32nd Street Finally Has Enough Space for Walking. Will It Last?

This pedestrian space could be replaced with loading zones. Photo: Stephen Miller
This pedestrian space, installed for a summer trial period, may give way to parked trucks because building owners on the south side of 32nd Street want more loading zones. Photo: Stephen Miller

New pedestrian zones near Penn Station have given people more breathing room on some of the most crowded streets in the city. Will they stay or will they go after a trial period wraps up in October?

At a Community Board 5 committee meeting last night, nearby property owners weighed in on the projects. It was smooth sailing for the new plaza on 33rd Street at Seventh Avenue, but a much-needed sidewalk expansion on the north side of 32nd Street faced pushback from property owners who aren’t pleased with how it’s changed the use of the curb in front of their buildings.

The projects were conceived and funded by real estate giant Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a number of properties near Penn Station, including Penn Plaza, the Manhattan Mall, and the Hotel Pennsylvania. The new pedestrian areas relieve crowding on sidewalks near the rail station, where people on foot overflow into the street.

The temporary public spaces, approved by NYC DOT and supported by CB 5 in June, were installed about a month ago and are set to be removed October 11. Based on the results of this evaluation period, the additional pedestrian space could be brought back and made permanent.

Property owners along 32nd Street want to see some adjustments. Fetner Properties owns The Epic, a rental residential tower with its back door on the south side of 32nd Street, across from the Manhattan Mall and the sidewalk extension. “We love the idea,” President and CEO Hal Fetner told a joint meeting of the CB 5 parks and transportation committees last night. “[But] we’re all fighting for the same sidewalk space.”

To replace the parking lane on the north side of the street with pedestrian space, the project shuffled curbside uses, shifting an MTA bus layover and reducing the length of the street’s loading zones from 680 feet to 180 feet. Now, Fetner says, his building’s trash is collected on the same curb where people wait to board the M4 and Q32 buses. When new tenants move in, he has to send staff to sit on the curb until the moving truck arrives, keeping others from taking the space. Fetner said that wasn’t an issue when the street had more loading zones.

Next door, the Hope Lodge, a hotel run by the American Cancer Society to provide lodging for patients traveling to New York for cancer care, backed the sidewalk extension in June. Now, it says hospital shuttles can no longer pick up or drop off patients near the hotel’s front door.

“It’s creating a lot of problems for us. It doesn’t mean we have to abandon the plan,” Fetner said. “It can work.” But it became clear last night that the 32nd Street sidewalk extension is at risk and might even be removed ahead of schedule if Vornado can’t come up with a loading zone solution that pleases its neighbors on the south side of the street.

One way to open up more space for loading zones would be to eliminate the bus layover and reroute the M4 and Q32 buses. George Haikalis, who has advocated for light rail on 42nd Street and serves as a non-voting member of CB 5, suggested sending the buses down 34th Street to the Javits Center, a longer route than the current turnaround on 32nd Street.

Unless the MTA agrees to some changes, there may be no way to create enough loading zones to satisfy the properties on the south side of 32nd Street without eliminating the sidewalk extension on the north side. That would revert the street to its previous configuration, in which pedestrians going between Herald Square and Penn Station were often compelled to walk in the roadbed.

“By and large, it is taking people out of the street and putting them on the sidewalk,” Marc Ricks, Vornado’s senior vice president of development, said of the project. “In the before condition, you would’ve seen people in the street, and in the after condition, by and large people aren’t walking in the street.”

Across Seventh Avenue, the 33rd Street plaza does not seem to be at risk. It received rave reviews from CB 5 members.

Vornado hired W Architecture and Landscape Architecture to design the temporary plaza and retained Norwegian firm Snøhetta, which designed the permanent Times Square plazas, to create a long-term public space plan for the area. Sam Schwartz Engineering is conducting a before-and-after evaluation of the plaza’s impact on pedestrian and automobile traffic.

A public workshop to review both of the new public spaces is scheduled for September 15. Then after the trial phase ends on October 11, Vornado will return to the community board with the results of a before-and-after study of the project.