A committee of Community Board 3 expressed bewilderment and dismay last night that the city has apparently held up the controversial reconstruction of Chatham Square without making any kind of official announcement.
The project, reviled by Chinatown residents and opposed by Community Boards 3 and 1, as well as elected officials, was supposed to begin this summer. The delay came to light a week ago on the blog of the Civic Center Residents Coalition. Citing a tipster, the blog said the board of the Chinatown Consolidated Benevolent Association got the news in a private meeting with a Department of Transportation commissioner. The DOT later told Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office that bids for the project had not gone out. This, in spite of the fact that the DOT said back in February that it would not consider changes to the plan because the request for bids would be made in a matter of days.
Last night, CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer said the DOT declined an invitation to appear at the transportation committee meeting. The committee passed a resolution expressing disappointment with the handling of the issue and requesting new negotiations with the community about the Chatham Square plan.
Jan Lee, representing the Chinatown residents, expressed outrage that the city did not officially announce the delay, calling it "completely unacceptable." He requested an investigation to determine whether the DOT broke any laws by failing to notify the community about a major decision affecting so many people.
In today's edition of the Downtown Express, a city spokesman said, "the project is not suspended or shelved… we are working on some timing and coordination issues." But there was no mention of when construction might begin.
Just a couple of weeks ago, neighborhood groups and politicians rallied at the offices of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, demanding it withhold $31 million earmarked for the project. City Councilman Alan Gerson, City Council candidate Margaret Chin (Gerson's rival) and City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson were among those attending the rally. Last night, the CB3 committee discussed adding language to the resolution implying that mayoral politics could have been behind the decision to delay the project. They speculated that work on Chatham Square would resume soon after the election in November. But ultimately it was decided that would be unwise.
The city's plan for Chatham Square would reconfigure a seven way intersection that is both dangerous and confusing to motorists. They would connect East Broadway to Worth St. and the Bowery to St. James Place. In the process Park Row, which has been closed to traffic since 9/11 due to security concerns would be permanently cut off.
People in the community believe the plan will actually make congestion in the area worse, create a more dangerous situation for pedestrians and strangle local businesses during the long construction period. They have submitted an alternative proposal, which would leave most of the intersection as it is but connect St. James Place to East Broadway. The city rejected their plan, saying it would not address the traffic flow problems.
Since bids have not gone out for the first part of the project, Stetzer said it's unlikely construction could begin for at least six months. Members of the committee said the DOT "has not kept good faith" and has discounted community concerns at every turn. They hope the delay will now give the residents of Chinatown what they have been seeking for so long: a chance to be heard.
You can read more about the alternative plan for Chatham Square, proposed by residents, here.