In a meeting at the LES Tenement Museum last week, business owners, property owners and residents got up close and personal with a scale model of Orchard Street. While they might have enjoyed playing with the miniature trees and benches, it was not all fun and games. The point was to help come up with a master plan for the historic shopping district.
The workshop was organized by the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which will eventually take a blueprint for the blocks from Canal to East Houston streets to Community Board 3 and city agencies for approval. The event was facilitated by Pilot Projects, a design firm on Eldridge Street that has already worked with the BID on other initiatives and has partnered with organizations such as the Bowery Mission.
Quite a few business owners were represented at the Thursday night session, including Andrew Chase and Erwin Schottner of Cafe Katja, gallery owner Lesley Heller, Alice Goldberg Wildes of Mendel Goldberg Fabrics and Mike Little of Lost Weekend. In the final stage of the workshop, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer stopped by to check out what she called a “hands on, community minded way to make a better community.” Examining the tabletop model, Brewer, a self-professed community planning geek, exclaimed, “this is so exciting!”
In a brief presentation, Scott Francisco, Pilot’s founder and director, explained that his firm had already surveyed the existing conditions on the block and collected quite a bit of feedback from various stakeholders. He said it’s clear no one wants to undermine Orchard Street’s distinctive character but that many people agreed safety and cosmetic improvements should be made. Reinforcing this point, BID Executive Director Tim Laughlin said, “right now, as a whole, the street doesn’t work very well together.” Results from two recent surveys show many businesses and residents are concerned about parking regulations, about the lack of bike parking and about automobile congestion by commuters who use the street to get to the Delancey corridor and the Williamsburg Bridge.
After a short brainstorming session, participants broke up into smaller groups to focus on each block making up Orchard. The BID already has $60,000 in funds allocated by City Council member Margaret Chin to plant trees. Once the master plan is finished, more money could be available from the Council, as well as from the Borough President. Francisco encouraged people to weigh in on a variety of potential design choices, including types of benches and plantings, the wisdom of creating more curb cuts for pedestrian safety and what kinds of bike racks should be used. He suggested that new trees and other foliage could be thought of as mini-parks, which potentially could be cared for by community groups and used as educational and engagement opportunities.
As these types of visioning sessions go on the Lower East Side, it was a remarkably conflict-free evening. That’s not to say there were not differences of opinion. Some expressed a desire for more curb-cuts, which the city has been using in recent years as “traffic calming” devices. Goldberg Wildes, who operates one of the LES’s oldest businesses, said she’s seen people hurt as a result of the Department of Transportation street changes. “I hope we’re concerned about businesses,” she said. “All my customers come by car.” Others warned that more outdoor seating could lead to late night congregating from people leaving bars. Susan Stetzer, the community board’s district manager, suggested the BID look at portable seating that could be removed at night.
Next up: Pilot Projects will complete the surveying and come up with a plan. The model will be reconstructed in the BID’s office for everyone to see. There will be more chances to offer feedback later in the spring when the proposal is expected to be heard before CB3’s transportation committee.