Union Square Pedestrian Plaza Project Gets Green Light Amid Protests

By Patrick Hedlund on June 22, 2010 1:07pm 

A rendering of the proposed redesign of E. 17th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue on the north side of Union Square.
A rendering of the proposed redesign of E. 17th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue on the north side of Union Square.
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NYC Department of Transportation

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

MANHATTAN — A plan to rejigger the roadways north of Union Square to create more pedestrian-friendly streets is moving forward despite cries from a group of residents claiming the conversion will cause a traffic nightmare in their neighborhood.

Dozens of residents turned up at meeting of Community Board 5’s transportation committee Monday night to discuss the Department of Transportation’s pilot project, which will restrict traffic to one-way westbound on 17th Street and modify Broadway north of the square to add more pedestrian space.

The conversion also includes a handful of changes to the surrounding side streets, including rerouting eastbound traffic to the residential 18th Street as part of the larger goal of discouraging drivers from using Broadway as a major thoroughfare.

The plan had been tweaked since its April unveiling based on input from local residents — including keeping Broadway open to through traffic between 17th and 18th streets. Still, some stakeholders claim the proposal is being rushed through.

“I don’t think there’s a person in this room who doesn’t think this plan is being rammed down people’s throats,” said Mitchell Falber, a lawyer for the owners of ABC Carpet & Home on Broadway between 18th and 19th streets.

Throughout the contentious, two-hour-long meeting, residents from the area claimed the DOT didn’t do enough to consult with them and failed to publicize data public forums about the project.

A major sticking point for neighbors is the expected surge in traffic that will end up on East 18th Street instead of Union Square. Southbound drivers will be forced to turn left on East 18th Street from Broadway.

The DOT acknowledged that the stretch would see a 10 to 20 percent increase in vehicles due to the road changes, and has proposed eliminating a lane of parking nightly on the north curb to create an extra lane for through traffic.

Still, the move wasn’t enough to quell fears about a backup of cars on the residential block, as well as the possible impact on emergency vehicles traveling from a firehouse on 18th Street between Broadway and Fifth Ave.

Looking west along 17th Street near Union Square's north end, which the city will convert to a pedestrian mall with restricted car traffic.
Looking west along 17th Street near Union Square's north end, which the city will convert to a pedestrian mall with restricted car traffic.
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Getty Images

“We’re confident we’ll be improving the situation rather than making it worse,” the DOT’s Ryan Russo told the hostile crowd.

Many also took issue with the pedestrian plaza area slated for the east side of Broadway between 17th and 23rd streets.

Some believe the project — which has been pitched as a way to add more safety measures at the bustling northern end of Union Square — is actually part of a broader plan to convert that stretch of Broadway into the next car-free zone similar to Times Square and Herald Square.

DOT representatives said the community will have a say in how the plaza takes shape and that street furniture won’t necessarily be plopped down the way it was in Times Square and Herald Square.

Some neighbors requested the plan be stalled so they can further analyze it and provide more input, but the committee ultimately voted to approve the project after the DOT said it couldn’t evolve much more.

“I wouldn’t call it a democratic process,” said one neighbor, who claimed residents were left out of the planning process. “The DOT, in my opinion, has not acted in good faith,” she added.

Eric Petterson, co-owner of the popular restaurant Coffee Shop on Union Square West, said he agreed wholeheartedly with the city’s plan to address the traffic conditions on 17th Street but couldn’t support the project in its entirety.

“Do I agree with what’s going on on Broadway?” he said. “I don’t.”

Following the committee’s vote, howls of betrayal from local stakeholders echoed throughout the room as they stormed out of the meeting.

“You sold us out!” said ABC Carpet & Home president Paul Chapman to committee members.

The board plans to revisit the project three months and six months after its implementation to weigh its effects on the area.

The DOT said it is still working out a time frame for when it will begin the conversion.

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