Volume 78 / Number 8 - July 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

A conceptual draft of “Village Plaza,” a new pedestrian public space that would replace a confusing and dangerous merging zone between E. Fourth and E. Sixth Sts.

Astor Pl./Cooper Sq. traffic plan is ready to roll

By Gabriel Zucker

A traffic redesign of Astor Place and Cooper Square in the works for decades seems finally ready to start moving fairly soon, with construction expected to begin as early as this winter. The city’s Art Commission is scheduled to consider a conceptual design for the project next month.

The latest version of the plan, which largely dates back to 2005, involves reclaiming large amounts of street space for pedestrian use. The renovation includes a realignment of Cooper Square from Sixth St. to Astor Place, with the street being thinned and made one-way northbound. The thinner avenue will provide new space alongside Peter Cooper Park, and will create a two-block-long plaza space almost the same size alongside the Bowery, extending down to E. Fourth St.

In addition, Astor Place will be closed to cars between Fourth Ave. and Lafayette St. where it passes “The Alamo” cube sculpture. On the opposite side of Fourth Ave., Astor Place will also be realigned with Eighth St., creating even more pedestrian space. The traffic island for the northbound No. 6 train will be doubled in size.

As part of the capital project, the city Department of Transportation will also be installing medians along Third Ave. to facilitate pedestrian crossings on the blocks between Fourth and Ninth Sts.

According to a D.O.T. document on the plan, “the proposed design will improve outdoor public spaces, expand green spaces, reduce conflicts between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and add a traffic median along Third Ave.”

These goals are especially important in the East Village, one of three regions in Manhattan that D.O.T. has classified as being in dire need of public spaces.

Three years after Community Boards 2 and 3 approved most of D.O.T.’s Astor Place/Cooper Square proposals in terms of street geometry, David Crane, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Transportation, Environment and Public Safety Committee, said he was glad to see the process finally get underway.

Street area due to become new pedestrian plaza and park space in the Astor Place/Cooper Square plan is shown in green on the map above.

“I have a concern that if this doesn’t start soon, they’re not going to do it because there’s a city budget crunch,” said Crane. He cited that budget crunch as the reason behind the sudden reappearance of the proposal, which neither board has heard mention of since 2005.

“They lost millions of dollars of federal money because they dragged their feet for decades,” Crane said. “Now the city is doing it with city funds and those are drying up, too.”

The rush to get the project underway was more unsettling to Shirley Secunda, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee. Secunda said she felt the landscaping design might suffer from the lack of community input. The design plans are only in the conceptual draft phase.

“We’re stuck with not being able to have a real impact into this plan,” Secunda said. The two community boards do not meet in August, so the Astor Place Task Force will not be able to discuss the plans prior to the upcoming Aug. 6 meeting of the Art Commission. Secunda was skeptical that the city would be open to input after their preliminary Art Commission meeting. Some task force members would be sending a letter to D.O.T. before the Aug. 6 meeting, she said.

“There are many things I like about the plan,” said Secunda. A professional urban planner, she referred to D.O.T. as, in many ways, the “good guys.” But, she added, “We really haven’t had any time to sit down, to talk, to deliberate.”

Secunda had expected the two Astor Place Task Force meetings in June and July would allow members of both community boards to express their concerns regarding the landscaping in the plan, but found instead that the city spent most of the time at the meetings giving presentations and answering questions.

Even so, she admitted, “I think we’ll be able to work it out.”

City agency officials denied that the community boards would be shortchanged in the process, given that representatives would still meet with the boards before the Art Commission reviews the final plans in December.

J.R. Martine, a spokesperson for the Department of Design and Construction, which is working on the plan, stressed that the current designs are “very preliminary.”

“We don’t want to move forward with the project if the community doesn’t feel like they’ve had a voice,” Martine said.

Matthew Monahan, D.D.C.’s assistant commissioner, said he was also still expecting responses from the local community.

A D.O.T. spokesperson likewise felt that the boards would have their say.

“We met with the community boards earlier this week, and will continue to work with them, as we would like their support when we go to the Art Commission,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail last week.

Crane didn’t think C.B. 3 had lacked input, though he said he was aware that some C.B. 2 members were worried.

“I don’t believe there is a concern like that at all,” he said. “I want them to get this done; they heard from us three years ago. The idea that the community board should be listened to at every point is a fantasy.”

Conceptual designs were released this month, showing new plantings and uses of each of the four new public spaces.

The traffic island with the northbound No. 6 train entrance will get new seating, according to the design, which features a bench-lined path running through a new “grove of trees.” The popular MudTruck concession will remain.

The island to the south of the subway island — which will be expanded across the closed portion of Astor Place — will be an “open plaza defined by trees” with a “focus on The Alamo sculpture.”

The closing of one block of Astor Place proved the most contentious item in the renovation plan when it was discussed in 2005; although the full board of C.B. 3 and the joint C.B. 2 and C.B. 3 Astor Place Task Force narrowly approved the measure, C.B. 2’s full board, which voted piecemeal on the measures, did not fully endorse closing Astor Place. C.B. 2 cited concerns over the destruction of the Stuyvesant St. view corridor, “recognition and incorporation of the historical significance of Astor Place and the Indian trail path which it follows,” and “concern for the avoidance of areas that would allow for the gather of person who would use the open space for noisy street activities…that would negatively impact the surrounding residential area.”

Secunda, who is also co-chairperson of the Astor Place Task Force, supported C.B. 2’s previous resolution, but said she felt D.O.T. should consider the board’s critiques regarding landscaping for the new public space around the section of Astor Place that would be closed.

“Some people are concerned that there at least be a reference to that Indian trail,” said Secunda, regarding the historical trail that ran diagonally along Astor Place and that predates Manhattan’s grid system.

She also said some at C.B. 2 might appreciate landscaping that would diminish the appeal of the new spaces for noisy activities, or at least designs that would mitigate some of the noise.

Traffic impacts should not be a concern for closing Astor Place, however, according to Secunda, given that D.O.T. car counts showed “not even a handful of cars going through.”

Peter Cooper Park will see an expansion. It will remain a “shady, enclosed park,” according to the plan, but with more trees and bigger, more inviting entryways on the park’s north and south edges. Crane felt that “it will be a much improved park” following renovations.

Arguably the biggest change will be the creation of what the design dubs “Village Plaza” — the two-block long triangular space that is currently an extended merging zone between E. Fourth and E. Sixth Sts. The conceptual draft designates Village Plaza as a “sunny, open plaza,” with two possible sets of programming, each featuring a tree-lined perimeter, a grassy expanse at the center and a kiosk.

The pedestrian-friendly changes along Fourth Ave. at the intersection of Sixth St., Cooper Square and the Bowery will replace a tangle of vehicle lanes and pedestrian islands.

After officials from D.D.C., D.O.T. and the Parks Department meet with the Art Commission on Aug. 6, they will meet in the fall with the community boards to go over more detailed plans, before returning to the Art Commission for a final review in December.

While some community board members may feel bypassed by parts of the city’s process, Secunda ultimately felt that the city — in reclaiming a significant amount of space for pedestrians — was, in fact, doing what C.B. 2 would have wanted, anyway.

“We really have got a pedestrian plan with this whole street geometry,” she said, adding, “We consider ourselves the mavens in reclaiming street space.”

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