Volume 78, Number 52 | June 3 - 9, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

An alternative plan to redesign Chatham Square, by the Civic Center Residents Coalition, above, would make fewer changes than the city’s proposed plan, below.

Advocates renew call to block Chatham Square plan

By Julie Shapiro

Politicians and activists opposed to the city’s plan for Chatham Square rallied last Wednesday afternoon to prevent the project from getting funding.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson, City Councilmember Alan Gerson and others want the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to withhold the $31 million the city plans to use for the $50 million project.

“Everyone has stood up and said this is a bad idea,” Thompson said at a press conference outside of the L.M.D.C.’s office. “I urge the L.M.D.C. to hear the voices of the community, because the city is ignoring those voices.”

The community has many objections to the content of the city’s plans, but last Wednesday, Gerson focused on the process instead. He said the city has not put the project through enough public review, so the L.M.D.C. should withhold its contribution, which is earmarked for city transportation projects. Specifically, Gerson said the city failed to make the Chatham Square plan available in public libraries and hold a public comment period on the plan, as is required.

“The city has a lot of leeway, but not total leeway,” Gerson said, regarding how the administration spends L.M.D.C. money. “The input that was required has not been fulfilled.”

The city Department of Transportation declined to comment on Gerson’s charges.

Mike Murphy, an L.M.D.C. spokesperson, said that so far, the city is in compliance with the terms of its agreement with the L.M.D.C. on the money. But that process is not complete, and the city has not received any money yet, Murphy said. Work on Chatham Square is scheduled to start sometime this summer with the installation of a water main. City officials have said previously that adjustments to the plan could be made after work begins.

The Chatham Square reconstruction is widely reviled in Chinatown, and Community Boards 1 and 3 both opposed it. The city wants to realign the seven-way intersection to connect East Broadway to Worth St. and the Bowery to St. James Place, essentially cutting off Park Row, which has been closed to traffic since 9/11.

The community objects to the project because it makes the Park Row closure more permanent. Local residents are also concerned about how small businesses in Chatham Square will fare during the three years of construction, and they are unconvinced that the plan will bring about the traffic and pedestrian improvements the city has promised.

Gerson also called on the L.M.D.C. to hear a presentation on the community’s alternative Chatham Square plan at an upcoming board meeting. The city presented its plan to the L.M.D.C. board earlier this year.

Murphy declined to comment on Gerson’s request.

The community plan for Chatham Square would leave the intersection largely unchanged, except for a new one-lane road directly connecting St. James Place to East Broadway. Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer who is a candidate for public advocate, said the community plan would improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety while minimizing the impact on the neighborhood.

Scott Gastel, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said in an e-mail that the community plan would not work.

“Chatham Square is in need of significant changes that will mitigate traffic congestion and improve safety,” Gastel said. “The proposed changes will not accomplish that,” he said, referring to the community plan.

Siegel said the L.M.D.C. had a history of ignoring the community. But Gerson and the others focused criticism on the administration, and said the L.M.D.C. now has a chance to serve as the check and balance on what they call the city’s largely unilateral policy.

During the press conference, Gerson stood alongside two of four challengers for his Council District One seat in this fall’s primary. Margaret Chin and P.J. Kim did not speak during the press conference, though Chin briefly took the mic afterward. Gerson acknowledged them during his speech, keeping it friendly.

“This is about a community united,” Gerson said.

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