SoHo Curbs City Council Open Streets Program

Posted on: May 4th, 2020 at 5:02 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

City Council is looking ahead to a warm-weather future when Downtown starts to reopen and the pent-up energy of residents jumpstarts the streets.

Hence, the reasoning behind Councilmember Carlina Rivera’s “Safe Open Streets” legislation, which aimed to create 75 miles of pedestrian plazas and protected bike lanes in all five boroughs to promote and create more space for social distancing during the COVID-19 shutdown.

For destination neighborhoods like SoHo and Nolita, the idea that streets closed to vehicles could exacerbate, not alleviate, over-crowding was a very real concern. Especially since the NYPD would not be out in the same force as with the Summer Streets program.

As currently proposed, Safe Open Streets would also not be car-free in the same manner of Summer Streets, either. Essential delivery trucks would still maintain access points. Uber or other for-hire rides would likewise have nearby drop-off spots. Fear that EMT and FDNY response times would suffer also concerned the Mayor and many residents voicing opinions at subsequent Community Board 2 meetings.

Mayor de Blasio had initially balked at the program, specifically citing lack of enforcement capability from city agencies like NYPD due to many officers being out on sick leave.  But after publicized threats that Speaker Johnson would go over Hizzoner’s head and deal directly with Governor Cuomo for an emergency declaration, Mayor de Blasio not only adopted the legislation, he upped the ante to 100 miles of protected pedestrian streets.

But even with the Mayor on board, enforcement still remained a major concern. The City Council bill only calls for DOT signage and traffic cones as a means of enforcing the proposed rules of the road.

Open Streets is also a citywide plan without a map. In terms of which streets would be chosen, the only real guidance put forth by the bill was that the streets be adjacent to parks or public, open space. and that they avoid heavy commercial truck and bus routes.

Photo: Eddie Panta

In order to choose which thoroughfares to close to nonessential vehicles and eliminate parking, City Council was relying on Community Boards to gather feedback from residents and neighborhood organizations like block associations and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

With little notice, CB2 offered up large scale street closures from Bowery to SoHo, along Prince Street and Broadway from Union Square to Chinatown.

In response, longtime neighborhood association, SoHo Alliance, shot off a blistering critique of the Open Streets program via press release.

“This cockamamie scheme will wind up exposing our community and our loved ones to increased risk of contracting the disease.”

The email from SoHo Alliance chair Sean Sweeny went on to say:

Not a single local activist, community group or block association has been consulted or informed about this proposal. Yet we understand that the SoHo Broadway BID has. What does that tell you?

It appears many SoHo residents are looking for more assurances that this new “open street space” won’t dilute true nature public space.

The issue with the BIDs traces to a public letter from Gale Brewer to the Mayor’s office, which suggested enlisting the help of security and sanitation personnel from BIDS like SoHo Broadway Initiative and NoHo BID (two prominent Business Improvement Districts with heavy corporate sponsorship).Whether or not for-profit BIDS could obtain corporate sponsorships for street closures or other marketing efforts remains unclear.

Other questions also arose, such as whether street vending that normally occurs on the curb or sidewalks could eventually continue, or whether local businesses, specifically ailing restaurants, could expand sidewalk cafes into the streets.

News of the potential street closures in SoHo and Little Italy eventually met street-level reality on the Zoom platform Community Board 2 meeting last Tuesday night. Traffic and Transportation Committee Chair Shirley Secunda revealed that area residents sent over 150 emails opposing the plan. Other neighbors agreed with the idea, but believed the open streets legislation would be restricted to locals only – yet found no logistics on how this would be accomplished.

Speaker Johnson, Councilmember Rivera, and BP Brewer all appeared via Zoom for the full board meeting. They visibly steered clear details in favor of political platitudes such as issues of health and community and left the input and criticism that would actually create a plan to the general public.

Meanwhile, SoHo residents were catching heat on social media for being among the wealthy who fled the city and now were only interested in protecting their street parking upon return to their “gated community.”

In subsequent emails, SoHo Alliance continued to push back on the idea to close Broadway as not fitting with the legislation as it is a highly-trafficked bus and commercial truck route.

Without any guidance from DOT or the 5th Precinct at the CB2 meetings, residents were left with an all-in or all-out option. In the end, the neighborhood’s well-known streets did not make CB2’s recommendation list, neither did Elizabeth Street in Nolita down to Chinatown.

Spring St. Now vs. Oct. 2019, Photo: Eddie Panta

These two pictures of SoHo represent two distinct possible futures, finding a middle road to a new normal that allows safe passage for pedestrians and cyclists, but also protects the public sphere.

For now, SoHo streets remain barren, what the future will bring as the workforce starts to comeback online is not clear. Whether or not SoHo residents were protecting their parking or had reason to fear that the Open Streets program would backfire will be argued at future CB2 meetings. But what’s certain is that many SoHo residents are road weary of speeding e-bikes, rude skateboarders, not to mention guerrilla style brand activation tactics, and remain fearful of the return to overcrowded streets as a way of life despite the legislation attempting to protect pedestrians.

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