It seems like every day we hear about another public program or project endangered by the city and state budget crisis. It appears the unfinished Allen Street pedestrian mall face-lift can now be added to the growing list.
Earlier this week, city officials updated members of Community Board 3 on the project. Randy Wade of the Department of Transportation said her agency has completed the reconfiguration of Allen and Pike Streets, redesigning automobile and bicycle lanes, closing selected intersections and tinkering with traffic signals. Now it’s up to the Parks Department to finish the job – adding landscaping, seating and other enhancements meant to transform 13 blocks below Houston Street into the Lower East Side’s “Champs-Elysees.”
Unfortunately, she told CB3’s transportation committee, funding is only in place for four of the 13 blocks. The transformation of this uninviting stretch between the LES and Chinatown was the result of a grassroots community visioning process led by the Hester Street Collaborative and the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. Former City Councilmember Alan Gerson called Allen Street a dangerous and detrimental eyesore.
In 2008, one block (between Delancey and Broome) was rehabilitated, thanks to a $1.1 million grant awarded to the Lower East Side BID. The Parks Department is expected to begin work on three more blocks sometime soon, and CB3 was told, the Parks Department is seeking federal funds to finish the project.
Some neighborhood activists say, at one time, city officials told them there was enough money to complete work on up to eight of the pedestrian malls. It’s not clear why that number has apparently shrunk in recent months. We’re told Rep. Nydia Velazquez has been trying to secure more federal funding (we have a call into her office for details).
The Parks Department also approached City Councilmember Margaret Chin for financial help. Chin’s director of legislative affairs, Jake Itzkowitz, said the request was turned down, due to the high price tag ($1 million per block — far in excess of the Council’s resources even in a good year).
The financial predicament holding up the project was not the main focus of the DOT’s presentation this week. Their appearance was intended to update CB3 members on the street reconfiguarion and its impact on motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Wade said a short-term study (over six months) showed the changes have made several intersections safer and have led to improved traffic flow. Injuries at Allen and Broome, for example, were down 57%.
One business owner, Alice Goldberg of Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, was sharply critical of the changes. She said they had caused gridlock, due to the reduction of one lane in each direction on Allen Street, and confusion about the new traffic signals. Goldberg said the configuration makes it almost impossible for emergency vehicles to get through. She urged the city to remove the “connector” at Hester Street, enabling cars to make a left-hand turn. Goldberg also said the center pedestrian island should be removed, since it has become a gathering place for “drug dealers and bums.”
Bob Zuckerman, the newly appointed executive directior of the Business Improvement District, said he’d heard concerns from other business owners. He said John Snyder of Il Laboratorio del Gelato questioned the wisdom of reclaiming the center islands for park space. Zuckerman said Snyder wonders whether residents and visitors really want to spend time sitting on a bench in the middle of a heavily trafficked street.
CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer pointed out that the BID had been a big advocate of the Allen Street Mall project, and that the community had many opportunities to weigh in on the design. Zuckerman said the BID had not formulated a new position on the malls. While he acknowledged the sentiments of certain BID members, Zuckerman added he is still learning about the issues.
The Hester Street Collaborative published a report detailing the community visioning process for the Allen/Pike Mall project. You can read it here.
We have contacted the Parks Department to find out more about the funding dilemma. We’ll let you know if and when we have their response.