MANHATTAN — A Little Italy merchants group has dropped its controversial request to extend a summer street mall in the face of accusations it filed phony petitions in support of the expanded fair.
The Little Italy Merchants Association, which has coordinated the Mulberry Street Mall on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day since 1995, filed petitions last month from what they claimed were 71 supporters of a one-block extension of the mall between Broome and Kenmare streets. The group said the extension would help draw additional foot traffic and business.
But of the 63 people contacted by staffers from Community Board 2, "only five people admitted they had actually signed the petition," district manager Bob Gormley said Thursday.
CB 2's street activities committee had backed LIMA's application on Feb. 2 despite opponents who argued the extension would bring noise, trash and traffic problems. The board was set to vote Thursday on whether to issue final approval.
But when CB2 staff investigated the signatures, they found several red flags, including eight signatures that listed duplicate addresses or were obviously written more than once by the same person, Gormley said.
Twenty-nine people he spoke with said they never signed the petition. Eight of the numbers Gormley called did not work, he said. Another eight people said no one by the name on the petition lived at that address. Four people did not speak English.
At another six phone numbers, Gormley could not leave messages. At eight numbers, Gormley left messages but no one returned his call.
"This reflects badly on LIMA's credibility," Gormley said.
LIMA president Ralph Tramontana said in a statement Thursday that the organization did not collect the signatures on its own, but instead left the petitions with merchants on Mulberry Street to do so on its behalf.
"We left it up to the store owners on the block in question to ask their customers to sign," Tramontana said, adding that he did so because the petition was intended to create a "weekend street closure of Mulberry Street in a effort to boost foot traffic in a one-block area that has trouble keeping store fronts open."
The group did not attempt to verify the signatures, a LIMA spokesman said.
George Aminov, owner of Barber's Blueprint at 181 Mulberry St., said he and his employees, and tenants of the building where he works, collected about 20 of the petition's signatures.
"I went door-to-door and had some people helping me," Aminov said, adding that he had no reason to believe that any of the signatures were fake.
LIMA will apply again next year for an extension to the Mulberry Street Mall — which currently stretches from Canal Street to Broome Street — if residents and merchants request it, Tramontana said.