secunda, a Board 2 member who sits on the joint task force, said of the board’s reluctance to endorse the street closure: “It’s a tremendous loss. The D.O.T. doesn’t usually do these plans, and it was great that they were willing to do this.” Ms. Secunda called the fears that overflow traffic from the closed Astor Place would overwhelm nearby streets “completely fallacious.”

“[Astor Place is] hardly used by cars at all. It would be no loss to cars at all, but a great gain for pedestrians.”

According to D.O.T. spokesman Craig Chin, the Astor Place–Cooper Square plan is still only in the early planning stages. He told The Observer that $4.5 million has been allocated from city capital funding for construction, if the project is approved; $450,000 has been allocated for design, and the federal government has pledged $300,000 for any enhancements. The area would be maintained by the Parks Department after construction. Mr. Chin said that the D.O.T. had surveyed traffic volume on Astor Place and concluded that its closure “would have a minor impact” on traffic in the surrounding streets.

Tresa Horney, a campaign coordinator from Transportation Alternatives, an organization that advocates bicycling, walking and sensible transportation, spoke in favor of the D.O.T.’s plan before the board held its vote. Interviewed later by The Observer, she concurred with Mr. Chin. “Traffic shrinkage is what happens if a road or a street is closed,” she said, adding that Astor Place “is not a vital thoroughfare-it’s not driven on much.”

Currently, Transportation Alternatives is campaigning for a “pedestrian renaissance” in the city, comparable to London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s “100 Public Spaces” program to create pedestrian-friendly zones around famous locales in the English capital. Mr. Livingstone imposed a controversial fee-based car-control system in Central London in 2002-one which, by most accounts, has been a smashing success.

Mr. Chin said that the D.O.T. would consider Board 2’s objections to the current design and hold community meetings to try to formulate a plan amenable to all. He said that the D.O.T. hoped to have a final plan by next year, and that construction could begin as soon as July 2007.

“I think that most people have been so oriented to providing for automobiles that they haven’t thought about pedestrians,” said Board 2’s Ms. Secunda.