The chair of the Youth and Education Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) is proposing that a seldom-used street in the Financial District, located at what will be the front door of a new public school, be turned into a pedestrian plaza.
At the November 17 meeting of the School Overcrowding Task Force (a joint panel convened in 2008 by elected officials representing Lower Manhattan, to ease the chronic capacity shortages created at local schools by Lower Manhattan’s skyrocketing population), Tricia Joyce presented the case for closing Edgar Street to vehicular traffic.
“This is a very narrow street, with a very narrow sidewalk, where there is almost never any traffic,” she said of Edgar Street, a one-block byway that connects Trinity Place and Greenwich Street, dead-ending at the Battery Parking Garage. (One reason that the street is so lightly trafficked may be that it leads to another dead end: the southern terminus of Greenwich Street.)
She noted that the street seems to serve mainly as a parking facility for three-wheeled police scooters, saying, “I’ve never seen a police officer in one of these, and I’ve never seen one move. They just seem to park there.” Recalling that she and a team of volunteers conducted an informal traffic survey of Edgar Street, she added, “the police scooters are the only traffic I’ve ever seen at this location. I have yet to see a car enter or leave the Battery Garage by this route.”
Ms. Joyce then correlated the underutilized street with what will, in a few years, be a massively overused sidewalk. This will happen when the new Trinity Place public elementary school opens, on the site of the former Syms clothing store. (The school is currently projected to welcome its first students in either 2019 or 2020.)
“With the size of this student body, there would be no way that parents with children will have enough space around this school even to be able to drop their kids off and stand outside,” she said. “The school will have almost 500 kids. But this is an elementary school, so 500 children means that many people, plus their caregivers. This translates to something closer to 750 or 800 people congregating there, every morning and every afternoon. There’s no way this area can accommodate those children being dropped off.”
Ms. Joyce also noted that safety may provide a more compelling rationale than convenience. “This is right outside the exit from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel,” she said. “Just steps away, on Greenwich Street, you have waves of buses moving uptown at speeds of 25 miles per hour or more.”
“What we propose is to have Edgar Street paved over, so that it can become the drop-off point for the new school,” she concluded. “It’s the only safe thing to do. I can’t imagine this not happening.”
Ms. Joyce noted that a scaled-back version of this plan would pave only the north side of Edgar Street (with its two westbound lanes), and leave the southern (eastbound) half open to vehicles. But she then outlined an additional benefit that would come from converting the entire street to a pedestrian plaza. “Elizabeth Berger Plaza, across Edgar Street from the new school, is going to be converted to a park,” she noted. “So converting Edgar Street into a pedestrian plaza would link the school to the new park, and make it safe for small children to use the park as an outdoor recreation space.”
She also noted recent, local precedent for such a project. “At the Peck Slip School, safety concerns have led to closing the street in front of the school to traffic during morning drop-off.”
CB1’s co-chair, Paul Hovitz, then asked the School Overcrowding Task Force, “is this unheard of?”
State Senator Daniel Squadron, who was chairing the November 17 session of the School Overcrowding Task Force, answered, “no,” and cited several examples of schools elsewhere in his district where streets have been closed (either entirely, or just during school hours) to accommodate a nearby school.
Ms. Joyce also noted that the City’s Department of Transportation, “has closed streets and made plazas out of them before,” even in cases unrelated to schools.
Mr. Hovitz added that parents and administrators at the Peck Slip School now hope to have the morning closure of their street expanded to what City officials call a “play street” — a thoroughfare closed to traffic for multiple hours during the school day, so that it can be used as an outdoor recreation space.
Senator Squadron observed that Edgar Street is a viable candidate for such a conversion because, “it’s a notoriously underutilized place.” He also noted that such a closure would require the approval of multiple City agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Education, and the School Construction Authority. The discussion concluded with agreement to invite representatives from all of these agencies to an upcoming meeting of the School Overcrowding Task Force to begin forging consensus on the future of Edgar Street.