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Soho residents close ranks against open streets

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. 

Broadway looking south from Prince St. was nearly totally empty on Saturday afternoon, April 25. (Courtesy Soho Alliance)

“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.

Soho residents suspect that business interests were pushing a plan for open streets in Soho and Noho. (Photo by Anonymous Soho)

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.

14 Comments

  1. Susan Wittenberg Susan Wittenberg April 29, 2020

    Preserves SoHo’s NIMBY reputation
    All New Yorkers should be embracing the idea of open streets for all right now. This action by the Soho Alliance strayed from its long time role as an important progressive community action group. It took a reactionary elitist / carve out my affluent neighborhood position. Of the 150 letters, one has to wonder how many are residing in Soho during sheltering in place. Yes things are quiet during the week now compared to other areas. But this anger toward “other people” feels disappointing and very misguided in spirit.

  2. Carl Rosenstein Carl Rosenstein April 29, 2020

    Another nail in the coffin

  3. Marguerite Marguerite April 29, 2020

    This is getting to be a broken record with Cory always proposing more bikes & fewer cars. The L train Repair More bikes & fewer cars, coronavirus more bikes & fewer cars He obviously is not doing this to support the people that were so good to him before TA

    • VLM VLM April 29, 2020

      “So good to him” = $$$

      Keep on trying to bribe politicians to avoid a better New York before all you selfish boomers croak! I’m sure you’re almost there.

      • Tim Tim April 30, 2020

        Lol how much budget do you think TA has? Bribe a major politician budget? I’m going to guess no.

    • Charles Charles April 29, 2020

      His name is spelled Corey

  4. Lou Read Lou Read April 29, 2020

    I live in SoHo and support the proposal.

  5. Penelope G Penelope G April 29, 2020

    Corey Johnson was just on MSNBC up in Times Square at the pedestrian plaza saying how we need more open space and why his push to close 100 miles of streets is necessary,
    Guess what? There wasn’t a single person using the pedestrian plaza. Not one.
    So who does he think he is kidding? The existing ones are not being used. Why create more, Corey? To keep transportation alternatives pleased with you?

  6. Steve Steve April 29, 2020

    Sean Sweeney, born in Ireland and who bought a place in SoHo at a time when you didn’t have to be an investment banker to afford one and who now is probably worth millions and millions of dollars, telling Chelsea Yamada, a New York native, that she’s a “newbie” whose opinions don’t count as much as his is everything that’s wrong with New York City politics these days.

  7. Otto Barz Otto Barz April 29, 2020

    Although the question was put on the chat portion of the meeting multiple times by multiple askers, there was no clarification as to how “temporary” open streets (closed streets, actually) would be. Idiocy remains forever.

  8. Robert Green Robert Green April 30, 2020

    I live in the neighborhood. I want this. Every day I walk and there is simply not enough room to socially distance, especially when I have my dogs.

    Boomers who got real estate rich in soho in the 70s have turned into a death cult, with a rictus-like grip on their property values over everything else.

  9. Axel Kramer Axel Kramer May 1, 2020

    i have lived in the neighborhood since 1992 and I strongly support the proposal to open up streets for pedestrians and for cyclists. I think the streets proposed are good, I think having continuous east-west and north-south routes are great. maybe also useful to consider pedestrian only areas, and cyclist only roads.

  10. Allen Prusis Allen Prusis May 2, 2020

    I am 62 and live in the South Village. Having open streets would be GREAT and a positive thing for the neighborhood and the city. Pedestrians need more space than is available on the sidewalks — particularly now given social distancing. It’s time to stop prioritizing cars. Street need to be opened for pedestrians and bicyclists.

  11. Michael King Michael King May 3, 2020

    Very well written article and coverage of the subject. Thank you.

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