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Public Plaza Plan Drives Wedge in Kips Bay

By Mary Johnson | January 17, 2013 3:20pm

KIPS BAY — A plan to turn a three-block stretch of Second Avenue into a pedestrian plaza has driven a wedge between residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

Rival neighborhood organizations have circulated dueling petitions. One, which boasts a little more than 1,000 signatures, pushes for the project to move forward to create more public open space in the neighborhood. The other, with 961 signatures, blasts the project as a certain disaster, doomed to attract loitering vagrants and disrupt traffic.

The Department of Transportation, which runs the city’s public plaza program and has been investigating the site’s viability as a plaza, hosted a meeting this week that brought together more than 100 people to debate options for the space.

That discussion, led by representatives from the DOT, quickly devolved into a shouting match, with residents yelling over one another.

“I think this whole thing has really, really hurt this community so badly,” said Karen Lee, a member of the Kips Bay Neighborhood Association, who added that she has witnessed neighbors arguing about the project while walking around the neighborhood.  “I’m heartbroken about that.”

The idea of turning what is currently a three-block-long service road along Second Avenue between East 30th and 33rd streets into a pedestrian plaza goes back several years, but the project ramped up this past summer, when the strip was closed to traffic for three months as part of a plaza test run.

The Department of Transportation provided some barricades and removable furniture. Members of the Kips Bay Neighborhood Alliance partnered with the DOE Fund to keep the space clean and roped in various businesses and organizations to provide more than 30 neighborhood events from May to July.

DOT representatives have acknowledged on multiple occasions that the test run was far from perfect.

The site’s temporary barricades were vandalized several times, Emily Weidenhof, who works for the DOT’s public plaza program, said at the Monday night meeting.

Drivers unaware of the road’s closure engaged in illegal loading and unloading activity. And with 23,000 square feet of public open space to fill, the temporary plaza often looked too empty and open and, according to some critics, ugly, Weidenhof said.

But the DOT’s goal is to invest in making improvements to the site that will benefit the community, she explained.

“We saw a lot of interest in wanting a public space here,” she added.

Members of the neighborhood alliance and Community Board 6, which has passed a resolution in support of the plaza project, turned out to defend the plan at Monday’s meeting, praising it as an opportunity to offer new ideas that could be implemented as soon as this spring.

“There’s no green space in the area,” said Nicolas Stark, 23, whose parents live near the service road. “In my mind, an underused plaza is a nicer thing than an underused service road.”

Erica Silverman, a neighborhood resident and member of the alliance, agreed.

“The only place we have is the playground, and that’s only appropriate for people with kids,” Silverman said. “I think there’s a need for a space where the neighbors can congregate and be able to have events and even just meet and chat.”

But support is not universal.

Members of the Kips Bay Neighborhood Association, which is completely separate from the alliance, have turned out in force at Community Board 6 meetings and contacted various elected officials to rail against the plaza plan and blast the board for not weighing its concerns about safety, traffic and noise.

They worry that tables and chairs set up in the plaza will attract those living in some of the area’s homeless shelters and that the alliance, which would be the DOT’s maintenance partner for the site, has little to no experience keeping a large public space tidy and free of garbage and snow.

Molly Hollister, president of the alliance, acknowledged at the meeting that the plaza’s three-month test run this past summer was her organization’s first time maintaining a large public space.

And with the arrival of several large new retail tenants, including Fairway and Staples, residents are concerned that closing the service road will divert delivery vehicles to East 30th and 33rd streets, jamming up traffic on blocks that are routinely used by ambulances for the neighborhood’s hospitals.

“This is an urban environment. You have to be able to accommodate all of the uses,” said Lee, a member of the neighborhood association and a resident of Kips Bay Towers, a pair of massive residential buildings with some 1,100 units located along the service road.

“We know this neighborhood well,” Lee added. “We know that that plaza is not going to work in a service road. It’s the only one we have, and it’s the only one for the six stores out there.”

And although members of Community Board 6 have insisted in the past that the plaza project has the support of J.D. Carlisle, which owns the retail strip along the service road, a representative for the developer attended the meeting this week and said the company has not yet decided whether to support the plan or oppose it.

That could be a deal breaker as the DOT looks to move forward.

“They don’t have an opinion,” said John LaGratta, who spoke on behalf of J.D. Carlisle. “What they’re saying is whatever the tenants tell them to do as a majority, that’s what they’re going to do.”