Volume 77 / Number 50 - May 14 - 20, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photos by Katie DeWitt

Above and below, the new Gansevoort Plaza, with added stone slabs, evocative bollards and Meat Marketgoers pausing to sit on some of the slabs.

Meat Market plaza plan is not ‘breast’ idea, some say

By Katie DeWitt

Some are celebrating it as a reclaimed pedestrian space and a welcome amenity for local residents and tourists. Others, like longtime neighborhood resident Erik Wensburg, are questioning the “mammary motif” of the circular bollards. But everyone agrees that the once-chaotic and hazardous five-way intersection at Gansevoort St. and Ninth Ave. is no longer what it used to be.

Less than a month ago, construction was completed on the new Gansevoort Plaza in the heart of the historic Meatpacking District. The cobblestone intersection, formerly a bottleneck clogged by truck and taxi traffic, now is home to an array of scattered tree planters, stone slabs conducive to sitting and bollards with white reflectors on top resembling, in the eyes of some, a female breast. Meanwhile, traffic flow has been reduced to a single lane.

The project is the fruit of a community-based effort that began in 2005 with the recognition that the Meatpacking District was moving farther away from its traditional uses and toward a new identity as a center for nightlife and upscale shopping, with all the traffic that accompanies such a change. A group of community leaders formed the Greater Gansevoort Urban Improvement Project to spearhead a ground-up initiative to address their concerns about traffic, safety and preservation of a neighborhood that had been designated a historic district by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003.

After three years of extensive community outreach and close collaboration with the city’s Department of Transportation, the traffic-alleviation project was executed in a matter of weeks. With the arrival of spring and the influx of pedestrians and outdoor diners to the Meatpacking District, local residents and business owners are experiencing firsthand the immediate effects of the final product.

Community Board 2, which covers the area between 14th St., Third Ave./the Bowery, Canal St. and the Hudson River, actively supported the project and was involved in each step of the visioning and design process. C.B. 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman attributed much of the ease with which the project was facilitated to D.O.T.’s willingness to work with community members at a very local level.

 “What was path-breaking was that we reclaimed space that was formerly for cars and pedestrians, and we did it in a way that came from the ground up,” Hoylman said. “I see it as a model for the future development of public space.”

Florent Morellet, who owns a restaurant on Gansevoort St., headed up the G.G.U.I.P. steering committee with Jo Hamilton, a Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation trustee. Morellet identified the project’s major triumph as the explicit prioritization of pedestrians in a neighborhood that has transformed from transit-dependent to a destination in and of itself.

“I have seen so many people sitting on the blocks and meandering in the plaza feeling comfortable and safe, and it’s clear that taxis and cars are now driving in a pedestrian area instead of the other way around,” Morellet said of the new pedestrian-friendly plaza. “A couple of people complained to me that it took them forever to get to my restaurant in a cab at 1 in the morning, and I said to them, ‘Did it ever occur to you that you could have walked that last block?’ ”

But for David Rabin, co-owner of nearby restaurants Los Dados and Lotus and president and founder of the Meatpacking District Initiative, an organization that represents more than 200 local businesses in the vicinity between 16th to Gansevoort Sts., the strict limitation on automobile traffic may not bode well for business year-round.

“The notion of increasing pedestrian use is an admirable one,” he said. “But, if I own a restaurant or a shop and it’s a cold and rainy evening during the holiday season or in February, I want my customers to be able to get to my front door. But I am glad that D.O.T. seems willing to continue the process and work through these issues.”

The plaza is a temporary D.O.T. project that will continue to be shaped by community input and available funding down the line. The streetscape improvement was paid for out of D.O.T.’s budget, with contributions by M.P.D.I. for additional plantings. M.P.D.I. has assumed responsibility for the plaza’s maintenance for the meantime. However, M.P.D.I. ultimately hopes a formal business improvement district, or BID, is approved for the area, after which a funding stream will become available for streetscape maintenance. M.P.D.I. is four months into the roughly 18-month process to gain approval from the city to form a BID.

For now, M.P.D.I. will be distributing a survey to local residents and business owners to solicit feedback on the plaza’s design and use. The organization will then compile these results and submit them to D.O.T. for review. The space is currently being considered for outdoor events and a weekly Greenmarket.

Some active residents, however, have already informally let their opinions be known, expressing concerns over the choices of materials used and design scheme. Marge Colt, vice president of the Horatio Street Association, pointed specifically to what she called the “defacement” of the cobblestone street, the “senseless” traffic pattern and the “conflicting” seating designs.

“I think the whole thing is an abomination,” Colt said. “It looks like it has been thrown together by people who have no design experience. And the breasts must go.”

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has not yet conducted a formal assessment of the new plaza. But G.V.S.H.P.’s executive director, Andrew Berman, acknowledged that the design might be a bit “more elaborate” than many community members had expected. A crucial piece of his organization’s involvement with the project was to ensure that the cobblestone streets’ character be maintained, something Berman’s group will be examining carefully in the upcoming months.

An additional issue some community members have raised is that the plaza may promote loitering and other “undesired” uses in the evening hours. Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of the Community Board 2 Traffic and Transportation Committee, acknowledged that people have voiced this fear, but said he has heard nothing to corroborate it in reality.

“Being younger and part of the nightlife around here, I’ve been out there after midnight and I’ve seen nothing worse than the usual drunken revelry that was already here before,” Dutton said.

The plaza’s pedestrianization may actually create a safer space at night because of the increased number of eyes on the street, rather than in cars, added community activist Zack Winestine.

While many have already passed judgment on the plaza one way or the other, it’s still early in the process of an ongoing dialogue, stressed Annie Washburn, M.P.D.I.’s executive director. While she believes some changes need to be made, she said she also hopes neighbors understand that some design decisions with which they may not agree had to be made because of D.O.T. regulations.

“Every time they make a decision, they have to make sure a fire truck can pass through or a street sweeper can fit in the lane,” Washburn explained.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held this Fri., May 16, at noon in the plaza with Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Representatives from D.O.T.’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner’s Office will attend to discuss the details of the design process. D.O.T. is not commenting on the project until that date.

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