BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated April 29, 4:10 p.m.: Soho residents slammed the door closed on a proposal to create open streets for more public space during the pandemic at a Community Board 2 meeting Monday night.
The open streets would primarily be for pedestrians’ and cyclists’ use, though motor vehicles would also be allowed onto them, but would have to drive at a slow speed.
During the meeting — held virtually on Zoom — locals argued that Soho is currently deserted anyway amid the pandemic, so there’s no need to create extra space for outdoor social distancing.
Many older residents also worried about a flood of people — especially those not wearing mandatory face masks, of which there are so many — flocking to the area and potentially infecting denizens.
Residents were further concerned that, if streets were largely closed to vehicles, not only would fire trucks and ambulances have difficulty getting through, but so would garbage trucks, FedEx, UPS and Postal Service trucks, taxis and grocery and medical-supply deliveries.
As for the longer-term, bigger picture, there was a strong fear that open streets would be a Trojan horse to create permanent pedestrian malls in Soho, flooding the high-profile district with even more shoppers and tourists, turning it into “Times Square South.”
However, Mark Dicus, executive director of the Soho Broadway Initiative business improvement district, said open streets would be a boon for hard-hit local merchants, bringing foot traffic when the economy reopens.
And yet, opponents countered that aiding business is not the impetus for the streets initiative.
Just hours before the C.B. 2 meeting on Monday, Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilmember Carlina Rivera had announced a plan to create 40 miles of temporary open streets throughout the city — with an eventual goal of creating 100 miles of them.
Local community boards are currently identifying spots for open streets in conjunction with the city’s plan, which is set to go into effect in May.
Showing the intensity surrounding the issue, Monday night’s online meeting of the C.B. 2 Traffic and Transportation Committee was attended by 134 people. Beforehand, the committee had made public a list of potentially suitable spots for open streets within the board district, many of them in Soho.
Board members said these streets were based on suggestions solicited from people within the district. That the list included Broadway surprised many residents since the street has a bus route.
The full initial list of proposed open streets in Board 2 included:
- Prince Street, from 6th Avenue to the Bowery
- Broadway, from Canal Street to Union Square
- West Broadway – LaGuardia/University Place Corridor, from Canal Street to 14th Street
- Mercer Street, from Canal Street to 8th Street
- Elizabeth Street, from Canal Street to Bleecker Street
- MacDougal Street, from Prince Street to 8th Street
- Bleecker Street, from the Bowery to 8th Avenue
- Bank Street, from West Street to Hudson Street
However, before the meeting, Soho residents deluged C.B. 2 with 150 letters opposed to their district’s streets being included in the plan. Meanwhile, during the virtual meeting, locals weighed in with spoken remarks, as well as in a running scroll of typed comments in the chat sidebar.
As the meeting went on, Shirley Secunda, the committee’s chairperson, eventually stated that the committee did not want to push open streets on communities that clearly did not want them.
After the meeting, the committee members then went into their executive session, during which they further discussed locations for the open streets, factoring in the community input from the meeting. Ultimately, all the suggested spots in Soho and Noho reportedly were withdrawn. The committee was looking instead at the West Village, where, at least up until then, there had been no opposition to the idea of open streets.
The committee’s revised list of proposed streets will not be made publicly available until the C.B. 2 full-board meeting on Thurs., April 30, Secunda said, adding that is the committee’s normal procedure.
During the public part of the meeting, David Gruber, a former C.B. 2 chairperson, expressed concern about bikes and cars sharing pedestrianized streets.
“I can’t believe that is not going to morph into a bicycle thoroughfare,” he predicted, saying he didn’t want to have to look over his shoulder for bikes and cars while walking on an open street.
Advocates and opponents of open streets argued back and forth over Soho sidewalk widths and whether the pavements provide enough space for social distancing. Longtime residents and activists Sean Sweeney and Pete Davies assured that Soho’s sidewalks are more than wide enough, especially Broadway.
Meanwhile, Mercer St. between Bleecker and Houston Sts. would be terrible for an open street, the antis said, since it currently has been narrowed during construction of New York University’s “Zipper Building” project on the former Coles Gym site.
“We are down to one lane on Mercer,” said Andrew Amer, president of the 200 Mercer St. co-op. “We have multiple people who have flu-like symptoms and might need emergency services. People need FreshDirect. You’re going to cut off residents from services they need.”
Vered Lieb, a 40-year resident on Mercer St., added, “We are now dependent for groceries and medications to be delivered by truck on Mercer St. If you close down this street to vehicles, you are effectively killing us and others.
“We sit on our fire escape and watch the street traffic as it is and many people are not wearing masks,” she added. “Increasing or directing foot traffic here will be a disaster.”
However, Michael Lerner typed that he fears the growth of pedestrian malls more than the lack of masks.
“Not afraid of people flocking to Soho with COVID-19,” he said. “Afraid this will become permanent (commercial interests support pedestrian malls).”
Barbara Backer was not happy about the prospect of sharing open streets with cyclists — or skateboarders.
“I am terrified of talking to bicyclists and skateboarders,” she said. “They either give you the finger or keep going. The skateboarders are in control of Washington Square Park. They are on the benches. The ‘No Skateboarding’ signs — they jump over them.”
Similarly, John Nivem said, “I almost get hit every day by cyclists. Nothing worse than the men coming from Rapha [bicycle cafe] on Prince St. dressed in sausage casing and [with] too much testosterone.”
Jon Shorr was concerned about health safety in the open streets.
“Who is going to set the protocol for these areas?” he asked. “Who will be policing the areas saying people should wear masks?”
Sheryl Woodruff, the community development director for the Washington Square Park Conservancy, spoke to the need for more open space Downtown. Social distancing in the park is getting harder, “particularly on nice days,” she said, adding, “As the weather warms, this will only get worse.
Sweeney, the executive director of the Soho Alliance, recalled how the city previously tried to pedestrianize Prince St. in 2008, but overwhelming community opposition defeated that plan. Instead, the city then turned its pedestrianizing sights to Times Square, he said, quipping about the “Elmos” and “Spider-Men” characters up there who harass tourists for money.
Getting a bit chippy in the chat section, Chelsea Yamada, an organizer with Transportation Alternatives, asked if Sweeney was the “wrestling cowboy,” possibly a reference to the Naked Cowboy.
Sweeney later said he refrained from typing a zinger of his own back at the cycling advocate.
“I don’t take crap from TA operatives,” he said, “so I was about to respond… . But I decided not to take her bait, a newbie to New York who can’t even identify the famous Naked Cowboy.”
However, in fact, according to Joseph Cutrufo, a Transportation Alternatives spokesperson, Yamada is a born-and-raised New Yorker who grew up in Stuyvesant Town.
Sweeney admitted he also bristled at one of the open-street advocates calling the opponents NIMBYs.
“But I am proud to be a NIMBY,” he told The Village Sun. “In fact, Streetsblog awarded me NIMBY of the Year in 2011.”
Regarding concerns that people from all over the city would descend on Soho and Noho to use the open streets there, Secunda explained the idea is for every borough to have its own share of open streets; that way, people would not need to travel far to find open areas for outdoor social distancing.
According to Sweeney, if the committee’s initial list of open streets had been approved, it would have equaled 10 percent of the 40 miles of open streets in the city’s first phase of the plan.
As for the talk of the open streets helping bring back foot traffic to local merchants, Davies typed in the chat section, “Why are we now talking about the reopening of street-level retail business? That is not what is being addressed in the current legislation proposed by Carlina.”
Similarly, Sweeney said the discussion of open streets in Soho seemed to be focusing a lot on the post-coronavirus landscape — when, in fact, the initiative’s stated intention is to help people, both physically and psychologically, to get through the health crisis right now.
“They are not planning for today,” the activist said. “They are planning for when the city opens up.”
Sweeney suspects Transportation Alternatives of being at least partly behind the push for open streets in Soho and Noho; and he added that the group has advocated for Broadway to be an open street.
But TransAlt spokesperson Cutrufo denied the group was behind it, though he did say they support the citywide open streets plan, in general.
“We’re as concerned as anyone about open streets becoming destinations,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been pushing for an expansive open streets network that stretches across the whole city, to maximize space and keep pedestrian density down.
“Every neighborhood needs enough open space to make sure people can get outside for some fresh air and exercise while sticking to physical distancing guidelines,” he said.
“If parks are crowded or nonexistent, we need to put our streets — which account for 80 percent of New York City’s public space — to use. Other community boards have come to understand this.”
Correction: The original version of this article quoted Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance calling Chelsea Yamada of Transportation Alternatives a “newbie” to New York. In fact, Yamada grew up in Stuyvesant Town. The article has been updated to reflect that fact.