Gotham Gazette

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From the West Side: A 'Roadmap' for City Streets


Illustration of the intersection of Broadway and West 97th Street from the The Upper West Side Streets Renaissance Campaign's "Blueprint for the Upper West Side".

Last year's campaign to create more people-friendly streets on the Upper West Side was launched with visions of Copenhagen or Paris, or at least of closing Broadway to cars. But what has emerged from a yearlong collaboration of the community, transportation experts and advocacy groups is a more modest set of proposals that can be put in place piecemeal and at a relatively low cost. Together, however, these streetscape changes could make the Upper West Side a much greener and safer place and set a precedent for other neighborhoods.

The report, the Blueprint for the Upper West Side: A Roadmap for Truly Livable Streets, proposes a number of design elements, including physically separated bike lanes in both directions along Broadway's median, extended curbs and raised crosswalks at intersections and parking spots replaced with sidewalk "bulb-outs" for seating, bicycle parking, greenery and garbage pick-up.

The effort aims to ride the momentum of the city's new focus on the streets as public space. The debate over the plan on the Upper West Side could be played out in neighborhoods across the city as the administration and transportation advocates come up with similar proposals for those communities.

The Upper West Side Streets Renaissance Campaign "is the community's effort to put it on a silver platter for a Department of Transportation that's interested in seeing a lot of good change roll out," said Wiley Norvell, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, one of the groups working on the plan.

The plan has the support of the neighborhood's elected officials, including Councilmember Gale Brewer, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Borough President Scott Stringer. So far, the Bloomberg administration is noncommittal. Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Gastel said, "The study proposed some interesting ideas for the Upper West Side, which we will keep in mind as we look for ways to improve the area."

But entrenched attitudes about driving and, especially, parking in the neighborhood could pose obstacles to implementing the full range of proposals. Any street changes would require support from the local community board, which has to balance a wide range of interests.

"I think the community as a whole is hungry for the changes," said Helen Rosenthal, chairwoman of Community Board 7, "but it does mean for some people giving up things they've become accustomed to."

A Changing View of City Streets

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to reduce traffic through congestion pricing failed, the Department of Transportation, under commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, has gone into high gear to make the streets more livable in other ways. Over the last three years, the department has created new pedestrian plazas, built 200 miles of bicycle lanes, closed streets on summer weekends and launched new programs for safer streets for seniors and schoolchildren. It is looking at how to improve especially congested corridors throughout the city in ways that meet the needs of all users, not just drivers..

The department presented its new planning approach in a recent report, World Class Streets. "Designing streets as great places for people and not just as utilitarian corridors for vehicles takes full advantage of New York's density and vibrancy — it's a new frontier in ensuring that New York remains the greatest city in the world," said Sadik-Khan.

The Upper West Side Plan

A 2006 study by Transportation Alternatives found that people living on streets with heavy traffic go out less often and have fewer friends and acquaintances. Three quarters of Upper West Side residents live within two blocks of a congested road. The designs proposed in the Upper West Side blueprint aim to make the streets greener, quieter, safer and more accessible and ultimately to create street life and a sense of community many say the increasingly dense neighborhood lacks.

"People want something green and they want to sit and they want to socialize," said Brewer. "From talking to the BIDs [area's Business Improvement Districts], it helps small merchants, too. If people linger, they buy things."

To improve pedestrian safety, the plan calls for widening curbs at all corners of every intersection — starting with temporary extensions at major street crossings — and installing bollards or planters at corners to protect people standing there. It also proposes raised crosswalks to make pedestrians more visible to drivers and re-timing the lights to allow slower-moving pedestrians time to cross.

Sidewalk extensions would be used to make the streetscape more pleasant in other ways: adding public seating, bicycle parking, trees and greenery and moving garbage and recycling collection out of the path of pedestrians.

Another goal is to calm traffic on the smaller cross-streets, making residential blocks safer places for children to play as well as for bicyclists. The prototype looks almost suburban to a New Yorker accustomed to the grid. Angled parking narrows the street to one lane. Halfway down the block, curved sidewalk extensions on opposite sides of the street create a zigzag that cars must navigate, and the parking switches to the other side. Greenery or benches go on the extra bit of public real estate.

Another major goal of the blueprint is to make bicycling safer and easier in the neighborhood. It proposes physically separated bicycle lanes along Columbus and Amsterdam avenues. The two middle lanes of traffic on each side of the Broadway Malls become protected bike paths. Slowing the crosstown streets would make it easier for bicyclists to ride between Central and Riverside parks.

Other safety features include continuing painted bike lanes through intersections and creating "bike boxes" at the front of intersections where cyclists waiting at red lights would be more visible to drivers.

The Effect on Traffic

Although the blueprint aims to reduce traffic congestion by creating more delivery zones to discourage double parking and by raising the price of parking so fewer people drive around looking for a spot, many drivers are no happier with some of its proposals than they were with congestion pricing.

Cabdriver Abubakar Abdullah told the New York Post, "It's going to cause a lot more traffic, and especially rush hour will be crazy. We already have the same problem on Ninth Avenue below 34th Street because of the bicycle lanes. Motorists have rights, too."

Bicycle and pedestrian advocates point out that only 10 percent of Upper West Side residents commute by car, yet the neighborhood is dominated by automobile traffic.

Transportation planners say that reducing space for driving and parking ultimately encourages people to turn to other forms of transportation, with the overall effect of reducing traffic. In New York City, 90 percent of people who commute by car have other options.

Speaking at the release of the blueprint at P.S. 87, renowned Danish urban planner Jan Gehl told a crowd of Upper West Siders that Copenhagen has been transformed over the last 30 years as the city gradually reduced the number of cars entering the city and put together a door-to-door bicycle network. As a result, traffic has decreased and 36 percent of commuters bicycle to work.

New York is lucky because it has wide streets, Gehl said. "Wide streets enable us to have a nice comfortable sidewalk, a nice bike lane, a nice row of street trees, a bus lane, and a median. And even have a couple of lanes for cars also."

The Parking Problem

The proposed conversion of a small percentage of parking spots to other uses could be the biggest stumbling block for some of the streetscape improvements in the plan, said the Community Board's Helen Rosenthal. Many of the elements that would make the neighborhood more livable require the sacrifice of parking spots or an increase in the price of parking at meters.

Finding a parking spot on the Upper West Side is notoriously difficult. Residents long accustomed to parking their cars for free — if they can find a spot — turn out in force when the Community Board considers requests to remove even one or two spaces.

"There are many brilliant ideas in there that won't require changing parking. We should move forward on those quickly," Rosenthal said. "The ones that do involve parking, bring 'em on. Let's address them publicly and hear from every side."

Where support is strong, changes can go into effect block by block, project by project, according to advocates and city officials who support the blueprint. At P.S. 87, they urged residents to ask the community board and elected representatives for specific changes on the street.

"This is a moment in time to meld those greening ideas and good transportation ideas," said Brewer. "If you can't do it now, I don't know when you can."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

A Property Tax for Parks?

Photo (cc) Zhi

Completion of the Greenwich Village section of the Hudson River Park raised real estate prices in the adjacent two blocks by 20 percent, according to a study released in September.

The study, commissioned by Friends of Hudson River Park with research by the Regional Plan Association and data from the Real Estate Board of New York, is consistent with previous research linking increased property values to well-maintained parks. Now, though, some parks advocates are exploring ways to tap into that increase to provide funds for parks.

Money for Hudson River Park

The Hudson River Park study found the park had the largest impact on sales of condominiums, whose prices climbed by 80 percent after the Greenwich Village section of the park was finished in 2003, compared to a 45 percent increase in neighborhoods to the north and south.

Friends of Hudson River Park, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the creation and preservation of the five-mile-long park along Manhattan's West Side waterfront from Chambers to 59th Street, is using the study as a springboard to see whether the increase in real estate values could provide money for the park through the creation of a special Business Improvement District, or BID, for the park. In a BID, property owners pay an additional assessment to upgrade and maintain their area with better sanitation, security, landscaping and other amenities beyond what the city provides. If approved, a Hudson River Park BID would be the city's first special real estate assessment district dedicated largely to maintaining and operating a park.

The Hudson River Park, a public park being built with public money, was established on a new funding model requiring commerce within its borders to pay for maintenance and operations. But development on piers designated for this purpose has been delayed for years because of neighborhood opposition and other issues, sowing doubts about whether it is possible to generate enough money from this source alone. Funding from a BID could fill the gap.

The proposal for a Hudson River Park "park improvement district" raises, once again, the issue of what is the best way to pay for keeping up all of the city's parks, as people expect more recreation and breathing space in the urban environment and more families opt to raise their children in the city. With the city sliding into recession or worse, finding a way to keep caring for parks becomes ever more important.

Transforming the Waterfront

Hudson River Park is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Westway, the defeated proposal for an underground superhighway to replace the decrepit elevated West Side Highway. The park, also controversial, prevailed and construction began on it in 1993. Working closely with the park's creators and the city, the state Department of Transportation built a new landscaped roadway with lushly planted medians as well as a bikeway along the park's length that quickly became the most heavily used bike path in the country.

The first part of the park to be completed was in Greenwich Village. A once-decrepit stretch of piers and highway is now a ribbon of green unwinding between the bikeway and a waterfront promenade, with an irregular fringe of piers embedded with lawns, flower beds and neat groves of trees like pegs in a game board. The waters between and around the piers and grids of old pilings are designated as an estuarine sanctuary.

Shiny and new, the park still has a whiff of an architect's drawings, but on a fall evening it was in leisurely use. Four 10-year-olds tossed a football on a slender patch of grass buffered from traffic noise by a curving wall of trees and shrubs; people leaving work or walking their dogs made their way along the bench-lined promenade; others strolled down the piers out into the river to watch the sun set over Jersey City.

Across the street from the park, the change has been just as startling. New luxury condominiums, including three signature Richard Meier glass towers, have risen along West Street and several blocks inland.

An Unproven Funding Model

The expected cost of maintaining and running the fully complete Hudson River Park is $20 million a year, according to Connie Fishman, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, the city-state partnership that oversees the design, construction and operation of the park. That amount doesn't include capital maintenance. "We'd love to be able to have additional funding that comes from rents and other contributions on a regular basis to build a long-term capital maintenance fund, which is of course critical to keep in shape all the new stuff we're building," she said.

The state legislation setting up the park designated specific piers for development to generate enough income for running and maintaining the park. So far, however, the only major commercial development is the huge Chelsea Piers recreation complex.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park along the downtown Brooklyn waterfront is being created under the same funding paradigm where the park, in essence, must pay its own way. There, the plan to include high-rise luxury housing to subsidize upkeep has drawn fierce community opposition.

So far, it has not been shown that development in either of these parks can provide enough income to maintain them properly. Both waterfront parks will have higher than usual maintenance expenses because of the wear and tear from salt and wind, the difficulty of doing repair work in or near the water and the extra cost of maintaining piers.

In the controversy over the Hudson River Park's creation, opponents were concerned that as the park was built, the need for more funding would lead to increasing the area for development within the park. Although that remains a possibility, as people began to use the park and claim it as their own, a constituency has emerged to oppose large-scale developments that are not seen to benefit the community or fit in with the purpose of the park.

In the village, the 14-acre Pier 40 at West Houston Street was set aside for revenue-generating development. But in the past six years, the trust has not been able to find a developer with a plan that is commercially viable, brings in enough funding for the park and is acceptable to the community. The pier currently houses a parking garage that generates millions of dollars in revenue for the park, as well as a heavily used interim sports field in the garage's enormous interior courtyard.

Last March, the trust's board turned down a proposal for a huge entertainment complex anchored by Cirque du Soleil (dubbed Vegas on the Hudson by opponents) because of a dispute over lease terms. The developer, Related Companies, wanted a 49-year lease, which is not allowed under the park legislation. The trust then gave two community-based groups that had submitted plans 90 days to present a joint proposal. Their plan included new schools, camps and playing fields as well as parking and small retail operations, but the trust rejected that in October as not financially feasible.

"It remains to be seen whether even with a longer lease there is a proposal that can both satisfy the community and meet the economic needs of the park," said Fishman. "It's a big unknown right now."

A BID for Parks

Many cities with well-regarded park systems, including Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle, generate funds for parks through some form of park district. In New York City, fees paid by residents and developers in Battery Park City cover the costs of gardening, maintenance and activities in its beautifully cared-for parkland.

Assessing property owners near Hudson River Park could help fund park maintenance, avoiding the need to compete with other city parks for public funding or to expand development within the park.

A Hudson River Park district would differ from a BID in that it would tax mostly residential properties, not businesses. "It would also be a very large district," said A.J. Pietrantone, executive director of Friends of Hudson River Park. "It intersects with other BIDs and would have to be done carefully," he said. The proposed district's large area could keep the assessment low, but the potential negative impact of a Hudson River Park BID on low-income property owners and small business owners would have to be addressed.

Friends has been discussing the feasibility of a BID with community members and property owners, said Pietrantone. He said that he is not sure how the worsening economy would affect prospects for park district. "We think that because the assessment we're talking about is small, the economy is less of a factor than if it were a full-service BID. Because of the pressure on the state budget, it makes it all the more important for us to look at alternative resources."

"For city parks, we're going to need both public funding and private funding," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "We should be seriously looking at these dedicated sources."

However, he said, any funding mechanism should insure that the city addresses the needs of less affluent areas, particularly in the outer boroughs. "We would not want to see a system in which only neighborhoods that can afford the extra tax can create the BID. We have to make sure every park is getting a high level of service."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues. 

From Parking Space to People Place

In a city where every square foot is contested, how can we fit more greenery and public gathering spots amid the concrete? Why are the sidewalks narrow and the streets wide, making it difficult to walk in some parts of town? Should a quarter to a third of city streets be reserved for parking cars, or can some of this public land be put to other uses?

These are the kinds of questions raised by the transformation of more than 50 New York City metered parking spots into temporary public spaces on the second annual National Park(ing) Day held Sept. 19. This nationwide event, sponsored by the Trust for Public Land to call attention to the need for urban parks, has now spread to more than 70 cities across the country.

In New York City, the number of park(ing) spots more than doubled from the previous year's event. Organizers arranged sod, trees, flowers, benches and tables, as well as cardboard boxes, string and chalk, to create functional, if tiny, public spaces. The spots ranged from a meditation garden on a busy street in Williamsburg to a grassy patch filled with children coloring on Cortelyou Street in Brooklyn to an arbor in Nolita made of 88 upside-down white traffic cones.

The quirky micro-mini-parks invited passersby to experience how a public space can bring neighbors together and add life, color and a little breathing space to the urban matrix. As a participant in the "Stay-cation Park" in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn explained his park(ing) spot in the 2008 Park(ing) Day video, "It's a place for people just to sit and enjoy. I've already heard some people say they've never actually looked at this intersection. It's like putting on a new pair of glasses."

What began as an attention-getting mix of guerilla activism and stoop-sitting has gained credibility as the city itself has begun to experiment with the kind of outside-the-box thinking Park(ing) Day celebrates. "For the first time, parking in New York City is not considered absolutely sacrosanct," said Wiley Norvell, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, which organized the event in New York City.

The Difference a Year Makes

In the last year, as part of an all-out effort by the Bloomberg administration to enact the sustainability initiatives of PlaNYC 2030 before the mayor's term ends, the Department of Transportation has begun to shift the balance between the automobile and the pedestrian.

These efforts, led by transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, seemed to intensify after congestion pricing failed to get off the ground earlier this year. Since last September, the Department of Transportation has carved 49 acres of new public space from the asphalt, including Broadway Boulevard, a series of pedestrian plazas created by closing several traffic lanes on Broadway from Times Square to Herald Square.

Further down Broadway, the transportation department in August replaced a lane of parking and a lane of car traffic at Madison Square with landscaped plazas and new bicycle lanes, creating 41,700 square feet of new public space. These additions have been relatively inexpensive, requiring little more than paint, planters, new surface coatings, and tables and chairs.

The changes have happened so quickly that an article in the New York Observer raised the question of whether Sadik-Khan was moving too fast: "The DOT's recently ramped-up pace has frustrated residents and elected officials, who feel they were let in on the decisions only after all the plans were made."

Sadik-Kahn responded that "consulting with the community is an important part of the process."

"We've got 6,000 miles of streets and over 12,000 miles of sidewalks, and we're trying to look at making them livable spaces, and not just these utilitarian corridors," Sadik-Khan told the Observer. "So when you take a look at the streets of New York, that's 80 percent of our public space. In some ways, I think of myself as the largest real estate developer in New York."

In another effort to increase recreational space, temporarily at least, the transportation department has closed streets. On three Saturdays this summer, the city banned cars on a route from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grand Central Station, turning Park Avenue into a highway for bicyclists, skaters and runners.

In Jackson Heights, residents received a permit to close a block of 78th Street every Sunday through November, expanding the neighborhood's one open space, 1.9-acre Travers Park. "My kids grew up in the park, but I feel like this is the first time that they really have room to run around," resident Mandy Un told the New York Times.

The Department of Transportation also has launched a PlaNYC-funded program to put public plazas in each of the community districts.

In a related PlaNYC initiative, the parks department added 94 new Greenstreets to the existing 2,260. The PlaNYC budget provides the first dedicated funding for this program, begun in 1996, to plant trees, shrubs and flowers on traffic islands and medians. It allocates $15 million for 800 new Greenstreets over the next 10 years, and, starting in fiscal year 2009, is supposed to provide the first funding for maintenance in the program's history.

Future Plans

More street rearrangements are in the works, including a long-delayed project to widen public and pedestrian space at Astor Place and Cooper Square and make the streets there safer to cross.

In October, the city plans to reconfigure the underused parking strip on both sides of Kent Avenue in Williamsburg as buffered bike lanes. The route is part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. The borough's growing legion of bicycle riders applauds the plan, but in what the Brooklyn Papers called a "bitter struggle for control of the streets," some residents of South Williamsburg say it would turn over too much space to bicycle lanes, clogging vehicular traffic.

Civic organizations and the transportation and parks departments are collaborating on an effort to completely rethink Grand Army Plaza, where a popular greenmarket, the main building for the Brooklyn Public Library, a memorial arch and a newly renovated fountain are encircled by confusing and dangerous roadways. The Design Trust for Public Space recently announced the top awards in a competition to reinvent the plaza and make it the gateway to Prospect Park it was originally meant to be. The top 30 proposals will be on display in the center of the plaza until October 13, and visitors will be able to vote for a "People's Choice" award. Meanwhile, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition and the Design Trust, taking inspiration from the contest designs, will work with the parks and transportation departments and local communities to create a new master plan for the plaza.

European cities have long understood how pedestrian squares and streets where people can gather, sit, talk, sip a cup of coffee and watch the world go by add immensely to a city's vitality. In New York, people are so accustomed to living within the grip of the automobile that it seems hard to imagine any other way. In the ephemeral spaces of Park(ing) Day and at the new public plazas popping up around the city, New Yorkers are able to see how much more pleasant urban life can be.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues. 

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