“I think this is a very important opportunity for this community to back this avenue, which was given to the developers decades ago,” Nancy Goshow said last Thursday night, during a meeting of Community Board 5. “The developers have gotten all the benefits for too long, and it is time we as a community take back these spaces and really push them to be improved and made as nice as possible.”
Ms. Goshow was one of a majority of board members who declared her support for what has come to be known as 6½th Avenue, a Department of Transportation proposal to link a series of arcades and public plazas running from 51st to 57th streets between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The spaces were created through a special zoning district in the 1980s and early ’90s, and are made up of Zuccotti-like privately owned public space, or POPS. In exchange for building the spaces, developers got the opportunity to build bigger buildings.
Last year, the community board, at the suggestion of Friends of POPS, a pro-POPS civic group, asked the Department of Transportation to study ways it might connect these spaces. They are already a popular pedestrian thoroughfare, especially during lunch time and at rush hour, providing a less hectic alternative to the avenues on either side. The board wanted to make the spaces even more inviting.
The department returned in late March with the idea of installing raised crosswalks and stop signs, which the board’s transportation subcommittee supported. A vote was expected last month but delayed while the department continued to study traffic impacts. On Thursday, the department presented these findings, which it said would in no way slow down travel times, and the boarded voted in favor of the plan 2-to-1.
“This is an innovative project, and it’s one we asked for, so I think this is a pretty exciting moment for the board,” transportation committee chair Raju Mann said.
For those who still doubted the plan, even they admitted it was more general skepticism and intuition than anything else driving their concerns. “These findings defy logic,” board member Ron Dwenger said. “I don’t see how this will not cause congestion, but we’ll see.” The department argues that drivers will simply experience two shorter stops rather than one long one at the corner. “Odds are you’d be waiting for a red light, not missing a green,” Mr. Mann said.
Slideshow: Take a stroll along 6½th Avenue >>
Joel Maxman, a member of the transportation committee, felt that the department did the plan in reverse, coming up with a traffic proposal, then studying it, rather than studying traffic patterns and coming up with a solution to them. “This was totally backwards,” he said. “I’m still probably going to support this, but we have some real issues of process at the DOT.”
Kate McDonough countered the usual steamrolling Department of Transportation narrative, though, saying that no city agency took a more grassroots approach to its projects. “In my experience, working with DOT has been one of the most rewarding experiences of being on the community board.” She and other board members commended the department for taking an idea from the community and implementing it, rather than coming up with its own proposals and imposing them from above.
Ms. McDonough did sound a note of caution, echoed by many on the board. “The idea is great, but the execution has to be monitored,” she said. The department has promised to keep an eye on traffic patterns and present its findings to the board in the fall. Should any issues in the plan, from difficulty with deliveries to traffic delays, present themselves, the department has promised to work on solutions to address the problems.
Another issue the board is working on is partnering with the Department of City Planning, which regulates POPS, to improve access and standards along the route. Currently, there are a few illegal sidewalk cafes and other installations in violation of the zoning, which the board wants removed. Also, the open hours for the paths are not currently consistent—some are open 24 hours a day, others shutter as early as 7 p.m. “We hope to make it so everything is open around the same times, and of the same quality,” Mr. Mann said.
Now that it has secured the board’s support, the Department of Transportation expects to install the crosswalks during the latter half of June, an effort that should only take a few hours per intersection.
“It was fun to work on a project that came up from the community, to chew on it, come back, and get their huge support,” Josh Benson, the department’s director of bicycling and pedestrian programs said after the board’s vote. “It was a nice process, and one that will make the city a little nicer as a result.”