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Pedestrian Plaza Plan for 97th St. and Columbus Ave. Draws Mixed Reactions

By Emily Frost | July 25, 2013 4:39pm
 Some locals did not react positively to the idea of new tables and chairs on the sidewalk to create a pedestrian plaza. 
New Group Proposes Pedestrian Plaza for 97th Street
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Locals are advocating for a strip of sidewalk along 97th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues to become a pedestrian plaza similar to those created by the city in Herald and Times Squares. 

Residents have formed a group they're calling Friends of Stryker Park — named after the Stryker family, who once owned the land in the 1800s — and making the pedestrian plaza their first project. 

"We noticed that this block is very wide. It’s a sea of concrete, it’s bleak," explained Bob Leonard, one of the group's co-founders, at Community Board 7's Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday, where the idea was first presented publicly. 

"We want to transform [the block] into a park. We want to do a pilot program with tables and chairs and umbrellas and plantings to create a nice amenity for the neighborhood," he explained.

The Department of Transportation is on board with the plan and said it would support a pilot program starting in September.

The tables, chairs and plantings would all be moveable, said DOT project manager Emily Weidenhof, and the DOT would ensure a maintenance and trash pick-up plan was in place. The Columbus Amsterdam BID has volunteered to partner with the group and provide cleanup services, she added.

While the DOT is supportive of the plan, at least a half-dozen community members voiced strong opposition to the idea. They noted that the group's presentation was not on Community Board 7's public agenda and that if it had been, there would have been more residents present to oppose the plan. 

"With all the development that’s happening in that area, this is not an area that is not being utilized," said board member Lillian Moore, who said she completely opposed the idea. "This may be one of the few areas where people actually have room to walk."

While Widenhof reassured those assembled that the sidewalk was five times the size of normal sidewalks, allowing for a modest amount of seating, residents voiced concerns about the number of schools in the area and the flow of students. 

"That street is one of the few places for children to run around and play," said nearby resident Avery Brandon. "The last thing you want in a neighborhood is to have it more congested."

But the board regularly approves sidewalk cafes that take up public sidewalk space, board member Ken Coughlin noted.

"I’ve noticed a certain resistance to change, and I noticed there’s some weird resistance to [using] public spaces," Coughlin said of the strong negative reaction to the plaza. 

The proposed plaza is so close to Whole Foods that some recommended having the grocery store pay for it instead of using public money. 

"Many years ago Whole Foods came to us and asked for a café, and we said no effing way," said co-chair Andrew Albert. 

The DOT rep and group members tried to reassure board members and residents that all they are proposing is a trial. 

"Nothing is set in stone. This is a pilot program. If it’s something that doesn’t make sense, it’s not something that has to move forward," said group member Danny Perry. 

The board agreed that since no public outreach had been done it would table the discussion until September when a larger hearing on the idea could be held at the monthly transportation committee meeting.