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Avenue of Midtown Plazas Could Be Connected by the Summer

By Mary Johnson | March 27, 2012 7:41am
Once connected, the plazas will allow pedestrians to travel all the way from West 51st street to West 57th.
Once connected, the plazas will allow pedestrians to travel all the way from West 51st street to West 57th.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Plans to connect a series of privately owned public plazas across a section of Midtown gained rousing public support in a meeting of Community Board 5’s transportation committee on Monday night.

The committee voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting the project, which Community Board 5 first proposed to the Department of Transportation last year.

Now, representatives from the DOT say crosswalks to provide safe connection between the public arcades — which should cost a total of about $60,000 — could be in place as early as this summer.

"We do think connecting these spaces is a very good idea," said Josh Benson, the DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian program director. "It’s worth it just to serve the thousands of people who use this already."

The privately owned public spaces — a concept that became widely known when Zuccotti Park rose to national prominence — were created when the buildings were constructed and are required under law to remain open to the public during certain hours of the day.

The configuration of Midtown plazas, which Benson called a "uniquely pleasant way to cross through Midtown," stretch between Sixth and Seventh avenues and run from West 51st to West 57th streets — forming a mid-block, pedestrian-only thruway broken only by the streets that cross in between them.

"What we found is that when people cross the street here, they have to kind of duck out between cars and look for traffic," Benson said.

Several hundred people cross those mid-block intersections during peak, lunchtime hours, Benson said. At 51st Street, the busiest spot on the Midtown corridor, Benson said roughly 1,200 people an hour traverse around midday.

A few blocks north, at 55th and 56th streets, that number is about 200 pedestrians an hour at peak times.

And every time these hundreds of people cross the streets, they put themselves at risk, Benson said.

To improve safety and encourage more people to use the arcade spaces, the Department of Transportation has proposed creating mid-block crosswalks that will link the plazas.

Some crosswalks will be raised, like speed humps. Others will not, due to utility issues, Benson said. But they will all be clearly marked, with street signs to let people know what Midtown block they have reached through the passageways and stop signs to halt traffic for pedestrians.

Members of the Community Board 5 committee questioned the potential impact those stop signs will have on vehicles passing through the area, which Benson said would be negligible.

"We very much want the traffic to flow," Benson said.

But in the resolution committee members proposed on Monday night, they plan to ask the DOT to return to CB5 in the fall to discuss the changes and how they are impacting streets.

There were also questions raised about the potential for lost parking, as the crosswalks will prohibit it on either side to facilitate pedestrian crossings. Benson said there will be a net-zero loss because whatever spaces are lost in creating the crosswalks will be replaced with new spaces in other Midtown locations.

Members of several Midtown block associations attended the meeting on Monday and praised the plan. Some were unaware of the public plazas on 56th and 57th streets, which require passersby to enter a set of doors before they reach the open space. But all said they use the public arcades at some point along what has been referred to as “6 1/2 Avenue.”

"I’ve always wondered, ‘Where are the crosswalks?'" said Jane Tsighis, a member of the 54th/55th/56th Street Block Association.

"I really love the safety idea," said Phyllis Cox, a member of the 54th/55th Street Block Association, noting that crossing mid-block can be dangerous.

Raju Mann, chair of the CB5 transportation committee, called the plan "fairly ambitious and exciting," and said it was heartening to see the DOT take a community suggestion and bring it to life.