Mallification or Woonerf?

Thames Street proposal
"Mallification" or Woonerf?Thames Street proposal "Mallification" or Woonerf?

To the editor:
Your article “The ‘Mallifcation’ of Lower Manhattan,” and comments by some members of CB1, suggest that the opportunity to turn Thames Street between Trinity and Broadway into a pedestrianized zone, with increased retail opportunities along the block, somehow amounts to “privatization of public space” and “mallification.” Let me suggest an alternative view.

This block gets very little car traffic, and yet 3/4ths of the space along the block is reserved for a rarely-used motor vehicle travel lane, while pedestrians are confined to tiny sidewalks along the sides. It is a dim, cramped, unpleasant space. The proposal is for a real estate developer to rework it with improved paving and lighting — a public benefit at private cost — and since they own real estate to either side, they will naturally open up what are now closed walls as retail and restaurant space. They propose, in short, to turn a cramped and unpleasant block into something Jane Jacobs would recognize as a pleasant urban environment.

The proposal does not amount to “privatization of public space;” the street will still be open and free to public use — just perhaps not to the use of private motor vehicles, which few Manhattanites own anyway.

I realize that between what Howard Hughes is doing to the Seaport and the closure of the pedestrian arcade along Water Street as shops, it’s easy for people downtown to feel that anything proposed by a real estate company is doubtful and probably pernicious; but this proposal is for a vastly better use of the block than its current use.

I would prefer that rather than it being totally blocked off to traffic during daylight hours, it become a ‘woonerf,’ a kind of street common in the Netherlands where pedestrian and cycle traffic is preferred, but motor vehicles are not prohibited; rather, pavement treatments and signage indicates to motorists that other people are prioritized, and they must be careful. But I’m okay with barring vehicles as well.

In fact there are a great many places in downtown New York where a similar treatment would be preferable to current use. The block of Rector Street between Trinity and Broadway is another; the tiny sidewalk there is often blocked by tourists looking at Alexander Hamilton’s grave, and the small amount of vehicle traffic it receives does not justify confining pedestrians to tiny spaces.

The area of Broad Street below Wall is another; it’s already, for all intentional purposes, a woonerf, and should be redesigned as such.

Under Robert Moses, we made the mistake of prioritizing streets for the use of ecologically catastrophic death machines over people. In the last few years, New York has started to modestly reverse that. We have far to go, but pedestrianizing one block of Thames would be a small step in the right direction.

Greg Costikyan

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