Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005

Villager photo by Josh Argyle

Two buses drove through a section of Astor Pl. that would be closed to car traffic under the Department of Transportation’s reconfiguration plan. The buses turned left and parked briefly on Fourth Ave. Spots around the intersection are used as bus layover areas.

Astor Pl. plan avoids roadblock, clears task force

By Albert Amateau 

The Astor Pl. Task Force, which has been considering the city’s plan to reconfigure traffic at Cooper Park and to close Astor Pl. to auto traffic, voted narrowly on April 4 to support the plan with some major qualifications.

The plan, which also involves the expansion of Cooper Park, eliminating the southbound lane of Fourth Ave., expanding the Astor Pl. subway traffic triangle and creating a median strip along Third Ave., is so complex that the task force decided to vote on each section separately.

The busy East Village crossroads encompasses the major academic buildings of Cooper Union — including the future sites of Cooper’s proposed new high-rise projects — and a 21-story residential tower being completed by The Related Companies. The task force and the city Department of Transportation have been working together for six months to make the converging and accident-prone complex of intersections safer for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles.

Closing Astor Pl. to car traffic, the big sticking point at the April 4 meeting, won the support of seven members of the joint Community Boards 2 and 3 task force, with four against and one abstention, but the discussion leading up to the vote indicated the conflicting responses to the issue.

The closing won approval only on the condition that the Department of Transportation design the resulting plaza to avoid an unobstructed public space that would encourage noisy street activity, like impromptu concerts, amplified protests or rallies that would create havoc for neighborhood residents.

“We have never even seen a plan for the space that would result from the Astor Pl. closing,” said Bob Cohen, a Community Board 2 public member of the task force. “We just don’t want to encourage the kinds of things that kids with skateboards do who hang out at the Cube,” said Martin Tessler, the former Community Board 2 co-chairperson of the task force with Lisa Kaplan of Community Board 3. The Cube refers to the large black sculpture, “The Alamo,” located for more that 20 years at the triangle where Astor Pl. intersects with E. Eighth St. and Fourth Ave. but recently removed for repairs.

The task force resolution on Astor Pl. also called for the final design to maintain the Astor Pl./Stuyvesant St. view corridor and for recognition of the historic significance of Astor Pl. as a Native American trail and Dutch colonial wagon road. The task force also called for a way to ensure funding for maintenance of the pedestrian street.

The resolution also reflects the task force’s insistence on an expanded contiguous Cooper Sq. Park, which conflicts with the proposal, driven by the New York City Transit Authority, to break up the park expansion with roadways to allow flexible bus turnarounds and layover spaces.

The task force also wants a role in planning the expanded Astor Pl. subway triangle at Fourth Ave., adjacent to the Cooper Union engineering building on the east and Kmart on the west. “The redesign must include greenery and plantings, minimize hard surfaces and the opportunity for the noisy congregation of people, a problem which has historically plague spaces in this area,” the task force’s resolution says.

Members of the task force were also anxious about the proposed median between the north and southbound lanes of Third Ave. The cost of the median, whose preliminary estimates were considerably higher than the other elements of the project, was a specific concern. While most of the cost of the project would be borne by the federal government, the median cost is not included in the federal budget, according to Zella Jones, leader of the Noho Neighborhood Association.

In addition, the resolution urged D.O.T. to consider in its final plan the results of a traffic study currently being done by N.N.A.

The resolution will go next to the Transportation Committees of Community Boards 2 and 3 and then to the full boards for a final recommendation to the Department of Transportation. Nevertheless, the community boards’ recommendation is strictly advisory.

At a task force meeting early this year, D.O.T. distributed auto crash rates for 2002-’04 at the five intersections in the area. The worst intersection was where Astor Pl. meets E. 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 E. 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.

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