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Union Square Makeover Praised, Though Critics Remain Unconvinced

By Jill Colvin | September 6, 2011 6:28am | Updated on September 6, 2011 12:16pm
Parsons students Nadia Oesterreich and Paloma Canut enjoyed a cup of coffee in the new Union Square pedestrian mall shortly after the plaza opened.
Parsons students Nadia Oesterreich and Paloma Canut enjoyed a cup of coffee in the new Union Square pedestrian mall shortly after the plaza opened.
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DNAinfo/Olivia Scheck

UNION SQUARE — Last summer, furious residents packed community board meetings, outraged over plans to transform the northern end of Union Square.

In addition to turning East 17th Street into a one-way street between Broadway and Park Avenue South, the city proposed adding nearly 13,000 square feet of new pedestrian plazas as part of a plan to improve a core artery and improve pedestrian safety near the square.

Some called the plan overblown. Others warned of chaos. When Midtown Community Board 5’s transportation committee voted in its favor, people stormed out of the room.

But nearly a year after the transformation, the city says the $500,000 makeover has been a clear success.

In a new report presented to CB5 last month, the Department of Transportation touted a series of improvements to the neighborhood, which had long been a hot-spot for accidents with 95 pedestrian injuries recorded between 2004 and 2008, according to city figures.

A cyclist travels the wrong way along East 17th Street.
A cyclist travels the wrong way along East 17th Street.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Along Broadway, they said, speeding is down dramatically between 19th and 20th streets, from more than a quarter of vehicles to 12 percent.

While the DOT will not have a full safety report until later this year, “Speed is key, especially for crashes,” spokesman Joshua Benson said.

Congestion has also eased along some stretches, including 18th Street where eastbound traffic now moves 14 percent faster between Sixth Avenue and Irving Place, according to the DOT.

Many had feared that closing East 17th Street to east-bound traffic would create a surge on East 18th. Some now complain of growing traffic on East 22nd Street, where some cars appear to have moved.

But for many residents and business owners, the benefits are clear.

“It’s been very helpful for the business,” said Kosta Tsoulos, 46, who owns Goodburger restaurant on Broadway and said that many customers now take their meals to go so they can eat outdoors on the new lime green chairs and tables scattered through the plaza space.

A survey of 60 local businesses by the Union Square Partnership found three-quarters of owners and managers support the traffic changes, with 20 percent reporting the plazas had boosted business.

“Either they liked it or they had no opinion,” Seth Taylor, director of economic development at the partnership told the board.

Residents also applauded the new pedestrian space.

“I think it’s a great idea,” East Village resident Barry Blitstein, 48, told DNAinfo as he flipped through a newspaper while enjoying a sandwich on the plaza during a break from work.

“I like the concept,” agreed Joel, 75, who's lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years but declined to give his last name.

He said the plazas make the area more appealing and act as an extension of the park.

“It seems to be a little less chaotic than it was,” he said.

According to the DOT, the new configuration has drawn substantial new bicycle traffic, and cut wait times in half for pedestrians crossing at the north-west end of the plaza where the crosswalk is now shorter and the "walk" time more than twice as long.

But problems remain. Many now complain about cyclists barreling the wrong way along East 17th Street, where a green-painted bike lane runs alongside a pedestrian path with no barrier between.

Of the 27 cyclists DNAinfo counted over twenty minutes one recent evening, only two were observed riding legally in the well-marked lane.

Residents are also frustrated by the large number of people who make illegal left turns from Union Square West onto 14th Street.

Lisa Kaplan, chief of staff for City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, said the office has seen a spike in complaints from residents about cars honking as drivers stop to consider whether they should break the law.

The enduring problems have also left some of the redesign's staunchest critics unconvinced.

“It doesn't seem any better to me in terms of pedestrian safety,” said lawyer Milton Meyers, a 20-year resident of 18th Street and Irving Place who had testified against the plan during the hearings.

While he acknowledged that traffic on 18th Street hasn't slowed like he feared, he complained of the situation on Broadway, which he said gets blocked constantly by double-parked and other stopped cars because the roadway is now so narrow.

Artist Silvia Kolbowski, who collected more than 300 neighborhood signatures opposing the plan, had warned it would create "nothing but chaos.” A year later, she said, her fears have come true.

“I find that area so confusing, I try to avoid it,” said Kolbowski, who said she is most distressed by the situation on the north-east side of the plaza, where the bike lane crosses the pedestrian lane with no traffic light.

“It is a major accident waiting to happen,” she said, adding that she’d witnessed seven or eight near-misses in recent months.

She also takes issue with the design of the plazas, which feature dozens of giant planters placed along the street.

"The Disney-like planters are not what has made Manhattan iconic. Those pedestrianized areas could be anywhere, in any city, town, or mall anywhere,” she said.

Her husband Kenneth Frampton, Columbia University’s Ware professor of Architecture and an expert it twentieth-century architecture, also faulted the design as ad hoc.

“Removing one traffic lane and leaving it empty is absurd,” he said. “If they wanted to change it they should have done it properly and expanded the north side of the square.”

The DOT is now working to make the traffic changes and plazas permanent.