Volume 74, Number 39 | February 2 - 8, 2005

Closing part of Astor Pl. key part of traffic scheme

By Albert Amateau

The Astor Pl. Task Force last week heard Department of Transportation officials explain the latest version of the city’s plans to reconfigure the converging and accident-prone streets around Cooper Sq.

The joint Community Boards 2 and 3 Task Force meeting on Jan. 24, led by Lisa Kaplan of C.B. 3, was the latest in a series that began in October grappling with plans to make the intersections safer for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles and to expand the triangular Peter Cooper Park.

The area is a busy East Village crossroads that encompasses the major academic buildings of Cooper Union — including the future site of Cooper’s proposed new nine-story academic building and the future site of an office tower to be developed on Cooper’s current Engineering Building site — and a 21-story residential building being completed by The Related Companies on a former parking lot leased long term from Cooper.

D.O.T. officials at the meeting distributed diagrams with auto crash rates for the 2002-’04 period at the five intersections in the area. The worst intersection was where Astor Pl. meets Eighth St. at Third Ave., with a total of 65 crashes, of which five involved pedestrians and eight involved bicycles. Another danger point was where Ninth St. crosses the convergence of Lafayette St. and Fourth Ave., with 36 crashes, of which six involved pedestrians. The Ninth St. intersection at Third Ave. had 37 crashes, of which four involved pedestrians and three involved bicycles.

Margaret Forgione, D.O.T. Manhattan borough commissioner, said the plan was intended to eliminate the conflict between cars and people and to simplify traffic patterns. It also seeks to provide crossings that are as near as possible to where pedestrians actually walk, she said.

The city’s preferred plan for the area calls for closing Astor Pl. to vehicle traffic for one block between Lafayette St. and Fourth Ave. The plan also proposes narrowing Fourth Ave. to enlarge and extend Peter Cooper Park south to E. Fifth St., and widening the subway kiosk island north of “The Alamo” cube sculpture between Eighth and Ninth Sts.

The plan envisions a median separating the Uptown and Downtown lanes of Third Ave. between Sixth and Ninth Sts. and between Fourth and Fifth Sts. Bus layover space is also contemplated along the east side of Fourth Ave. from the north side of Sixth St. to the south side of Ninth St. and along the west side of Lafayette St. north of Eighth St. to the south side of Ninth St.

Members of the task force, however, were worried about transforming the stretch of Astor Pl. between Lafayette St. and Fourth Ave. into a pedestrian way that would encourage noisy gatherings of students, street performers and demonstrations.

“If you close it [to vehicle traffic] it will be ideal for all kinds of nuisances,” said Bob Cohen, a neighborhood resident and public member of Community Board 2. “The area has Union Sq. just to the north and is a focal point for noise, with bands and demonstrations — it would be a disaster for the community,” Cohen said.

Another neighbor suggested that transforming the stretch of Astor Pl. into a virtual plaza in front of the residential tower currently under construction would lead future residents to think of it as their own private property.

Nevertheless, Forgione said the space could be designed with plantings to create a public walkway that would discourage groups from standing around. She also responded to the objection to closing Astor Pl. to vehicles made by Christabel Gough, a preservation advocate, who discovered the street was originally a stretch of a Native American path and later a Dutch Colonial farm road.

“We don’t see why keeping it open to cars makes it any more appropriate to its history as a Native American footpath,” Forgione said.

Kit Hodge, of Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group, commended D.O.T. for proposing Astor Pl as a pedestrian way. Ian Dutton, a public member of the C.B. 2 Transportation Committee, also supported closing the block to auto traffic. “I’m shocked that we’re even thinking about preserving a barren street,” Dutton said.

Several neighbors complained that rats infest Peter Cooper Park and urged a complete reconstruction of the triangular space. Namshik Yoon, Parks Department chief of operation for Manhattan, told the meeting he wasn’t sure that a park reconstruction could be included in the D.O.T. project, but he pledged to work with Transportation officials to address the rat problem. An abandoned, underground comfort station in the park is blamed as the cause of the infestation.

D.O.T. estimates the cost of the entire project at $7.3 million, with the cost of various segments ranging between $580,000 and $2.9 million. Forgione promised to meet again with the task force on Feb. 28.

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