Manhattan CB 5 Listens to Reason, Endorses Union Square Plan

union_square_design.jpgPedestrian plazas and bike lanes should calm traffic and tame the dangerous northwest corner of Union Square. Image: NYCDOT

After some vocal complaints spurred compromises to NYCDOT’s ambitious original proposal to redesign the streets near Union Square, Manhattan Community Board 5 held strong last night, voting 24-1-1 to move forward with the fundamental safety features of the plan. Rather than cave to the most belligerent core of anti-bike residents and NIMBY businesses, the board actually strengthened its resolve in the face of irrational and uncompromising opposition.

DOT’s plan for the area would extend Broadway’s protected bike lane down to Union Square, shrink 17th Street to a one lane, one-way street with a contraflow bike lane, and build a traffic calming pedestrian plaza. By eliminating excess capacity along Broadway, the plan will slow down cars and greatly enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety. 

Last night’s meeting of the full board took place after three transportation committee meetings on the topic, each of which was marked by outspoken opposition to the redesign. The same familiar faces showed up last night as well. "If the issue is safety," yelled an 18th Street resident who gave her name as Sylvia, "then surely this plan is overblown, chaotic, in fact unrelated." Another 18th Street resident went on about the "policy of deceit and obstructionism from the DOT." 

The members of CB 5 were not swayed. CB member Joe Ferrara had voted against the plan in committee, largely because of resident opposition. After talking with opponents, however, he had a change of heart. "I get the sense that this is a cry for a stop, not necessarily engagement," he explained. Ferrara contrasted the opponents to DOT’s representatives, whom he called "extraordinary on the communications front." DOT’s effort to compromise without sacrificing safety convinced Ferrara to switch his vote to a yes.

The lopsided vote was also the result of strong institutional support for the redesign. Representatives from the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership, the Union Square Partnership, NYU and the Union Square Greenmarket all testified in favor of the safety improvements. 

Recalling similar changes on Broadway near Madison Square, Jennifer Brown, the Flatiron Partnership’s executive director, told the board that "we were concerned about whether the traffic pattern would work the way they said." Those concerns have melted away. In her organization’s most recent survey of its members, she said, the changes to Broadway received a 91 percent approval rating.