Despite End of Holiday Season, DOT Has No Update on Long-Stalled Fifth Ave. Project

Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps
Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

New mayor, same old problem.

We are nearly two weeks into the New Year and the city still doesn’t have a plan for restarting the long-delayed redesign of Fifth Avenue — a street improvement project announced by former Mayor de Blasio in 2020, delayed and watered-down, but then scheduled to begin “after the holidays” of 2021.

The stalled project includes a new curbside protected bike lane and other pedestrian improvements, but no additional dedicated bus lane. Former Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman repeatedly made the “after the holidays” promise. He told Streetsblog the work on Fifth Avenue, which runs past Rockefeller Center and its famous tree, would “interfere with the holidays,” so the agency would not do things “between now and the holidays.”

Even if the city is counting Three Kings Day, which was Jan. 6, as part of the typical holiday season, the “after the holidays” timetable has begun. Nonetheless, DOT spokesman Seth Stein said, “We have no updates to share at this time.”

Gutman and then-Mayor de Blasio denied a New York Times report that the shovel-ready project had not been delayed for the holidays, but because the mayor yielded to powerful real-estate developers and businesses along the luxury corridor who had concerns over the changes. The Times report said that de Blasio had met with billionaire developer Steven Roth, and “within days of the meeting, [Gutman] asked staff to reconsider the plan the mayor had announced more than a year before,” the paper reported.

But even before that, the Fifth Avenue project was doomed from the start. It was first pitched by the de Blasio administration as a full-fledged car-free busway, like the one on 14th Street, to make commutes faster for more than 110,000 straphangers — many of whom are essential workers — as part of the city’s recovery from the pandemic. 

The city said then that the bus-only thoroughfare would extend from 57th Street to 34th Street and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

But then, in deference to mom-and-pop retailers such as Hermes and Tiffany and their well-heeled shoppers, the DOT scaled back the design, by breaking it up into two sections, stopping it at 45th Street, and reducing its hours. Private vehicles would be required to turn off Fifth Avenue at 55th and 45th streets, and the DOT would also implement right-turn restrictions at 51st, 49th, and 47th streets. Drivers could still drop off their passengers right in front of a store under the DOT’s plan. 

New restrictions for Fifth Avenue. Source: NYC DOT
New restrictions for Fifth Avenue. Source: NYC DOT

Local business interests have also been trying to put the kibosh on the entire project. At a meeting last August, the head of the Fifth Avenue Association sought to sway members of Community Board 5 against the DOT plan, arguing that it would delay pandemic recovery — and that the business-improvement district’s long-term vision for the avenue, which includes a robust “greening” of the ritzy roadway, is better, even though it is years away.

“There’s no urgent need to proceed with these changes at this moment,” Jerome Barth, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, said then. “This is not the right time. We’re still in the throes of a pandemic. It’s great we want to upgrade bus speeds a little, but maybe this is not the right way to think about the problem.

The Fifth Avenue Association's long-term vision for the corridor. Photo: Fifth Avenue BID
The Fifth Avenue Association’s long-term vision for the corridor. Photo: Fifth Avenue BID

The board ultimately approved the project, despite Barth’s attempts, and DOT had the green-light to break ground.  Still, work never began — to the detriment of the roadway’s cyclists and pedestrians. Since the original announcement back in June, 2020, there have been a total of 157 reported crashes on the corridor between 57th and 34th streets, causing 86 injuries, including to 26 cyclists and 18 pedestrians, according to Crash Mapper. The city needs to make good on its promise now, before there’s even more bloodshed, advocates say. 

“Coming off a year of horrific traffic violence, it’s projects like Fifth Avenue that we need right now. Busways and bike lanes are good for the economy, good for our climate, and good for our Vision Zero goals. We’re urging the new administration to complete this project without any further delay,” said Cory Epstein, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers, who represents that swath of Fifth Avenue, told Streetsblog last week that he hasn’t met with the new administration about the project, but said he and DOT need to convene a meeting with the “stakeholders,” to figure out how to move forward. 

“We need to get around the table and hash out what the concerns might be from folks,” Powers said. “They do deserve to have some issues aired out.”

“They” being St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center, along with the luxury retailers along the strip. 

“The cathedral has real logistical concerns when it comes to wakes and funerals, that at least needs to be addressed … and what specific details of the plan so folks feel better,” he added. 

Powers reiterated that he’s “supported the entirety of the plan on Fifth Avenue” from the beginning, and wants the Adams administration — and new DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez —  to move forward with the bike lane “immediately,” but says beyond that, the city still needs to figure out “what is a good plan” for the rest of the corridor.