Concourse Considerations

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At the January 29 meeting of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) board, the public comment session elicited some news about pending plans to reconfigure the streetscapes on South End Avenue and West Thames Street to enhance pedestrian safety, traffic flow, and aesthetic appeal.

Resident Ann Schwalbenberg asked, “when are you going to start doing the work on South End Avenue?”

Gwen Dawson, the Authority’s vice president for real property, replied, “we’re in the process of drafting our request for proposals for the detail design, which will be issued in the coming weeks. There will be a design process that will issue construction drawings that reflect the concepts that we’ve already agreed upon. So it will likely be in fiscal year 2020 before we start construction.”

Over the last five years, plans to redesign and rebuild South End Avenue have gone through several iterations, some controversial and some reflecting increased collaboration between the BPCA and community leaders.
The most recent in-depth public discussion of the proposal was in May, 2018, when the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1(CB1) devoted several hours to a presentation by Ms. Dawson and Joe Ganci, the BPCA’s design director, who were joined by representatives of the City’s Department of Transportation (DOT), and Stantec, a consulting firm hired to advise the Authority.

In an indication of the urgent priority that community leaders attach to this effort, City Council member Margaret Chin took the unusual step of not only making an appearance at the session, but staying through several hours of discussion. In a further attestation to the project’s importance in the eyes of the community, more than 100 residents also turned out for the Tuesday meeting.

“We want to know how we can make South End Avenue safer for residents,” Ms. Chin said at the session’s start. “We need to see if there are things we can do right away to make the area better.”

BPC chair Tammy Meltzer

“There have been numerous changes to the community since 2013,” when the process of studying ways to improve South End Avenue began, Committee chair Tammy Meltzer said, “including the opening of Brookfield Place, changes on Liberty Street, and changes in the ways that consumers shop.” She added that the number of office workers and tourists who now walk along South End Avenue each day has jumped significantly.

“But South End Avenue has not changed dramatically in those five years,” she observed, citing a handful of exceptions, such as the installation of stop signs at the corner of West Thames Street. She also noted in this context the creation of a left-turn lane creation of cross walks on West Thames Street, as well as the construction of a small pedestrian island on that street.

Ms. Meltzer also displayed a map showing the locations of more than half a dozen incidents (between 2006 and 2011) in which pedestrians were injured by moving cars on South End Avenue.

She then reviewed, with the help of DOT officials, the history of attempts to formulate a plan to revamp the streetscape. This narrative included an initial study by DOT in 2013, which was put on hold when the BPCA began a broader effort to redesign South End Avenue; a years-long delay caused by the need for temporary bike paths on South End Avenue, because the Hudson River Greenway was still under construction; and a series of possibilites considered by the BPCA in 2016, some of which (such as the prospect of filling in arcades to create new retail space) proved controversial.

Next, Ms. Dawson and Mr. Ganci began to present the Authority’s most recent round of propsals. Among the highlights were an innovation that (according to DOT officials) appears not yet to have been used anywhere in the City of New York: “speed tables,” which the BPCA hopes to install on South End Avenue and Rector Place. These are raised sections of roadway that are also visually distinct from the surrounding pavement. The combination of a vehicle rising up several inches in an area where the driver perceives the texture and color of the pavement to have changed is designed to inspire caution and thus slow traffic.

A generic illustration of how “speed tables” and “curb bulb outs” work in combination to slow traffic.
Speed tables are a workable alternative to speed bumps, which cannot be installed on South End Avenue, because several local bus routes use this street, and any bus passing over one would be in danger of scraping the pavement. Speed bumps pose no danger to cars because their axles are so close together than one set of wheels is always raised as the vehicle passes over, meaning that the chassis never “bottoms out” on the raised portion of the bump. But a City bus has axles so far apart that both sets of wheels could be on the ground while the bus straddled the bump, and would thus be in danger of dragging its underside over the raised section of pavement. Speed tables, however are generally 20 feet long (or more), meaning that even the longest bus could never bestride both ends of it.

The installation of a speed table would also make it possible to create crosswalks at Rector Place that traverse South End Avenue. Although pedestrians cross there hundreds of times each day, they are technically jaywalking, as there is no official place to walk from one side of South End Avenue to the other at Rector Place. The nearest “legal” crossings are one block north, at Albany Street (where there is a traffic light), and one block south, at West Thames Street (where there is a stop sign). While nobody has proposed increasing enforcement to curtail jaywalking at South End Avenue and Rector Place, it is nonetheless deemed a serious safety risk for pedestrians.

The speed tables would be created in conjunction with other “traffic calming” design features at various locations, such as widened sidewalks, islands in the middle of the street, and curb “bulb outs” that shorten the distance pedestrians have to cross between curbs. Each of these would narrow the roadbed, inducing drivers to slow further.
The BPCA plan calls for concrete medians (topped by decorative plantings) to be installed at four locations on South End Avenue: between Liberty Street and the Gateway Plaza driveway; between Albany Street and Rector Place; between Rector Place and West Thames Street; and between West Thames Street and the cul-de-sac overlooking South Cove.

The same proposal envisioned widening the sidewalk on the west side of South End Avenue for its entire length, between Liberty Street and West Thames Street, as well as on the north side of West Thames Street. And the curb bulb outs would be installed at each intersection on South End Avenue.

On West Thames Street, the plan called for (in addition to widening one of the sidewalks), moving the Citi Bike docking station from the middle of the road (near the intersection with South End Avenue) to a location on the newly expanded sidewalk, closer to West Street.

The plan presented last May also contained provisions for moving several bus stops from their current locations. Residents and Committee member expressed grave reservations about this aspect of the proposal, especially because of the impact it would have on tenants at Gateway Plaza, where many elderly and disabled residents are dependent on bus stops located outside their front door.

BPCA design director Joe Ganci: “You folks live here, and we don’t, so please tell us what you think. We’re open to any ideas.”
In a striking response, Mr. Ganci assured the audience that this aspect would be dropped from the plan, saying, “you won’t see it again.” He then added, “you folks live here, and we don’t, so please tell us what you think.” He went on to say, “we’re open to any ideas.”

This appeared to mark another milestone in an ongoing shift in the Authority’s approach to consultation with the community it governs, which has become more collaborative and inclusive in recent months. Indeed, the BPCA’s president, B.J. Jones, assured residents (at an Open Community Meeting hosted by the Authority in March, 2018) that he intended, “to move things, like South End Avenue, along with the community as best and effectively as we could.”

An extensive question-and-answer period followed the BPCA’s presentation. One query came from resident Pat Smith, who serves as president of the Battery Pointe condominium board at 300 Rector Place, and who has pushed for years to have traffic safety measures implemented on South End Avenue. He responded to the BPCA’s proposal for a speed table at the Rector Place intersection by saying, “someone has finally come up with an intelligent solution,” and then asked, “how fast can you make this happen?”

Ms. Dawson replied that one major hurdle had already been overcome: “DOT has given us their preliminary approval for this plan,” she noted, while also acknowledging that the agency doesn’t have the funds to undertake any of the construction projects (such as traffic islands, widened sidewalks, and speed tables) envisioned in the proposal. “But the BPCA has access to capital that can pay for these improvements,” she added. “So we can implement this plan.” This access to capital consists of untapped bonding capacity, but such new debt (in the amount of the full cost of construction) must first be approved by the City, once the design process is complete.

A rendering of the BPCA’s plan for changes to the South End Avenue streetscape, with widened sidewalks shown in red, new medians in green, and the new “speed table” in brown.
The next step appeared to be further revisions to the BPCA’s proposal, based on the responses the Authority received from residents and CB1 members at the May, 2018 meeting. But this outlook was called into question last September, when Ms. Meltzer announced that the DOT had acquiesced to demands for a traffic light at the intersection of South End Avenue and Rector Place, saying, “the DOT has agreed that the volume of traffic, and the history of accidents there, both call for a change. The good news is that this won’t be a ‘traffic calming measure,’ which is what we’ve been promised in the past. This will be a traffic control measure.”

No timetable was announced for the installation of the traffic signal at Rector Place and South End Avenue, and more than six months have now passed since this approval was made public. Whether this means that the previously heralded idea of a speed table has been abandoned by DOT, or that the plan for a has been shelved by that agency, remains unclear. The BPCA appears to be moving ahead with its plan for a speed table at Rector Place and South End Avenue, however, regardless of whether this turns out to be instead of, or in addition to, the DOT’s proposal for a traffic light at the same intersection.

Also unresolved are numerous technical details about the plan that have aroused concern among residents and community leaders, such as whether narrower rights of way along South End Avenue and West Thames Street may restrict access for trucks that make hundreds of deliveries each day to local stores and apartment buildings. A related question is whether these trucks, if deprived of the medians and shoulders that they now use (albeit, illegally) as de facto parking spaces will cause local traffic to grind to a halt. At least some of these questions may be answered by the terms of the request for proposals that the BPCA plans to issue shortly.
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