By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — Drivers on 34th Street will be given only two lanes of traffic under a makeover plan that includes new express bus lanes and 18,000 square feet of new pedestrian space.
The plan, which was unveiled by the Department of Transportation to a group of community leaders Monday evening, is intended to ease congestion and speed bus travel along the notoriously busy stretch.
The plan calls for the street to be divided into five lanes between Third and Ninth avenues, with a dedicated bus lane running in each direction from the FDR Drive to Twelfth Avenue. Cars and other vehicles would travel east and west in single interior lanes.
The last lane, which would shift from the north to south side of the street, would alternate between loading and unloading zones, right-turn space and sidewalk extensions, dubbed "bus bulbs" where bus stops and seating would be placed.
East of Third Avenue and west of Ninth avenue, the wider roadway would include loading zones and new pedestrian spaces on both sides of the street.
"As we know, 34th street is a street that is just not working today,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who had originally envisioned a much more ambitious plan that would have included a pedestrian plaza between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
The department announced the plaza idea had been scrapped earlier this month after months of criticism from local residents and business owners who worried barriers would cut them off from the street.
The current plan calls for 300 loading and unloading commercial parking spots — seven times more than the number today, officials said.
And while concerns remain about the location of the loading zones and whether two lanes will be enough to handle traffic on the street, overall, the plan received a much more positive reception than previous incarnations. Residents praised the department for addressing many of their concerns.
"It’s certainly an improvement over the initial design," said City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who said that the new plan should help to improve the curb-side access problem.
"34th Street is screaming for an overhaul and it is clear that DOT took heed of the community’s concerns," he said, adding that "the gridlock on 34th Street is definitely not going to get any better on its own."
Mark Thompson, the chair of Community Board 6, also called the plan "impressive."
"It's much better than the last one. Really improved," he said.
But not everyone was happy, including George Haikalis, co-chair of vision 42, a group that wants to see 34 Street transformed into green space from the Hudson to the East River.
"It's better than what we had, but it's definitely not a miracle on 34th Street," he said of the plan. "We're going to put a little pavement, nudge it a little. It's not a vision, it's an accommodation."
West Village resident Maria Hansen, who is blind, also called on the city to beware that new, unusual street configurations present serious challenges to the visually impaired.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who also praised the current plan, stressed that the version presented Monday was only a "first draft."
"The process doesn’t end tonight. It's really just the beginning," he said.
The DOT will now begin a traffic study and environmental review. It expects to have a final version ready to present by late 2011 or early 2012. Curb-side bus payment and bus lane camera enforcement are set to begin later this year, with construction planned for 2012.
The public will have a chance to weigh in at two meetings later this month. The first will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 30 at the Norman Thomas High School at 111 E. 33rd St., and the second will be held on March 31 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the New Yorker Hotel at 481 West Eighth Ave.