Volume 74, Number 30 | December 01 - 07, 2004



Villager photo by Jennifer Bodrow

A confusing patchwork of traffic islands south of Peter Cooper Park would become a solid swath of pedestrian space under a new plan to improve Fourth Ave.

City proposes closing Astor Pl. and narrowing 4th Ave. for pedestrians

By Lincoln Anderson

Advocates of a proposal to reduce the street width on Fourth Ave. and possibly close part of Astor Pl. think it could improve pedestrian safety by reclaiming underused roadbed and shortening street-crossing times. But critics feel the changes could just cause more car traffic and would primarily benefit the area’s new development.

In 1995, the Department of Transportation was allocated federal funds for traffic improvements in the Astor Pl./Cooper Sq. area. D.O.T. had some ideas then, but plans were put on hold for lack of community interest.

With Cooper Union’s rebuilding plans and the area experiencing a development boom, D.O.T. has dusted off the plans and started a community review process. Last month, D.O.T. met with the Astor Pl. Task Force, a joint committee of Community Board 2 and 3 members, for an information session on the project. Although that meeting wasn’t open to the public per se, the Astor Pl. Task Force’s ongoing monthly meetings are open to all.

At the Task Force’s Nov. 8 meeting, D.O.T. officials presented a map (see Page 4) showing a preliminary idea of what is envisioned. Areas shown in green on the map represent where roadbed would be replaced — most likely by sidewalk. The plan includes narrowing Fourth Ave.’s north end and eliminating its south end, where there is currently a dangerous and confusing archipelago of small traffic islands. D.O.T. contends Fourth Ave. is underused by cars and can be trimmed.

In addition, Astor Pl. between Lafayette St. and Fourth Ave. would be closed to cars, joining the traffic island with “The Alamo” sculpture — known by most as “The Cube” — with the block to the south where Related Companies’ stylish, new Gwathmey Siegel-designed apartment tower is being completed. The Astor Pl. subway kiosk island would also be widened.

A median would be added on Third Ave. between E. Fourth and Ninth Sts. In addition, two existing bus stops would be relocated and a bus layover area added on Fourth Ave.

Martin Tessler, of Community Board 2, and Lisa Kaplan, of Community Board 3, are the Task Force co-chairpersons. Tessler said everything is still in preliminary stages. Though a harsh critic of Cooper Union’s general large-scale development plan — which legalized zoning changes for the school’s ambitious development plans — Tessler is keeping an open mind on the traffic proposal.

“We’re really staring from square one here,” he said.

David Crane, chairperson of Community Board 3’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, said he’s sure the Task Force won’t recommend exactly what D.O.T. has presented. In general, he supports the plan, however, feeling it will “regularize intersections” by creating rectangular crosswalks, which will increase pedestrian safety. Personally, Crane said he doesn’t support turning all the new green areas on the map into sidewalk, feeling this could become “noisy” — as at “The Cube,” where crowds of skateboarder kids often hang out, clacking up a racket performing their tricks.

The amount of federal funds allocated for the project is $500,000. It’s a “use-it-or-lose-it” situation, Crane said, meaning the funds won’t go elsewhere in New York City if they’re not used for this project, but will go back into the federal coffers.

Crane said D.O.T. would like a decision by February or March, by which time the Task Force should have wrapped up its work and the two community boards made their recommendations.

In the meantime, he added, “The more public input, the better.”

Another part of the equation is Peter Cooper Park, which could potentially be expanded. The Rockefeller Fund has given a $50,000 grant to review the park’s redesign. On Nov. 29 and 30, Cooper Union and the American Institute of Architecture held a forum on the park at A.I.A.’s LaGuardia Pl. center.

Tom Cocola, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said the goal is to make the area safer for pedestrians.

“We are working with Community Boards 2 and 3 for a proposed pedestrian enhancement plan from E. Ninth St. to Great Jones St.,” Cocola said. “In late October, we met with members of both community boards and discussed many options, including adding pedestrian space throughout this area, particularly along Cooper Sq. and the park.

“Board representatives will now meet internally and then meet with us again — with workshops over the next several weeks — and then we will reconvene with this group after the holidays. Although absolutely nothing is completely set yet, we do hope to begin implementation of this plan in the spring. Our main goal is to provide more pedestrian space and to enhance pedestrian crossings — make them safer. We also are looking at bus layovers in the area and how to make the park even more community friendly.”

Explaining the map released by D.O.T., Cocola said, “It leaves the green color subjective — near the park, it could be grass, but, generally speaking, it would be pavement — but we also would reserve the right to place planters in various areas.”

Asked what Cooper Union hopes will be done with the area’s streets, Claire McCarthy, the school’s spokesperson, said, “It’s really too early. I think D.O.T. made a very thoughtful presentation. We look forward to the next Task Force meeting and seeing this plan unfold.” For its own general large-scale development plan, Cooper Union’s planning consultants several years ago proposed closing Astor Pl., but dropped the idea in the face of community opposition.

One vocal critic of the proposal — or a specific part of it — is Christabel Gough, secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City. A member of the Task Force, she believes closing Astor Pl. is a mistake.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “In fact, some people believe it was an Indian trail. The reason it’s so short is that it was broken off — it used to go through Washington Sq. and up to the West Village where there was an Indian encampment, Sapokanikan, near Gansevoort. It also lines up with a road that used to go to Peter Stuyvesant’s place — Stuyvesant Pl. Those streets have been there a long time and make it more interesting. And I think closing off the road in front of ‘The Cube’ is a terrible idea — just to give the new [Related] building a front yard.”

Gough said D.O.T. has been “talking vaguely about safety concerns” around Astor Pl., but she’s skeptical and asked the agency to provide statistics on accidents. She also said it’s her understanding the Village Alliance business improvement district supports closing Astor Pl., wanting all traffic to be directed down Eighth St.

Honi Klein, the BID’s executive director and a member of the Task Force, denied it, though. “I can’t possibly imagine where you heard that,” she said. “We were just presented with the really preliminary plans at the Astor Pl. Task Force last month by the Manhattan [D.O.T.] commissioner. I certainly never said we should eliminate the road by ‘The Cube.’ I never have said one word for or against, because the plans are so preliminary. That’s an outrageous rumor.”

Told of Klein’s response, Gough said, “At the meeting she spent a lot of time talking about how the traffic that now takes Astor Pl. could be accommodated on Eighth St. and how Eighth St. is not crowded. Perhaps I read too much into those remarks.”

Last Thursday, Alexandra Militano, a Board 3 member, said that morning she had noticed a traffic-counter cord lying across Astor Pl. and figured it was part of the study on closing the street.

Anna Sawaryn, of the Coalition to Save the East Village, has complained about the preliminary meetings with D.O.T. — there were at least two — being closed to the public and says the process has been generally secretive.

However, Tessler said of a D.O.T. informational session held in July: “It’s not the secret thing that Anna makes it out to be. It was a clearing-the-air meeting that had to be had.”

David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, bristled at the idea the board was keeping the public out of the process.

“As long as I am chairperson of Community Board 3 there will be no secret meetings,” he assured.

Added Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, “The meetings are on our Web site. They’re on the agenda. And anybody can go.”

Sawaryn additionally thinks any traffic changes should wait until after all the planned new projects — which she says will only bring more cars to the area — are built, to better gauge their impact. An office tower is planned on the site of Cooper Union’s Engineering Building, and Cooper Union will soon rebuild and enlarge its Hewitt Building.

“They’re separating everything out,” she said. “It should be brought all together and discussed as one package.”

The next Astor Pl. Task Force meeting is Mon., Dec. 6, at New York University’s Silver Building, 32 Waverly Pl., Room 621, at 6:30 p.m.

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