The Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) will meet this evening (Wednesday, October 5) to consider a resolution opposing the recent initiative by the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) to formulate options for reconfiguring South End Avenue. All interested members of the public are invited to attend and offer their opinions at this session, which will be held closer to home than usual for Battery Park City residents: the new campus of Metropolitan College of New York, at 60 West Street (near the corner of Rector Street), in the first-floor community room, starting at 6pm.
Tonight’s meeting follows a spirited discussion at the September 6 meeting of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, in which a multiple members of the panel and concerned residents expressed grave reservations about reconfiguring the thoroughfare that serves as the neighborhood’s equivalent of Main Street.
Committee chair Ninfa Segarra began the conversation by noting that, “context is very important. We’re the ones who sparked the conversation,” she recalled of a 2011 partnership between CB1’s Battery Park City Committee and the City’s Department of Transportation (DOT), which included an analysis of vehicular traffic and pedestrian safety along South End Avenue, and resulted in a series of recommendations that were (for the most part) never implemented. “These were robust community engagement conversations,” Ms. Segarra continued. “We didn’t do it to look at South End Avenue and redo the character of our community. That’s not what we got involved and engaged for.”
Ms. Segarra then handed the floor to CB1 member Tammy Meltzer, who recalled the reasons for, and the results of, DOT’s 2011 study. “The community reached out to DOT specifically because of traffic accidents,” she noted. “We said we need to improve pedestrian safety — we had new schools, and an influx of shoppers into Brookfield Place. So we wanted to calm traffic along South End Avenue.” She noted that DOT identified several problems, including unprotected pedestrian crossings, double parking (especially by delivery vehicles), and erratic vehicle movements encouraged by the wide street. “So DOT proposed crosswalks on West Thames Street and Rector Place, and pedestrian islands that could provide a safe place to wait while crossing.” Ms. Meltzer noted that the DOT also suggested installing “neck-down shortenings” of crosswalks at busy intersections, which narrow the traffic lanes as they approach corners, while also shortening the distance pedestrians must traverse. “They also wanted to remove two of 56 parking spaces,” she said, “without extending sidewalks, except at the corners.” Ms. Meltzer continued, “the islands would have required some horticulture, so DOT reached out to partner with the BPCA.”
CB1 member Tom Goodkind reflected,”this process was years in the planning and the entire community was part of all of these meetings. We went through the whole thing together. The DOT agreed and we handed it to the BCPA. We’ve already decided as a community how to go about this. And what we’re doing now is scrapping the whole darn thing that we went through for years, and let’s have the Authority do it over. It seems very, very wasteful.” (This remark elicited around of applause from the packed room.)
Justine Cuccia, a public member of CB1, said, “we put a lot of time and effort into the 2011 collaboration with DOT. When the BPCA asks, ‘what is your feedback?’ tell them that is our feedback.” This remark also sparked applause from the crowd.
Ms. Segarra continued, “the result is the BPCA comes, after two years, and starts this process by announcing a survey.” This was a reference to the 2015 decision by the Authority to undertake a new study of South End Avenue, which included not only traffic and safety, but also examined the broader streetscape. In this context, the BPCA’s evaluation (which included polls intended to gauge public opinion) also considered questions such as whether the arcades — a series colonnades that adorn the sides of four large residential buildings on the west side the street, stretching from Albany Street to the South Cove cul-de-sac — should be modified or eliminated, by converting them into new retail space.
Nick Sbordone, a spokesman for the BPCA, said, “our South End Avenue/West Thames Street study, rather than replacing the DOT’s previous suggestions for South End Avenue improvements, seeks to optimize them — and minimize attendant construction time — by taking a comprehensive look at potential improvements to the streetscape. This includes traffic and parking concerns, public amenities, and street vitality and appeal.”
“The most critical parts of this kind of outreach,” Ms. Segarra countered, “are the questions and the engagement that results. For example, wouldn’t you want to know whether these buildings receive frequent deliveries from online ordering services? If you don’t ask whether this is happening, you get limited information.” Ms. Segarra continued, “the premise is faulty because the survey was faulty. And if the survey has issues, then the recommendations are faulty. What’s the value in talking about these recommendations?”
The results of the surveys (which focused on residents, workers, small business owners, and tourists) were announced at the BPCA’s Open Community Meeting on July 20. The three recommendations based on these survey results, which were formulated by the Authority’s outside consultant, Stantec, were made public at two subsequent Concept Development Open House meetings: one on July 25 and another on August 1. (The BPCA has pledged to conduct further outreach and hold additional public meetings, the dates of which have not yet been announced. The upcoming meetings are slated to focus on two designs concepts, rather than the original three, both of which will incorporate community feedback. In the meantime, the Authority requests that interested members of the public submit ideas, opinions, or questions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In the first of the three options formulated by Stantec, the arcades remain open to the public, but are refurbished with new lighting, arched ceilings, and new signage for the stores within. At the same time, the sidewalks along the west side of South End Avenue are extended by 19 feet (the most of any of the three options), while South End Avenue’s roadbed is narrowed to 44 feet (from 64 feet). In this option, traffic flow remains the same as it is currently, but South End Avenue and West Thames Street experience a loss of 25 parking spaces.
In the second scenario, the arcades remain open and are revamped as described above, but also get an awning that extends out over the sidewalk, which is widened by 15 feet, while the South End Avenue roadway is narrowed to 44 feet. Under this version of the plan, traffic directions remain the same, but two new traffic islands are created: one starting at Liberty Street and extending south of the entrance to Gateway Plaza, and the other between the pair of Rector Place roadways on either side of the Rector Park Lawns. (The traffic island in front of Gateway is very similar to one proposed in 2013, which Community Board 1 fought hard to veto, because it would severely constrict vehicular access to Gateway Garage, which is already a chokepoint during the morning and evening rush hours.) This option entails a loss of 32 parkings spaces along South End Avenue and West Thames Street, with 62 remaining.
In the third version of the plan, the arcades are enclosed and become private retail space that extends to the outside edge of the columns. This option also widens the sidewalks along the west side of South End Avenue by 17 feet, while the roadway is narrowed to 40 feet. In this contingency, traffic flows are also significantly altered: Liberty Street becomes one way only (westbound) between West Street and South End Avenue; South End Avenue becomes one way only (southbound) between Liberty Street and Albany Street (with a dedicated left-turn lane as it approaches Albany Street); and Albany Street becomes one way only (eastbound) between South End Avenue and West Street. The number of parking spaces that would be lost under this version of the plan is unknown.
In all three options, the South End Avenue cul-de-sac (between West Thames Street and South Cove Marina) becomes a “shared street,” meaning that it is periodically closed to traffic and used for recreation. The National Association of City Transportation Officials defines a shared street as one that can be closed to, “function foremost as a public space for recreation, socializing, and leisure.”
At the September 6 meeting, Ms. Segarra continued, “to start fighting about recommendations doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you believe the premise of the studies. But the recommendations were put out, and 99 percent of reaction was negative.”
Although no one among the 100-plus local residents who attended the September 6 meeting spoke in support of the initiative to reconfigure South End Avenue, some Battery Park City residents see merit in the idea.
Margaret H. Liu, who has lived in Battery Park City for 25 years and operates a real estate brokerage on South End Avenue, says, “we own commercial space here. This street is a prime location, or at least it should be. Creating more commercial space, or enlarging and making more convenient the space that already exists, would be a value for the community.”
Ms. Liu adds, “we have a very wide street, which is too wide for so little traffic. At the same time, the sidewalks are too narrow for the number of many pedestrians. Some version of the BPCA’s plan would make the whole area more much livable. This is a huge plus for people who live here, work here, or do business here.”
David Goodman, who has lived on Rector Place for 18 years, said, “South End Avenue is a very wide street for New York City, and doesn’t have very much traffic compared to Broadway or Church Street. This is not very functional. It takes a long time to cross the street, and the extra space ends up being used by Uber cars picking up or dropping off, and people looking for parking.”
“I just got back from two weeks in Spain,” Mr. Goodman continued. “In the big cities in the southern part of the country, they dress up their streets with planters and flower pots in the middle. An island in the middle of South End Avenue would discourage taxis from zooming around and making fast u-turns. Something should be done, and it’s a little disappointing to hear people say, ‘we don’t want anything to change, it’s wonderful the way it is.’ There’s nothing wonderful to preserve there.”
At the September 6 meeting, Ms. Segarra invited residents to weigh in, saying, “we don’t want to act without your input, because that’s not the way we run.”
Heather Daly, a resident of 21 South End Avenue, said of the survey, “we have a disabled child and outreach to disabled community was particularly poor. Since Hurricane Sandy, Lower Manhattan has not had an accessible subway station, so we rely on Access-a-Ride vans to get our daughter to school. And there are three or four other disabled kids, just in our building, who also have vans pulling up every morning.”
Ms. Daly said that traffic islands, the possible closure of the South End Avenue cul-de-sac, or the loss of the arcades would be hardships (and a possible danger) to her child. “She has Rett Syndrome, which means she cannot control her body temperature,” Ms. Daly explained. “I’ve had emergency services to my home three or four times,” arguing that a delay caused by narrow streets or the closure of the cul-de-sac might prove deadly. “And the thought that she is going to have to use the garbage entrance for no reason is very upsetting. A lot of disabled people in this community rely on the arcades.”
A BPCA source responds that, “the first-floor building facades and storefronts — including the architectural arcades in those buildings of which they are a part — reflect but a limited portion of the broader set of streetscape features that the study was designed to consider.” The same source adds, “if we’re going to make some yet-to-be-finalized modifications to South End Avenue, dig up the streets, and do construction, we might as well take a holistic view of the streetscape, so that whatever is decided can be pursued at once, rather than in fits and starts.”
Pat Smith, who serves as president of the condominium board at Battery Pointe, said, “the whole premise of this thing was pointless. It means $272,000 is down the drain,” for the survey and the preliminary design concepts, “but all we need is a stop sign at South End and Rector. The next step will be a multi-million expenditure that will disrupt the whole community. The arrogance and the ignorance behind this borders on the criminal. Why didn’t they reach out to the community before they spent $272,000?”
In a separate series of related developments, the boards of four condominiums along South End Avenue have passed resolutions criticizing the BPCA initiative. Two of these resolutions also called for greater representation for residents on the board of the BPCA, and new leadership at the agency.
On August 2 and September 14, respectively, the boards of Battery Pointe (300 Rector Place) and Hudson View East (250 South End Avenue) adopted resolutions stating that they, “will in no way endorse or support any capital initiative of the Battery Park City Authority until a new chair has been named to the Authority Board and until at least two residents of Battery Park City have been named to the Authority Board.” On September 14, the board of Liberty Court (200 Rector Place) enacted a resolution saying, “it will in no way endorse or support the BPCA’s proposed redesign of South End Avenue.” On September 22, the board of the Cove Club (Two South End Avenue), passed a measure stating, “our unequivocal rejection of the proposed redesign.”
Noting that Battery Pointe was the first building to adopt such a resolution, Ms. Cuccia said, what they did was a very brave and strong step and I challenge other condominium boards to step up and make a statement.”
Maria Alvarez, a resident of 21 South End Avenue, agreed, saying, “all condo boards should follow the example of Battery Pointe.”
Picking up Mr. Smith’s point about the cost of the survey and initial designs, Ms. Meltzer noted that, “DOT did their analysis and study for free. They were going to pour the concrete for all the islands for free. The snag came because island needs greenery, which fits in with community and parks.” Ms. Meltzer noted that creating and maintaining these gardens within the traffic islands required agreement from the BPCA. She added, “it’s a novel idea to rethink the entire community, but those of us who live here moved here for the community that it already is.”
Maryann Peronti, who lives at 380 Rector Place, returned to questions about the survey, which led to the design recommendations. “They asked about the way you most often get around, and gave choices for walking, driving, taking a cab, or taking the subway. What’s missing? Buses! That wasn’t even on the survey.”
Jeff Mihok, co-chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, observed that, “distrust is the issue. The BPCA suddenly removed of Tessa Huxley from the Parks Conservancy, got rid of the operator at North Cove Marina, and forced out the Parks Enforcement Patrol officers. All of these decisions were made against the will of the community. This is another in a terrible set of ideas from an organization that has proved itself unworthy of trust. It’s crazy that we have to be telling an Authority that’s collecting so many millions of dollars from our community not to ruin it.” He added, “the Authority spent $272,000 to get 540 survey responses. That’s about $500 per response, which is absurd.”
Jane Mancino, a resident of 200 Rector Place, said, “it’s a stupid idea and a waste of money and takes away something that I like; a convenience that I want to keep,” in a reference to the possible loss of the arcades.
As the discussion at the September 6 meeting concluded, Ms. Meltzer reflected that, “this is a State agency, the BPCA, choosing the redesign part of the New York City without the input of the people who live here. The process needs to be driven by the community, rather than merely commented upon by community.”
A BPCA source responds that, “changes in or improvements to the South End Avenue/West Thames Street streetscape, if any, would only occur after all interested stakeholders — including residents, building / condo owners, area businesses, the City of New York, etc — have had the opportunity to provide input.”