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Harlem Residents Fight Plan to Narrow Lanes on Deadly Boulevard

By Jeff Mays | July 11, 2012 7:23am
Julius Tajiddin, founder of the grassroots group Preserve Harlem's Legacy, collects signatures at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 125th Street to stop planned DOT safety changes to the boulevard such as narrowing the lanes.
Julius Tajiddin, founder of the grassroots group Preserve Harlem's Legacy, collects signatures at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 125th Street to stop planned DOT safety changes to the boulevard such as narrowing the lanes.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Starting in August, the Department of Transportation will begin a series of safety improvements to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard — one of the most dangerous streets in Manhattan — by adding dedicated left turn lanes, left turn signals at major intersections and widening and extending medians.

But one of the new measures, narrowing the lanes of what is considered one of Harlem's most grand boulevards, has some area residents up in arms.

One group has collected more than 300 signatures against the change, calling it further proof of Harlem's rapid gentrification. The chair of Central Harlem's Community Board 10, too, is calling on the DOT to halt the change and hold more community meetings about the plan.

"Everything they want to do we support except narrowing the lanes. This is a big change for the community," said Henrietta Lyle, the community board's chair. "Putting all of the other safety measures in place would help."

Julius Tajiddin, founder of the grassroots group Preserve Harlem's Legacy, said he received enthusiastic support when he began circulating a petition on the issue. He said a history of protests and parades that occur along the boulevard, such as the African Day Parade, Mother's Day Parade and African-American Day Parade, make it special.

"They are gentrifying the boulevard. It was always meant to be a grand, full boulevard. We've used it for parades and rallies, both religious and political. That means there is a certain history attached to the look of the boulevard," Tajiddin said.

"If you make it look like Midtown with pedestrian plazas, it loses that history," he added.

The boulevard also has a history of being one of Manhattan's most deadly streets. With three fatalities in the last year, the boulevard, also known as Seventh Avenue, is more dangerous than all but 12 percent of the borough's roadways, according to the DOT.

"While Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. encompasses the very heart of Harlem, it also has seen some of highest levels of crashes citywide, including 12 pedestrian fatalities from 2006 to the present," DOT spokeswoman Nicole Garcia said in a statement.

The average age of pedestrians killed on the boulevard since 2006 is 59, and many lived blocks from the accidents. There were only two fatalities on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and four on Lenox Avenue, the two adjacent roadways, during the same period.

"Through public meetings and community outreach, DOT has created a new design for the boulevard that provides safer left turns and safer pedestrian crossings," Garcia added.

The proposals to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard come as the city expanded so-called slow zones to 13 neighborhoods across all five boroughs, including Corona in Queens, Riverdale in The Bronx and Inwood in Manhattan. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard is not among the areas scheduled for changes.

Calls for better safety measures to the boulevard increased in June 2011 after Leonia White, 89, who was wheelchair-bound and nearly blind, was killed when a pickup truck hit a livery cab, jumped a curb, and slammed into her at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and West 145th Street.

City traffic studies have shown cars traveling as fast as 52 miles per hour in the evening and 39 miles per hour during daylight hours. One study found that between 56 percent and 84 percent of vehicles tracked on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard were, depending on the time of day, speeding.

The DOT said more than 50 percent of the vehicles on the roadway were speeding every time they studied the boulevard.

The width of the lanes contribute to the feeling of the street being a highway with higher speeds, officials have said. The lanes on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard are 12 feet wide, whereas most city street traffic lanes are 10 feet.

Pedestrians, meanwhile, said motorists fly through the boulevard with no regard for people crossing the street.

"The ones driving down the boulevard don't know what pedestrian means," said Carrie McFadden as she prepared to cross West 144th Street at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard with a friend who used a cane. "They hit 70 and 80 miles per hour."

The DOT has held multiple community brainstorming sessions on how to increase safety on the boulevard. They have also installed countdown clocks, which shows pedestrians how many seconds they have to get across the street before the light changes.

DOT revealed their full plan to CB 10 in May.

Vera Wood, who uses a cane, walked with McFadden across the boulevard at West 144th Street. She said the countdown mechanism has made her feel safer but "the cars still don't give pedestrians the right of way."

Even with their safety concerns, both women said they liked the way the boulevard looked and wanted it to remain unchanged.

"As far as I'm concerned, it can stay the way it is," McFadden said.

State Senator Bill Perkins said he'd like the DOT to take the feelings of community members into consideration before making the changes.

"This is part of the historical landscape of Harlem and is comparable to Park Avenue," Perkins, comparing the boulevard to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, said. "When you mess with it, you have to come correct or stir concern among people who have suffered displacement and seen other iconic places in this community violated."

Tajiddin said there are plenty of other safety improvements that DOT can make. The lane markers are worn away, he said, along stretches of the boulevard, such as at West 133rd Street. Overgrown foliage from the center median blocks traffic lights in the median at some intersections such as at 126th street, too, he added.

But with letters of support from more than a dozen community groups, DOT officials said they will move forward with the changes beginning in August.

Sheena Wright, president and CEO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem Hospital, and Derek Broomes, president and CEO of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, have all written letters of support for the changes.

DOT has already agreed to adjusting signal timing during off-peak hours and reducing the number of blocks along the boulevard that will be affected by the changes.

"We will continue to work with the community board as we move ahead with the plan," Garcia said.

But Perkins said he will ask the DOT to slow the process down.

"You can't look at these places that people care about with no emotions and no vision of the history here," Perkins, speaking as he crossed Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at West 125th Street, said. "This is not just bricks and mortar or tar and cars."