‘We can’t take it!’ L plan is driving locals loco

Bill Borock, head of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, proposed that residents do their own pedestrian and traffic counts to verify that the city’s numbers for the L train shutdown’s impacts are accurate. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | About 75 members of Village and Chelsea block associations — specifically, ones all located within a few blocks of 14th St. — gathered for a meeting at Lenox Health Greenwich Village last week, all of them with one pressing concern.

As one woman from W. 12th St. put it, while addressing the room, “I have an e-mail list of 500 people — and we’re all angry about this.”

“This” refers to the plan by the city’s Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transportation Authority to close 14th St. to traffic during rush hours, and possibly beyond, during the upcoming L train shutdown, slated to start in April 2019 and last for 15 months.

Residents complained that their one-way side streets “can’t take it,” as in, they are already overburdened and clogged with traffic, and that the city’s scheme would be a disaster, ramming still more cars and trucks into their streets.

The plan’s other main component — installing a protected two-way crosstown bicycle path on narrow 13th St. — is also causing a lot of concern for local residents.

The ad-hoc coalition of block associations currently has no name, though they’re looking for one. They have no president or officers, either. However, it was attorney Gary Tomei, “The Mayor of W. 13th St.” and father of actress Marisa, who spearheaded the idea of gathering local block associations together for a meeting.

Both tubes of the L train’s Canarsie Tunnel under the East River need to be closed for repairs due to flooding by Superstorm Sandy back in 2012. As a result, the M.T.A. decided to suspend L train service during that time between Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn and Eighth Ave. in Manhattan to allow for the work.

The L train’s daily ridership between Brooklyn and Manhattan is 225,000 people, while about 50,000 use the line each day for crosstown commuting in Manhattan, according to the M.T.A.

But participants at the Tues., Feb. 6, meeting of Village and Chelsea block associations said the authority must fork over the “data study” upon which it is basing its proposal, and which it previously promised to supply. This data also reportedly includes figures for the amount of vehicle and pedestrian traffic in the affected area.

Erik Bottcher, chief of staff for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, told the residents at the meeting that Johnson was scheduled to meet two days later with M.T.A. and D.O.T. to discuss the plan.

Johnson’s office subsequently told The Villager this week that, at that City Hall meeting, it was agreed that the data study would be provided shortly, and that once Johnson receives it, it would be shared with the community. Present at that high-powered sit-down were all the local politicians — or their representatives — whose districts include parts of 14th St., plus new NYC Transit President Andy Byford, D.O.T. Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and representatives of Mayor Bill de Blasio. In addition, D.O.T. and M.T.A. officials reportedly committed to holding ongoing meetings with the community regarding the plan, though these will be smaller meetings.

“I think the idea is to have meetings where you can do a deep dive,” a source said. “It’s harder to do a deep dive with 50 people. This will be really where you can sit around a table.

“We’re going to start these meetings as soon as possible,” the source said, adding, “But we want them to give the community time to review the data.”

In addition, at last Tuesday’s community meeting of concerned block associations, Village Democratic District Leader Arthur Schwartz gave many hope when he announced that he intends to file suit over the plan unless the proper environmental reviews are done. Schwartz, who is a well-known attorney representing local labor unions and who previously served on Community Board 2, said he would do the lawsuit pro bono.

Basically, he said, for a plan of this sort, that would have this many far-ranging impacts — such as on traffic and commuting patterns, for example — under the law, a State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) or a City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) must be done.

He noted he has had success filing lawsuits like this in the past, such as one he did to block a Costco from coming into a development site where a state armory was formerly located; that location instead is now home to the McBurney YMCA, at W. 14th St. and Sixth Ave. Schwartz had argued, among other things, that the Costco’s impact on car and truck traffic would be too great. In addition, Schwartz said he successfully sued twice to block large projects from occurring at Pier 40, at W. Houston St.

The activist attorney explained that, under law, environmental impacts from “large-scale projects” must go through the proper reviews.

These impacts include such things as those affecting “kids at school, ambulance and fire truck access to our houses,” he said.

“There are supposed to be impact studies,” he stressed, “not cherry-picking from a few tables [of facts].”

He noted that also factors that must be considered in cases like these are if the project is near a park — such as Union Square Park, for example — or a historic district, such as the Greenwich Village Historic District, which extends to within half a block south of W. 14th St.

“That is a long, drawn-out process,” Schwartz said of SEQR and CEQR. “They could have started that a year ago, but they didn’t.”

Schwartz added that he is currently using this legal tactic to fight the closure of the historic Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital, at E. 16th St. and First Ave.

“We have four months to go to court about it after they release their plan,” Schwartz told the meeting, regarding the L shutdown mitigation plan. “I’m going to send them a letter saying, ‘If you don’t start the environmental review now, we’re going to court to get an injunction,’” he announced, sparking applause in the room.

Talk about a hot-button issue: Buttons bashing the city’s plan for a protected, two-way crosstown bicycle lane on 13th St. were free for the taking at a meeting of Village and Chelsea block associations opposed to the city’s plan for the upcoming L train shutdown plan. The bike lane is a part of the plan, but would apparently be permanent. Also being distributed were fliers for a March 1 public hearing, titled “Finding Solutions to Our Transportation Crisis,” sponsored by state Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger, to be held at the CUNY Graduate Center, at 34th St. and Fifth Ave. The event will feature a panel of transportation experts, including Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, and Alex Matthiessen, of Move NY.

In general, the meeting was a litany of concerns and fears about what may be in store for the two historic Downtown enclaves.

A couple from 17th St. complained that after they met, hopefully, with M.T.A. representatives a year ago, the authority was now suddenly presenting the plan as a “fait accompli.”

“Seventeenth St. is the first street north [of 14th St.] to go all the way through,” the woman said. “We have buses up the kazoo. Like everybody else, we can’t take the extra traffic.”

They noted that the city — apparently independent of the L shutdown plan — also wants to close Broadway at 17th St., to pedestrianize Union Square West, and make all traffic turn west onto the side street.

“Don’t do this now,” they pleaded.

Bill Borock, head of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, said residents should volunteer to count cars on their own before and after the M.T.A. implements its plan, to verify the numbers.

“We’re going to be inhaling poison,” Tomei warned, regarding the prospect of increased traffic on 13th St. “It’s going to be a disaster for our trees…noise pollution, air pollution.”

Scott Moran, principal of City and Country School, at 146 W. 13th St., said the protected bike lane would go right through the K-through-12 school’s drop-off area. He said D.O.T. officials told him the bike lane would be installed not in April 2019, but earlier, in the late summer of this year.

Sierra Vemeyer, representing Craig Lamb, a managing director for several residential buildings in the area, said Lamb supports a one-way bike lane on 13th St., but not a two-way one.

Vemeyer later told The Villager that Lamb asked Trottenbeg at the recent open house about the plan at the 14th St. Y if the bike lane would be permanent, and that the D.O.T. commissioner responded, “I hope so.”

Vemeyer and others also voiced concern about what a “protected” bike lane would mean for 13th St. Would it block emergency-vehicle access to buildings on that side of the street, for example, they wondered? D.O.T. has not been forthcoming about exactly what this barrier might look like.

Making 14th St. buses-only to accommodate rush-hour commuters would be a big inconvenience for its residents, especially for handicapped people who need vehicle access, one local noted.

Jimmy Heller, the treasurer of 7 E. 14th St., said the number of local residents in the surrounding blocks from river to river that the plan would impact exceeds the number of commuters that the M.T.A. is claiming must be accommodated during the L shutdown.

“We represent a hell of a lot more than 50,000 people,” he said. “Somehow they are using that number to justify what they want to do to us.”

“It is a common thread — skepticism of the M.T.A.’s figures,” echoed David Marcus, a board member at the Cambridge co-op, at 175 W. 13th St., who led the meeting.

A spokesperson for state Senator Brad Hoylman agreed that, “The data study is the missing piece right now.”

Another woman put it, “We know they’re going to be hurt twice a day,” referring to commuters. “We’re going to be hurt 24 / 7.”

Indeed, the exact times when the M.T.A. would want to make 14th St. bus-only are not yet fully clear, the residents said.

Bottcher, Johnson’s chief of staff, assured the community meeting, “We need a plan that is the best plan — not only for the L train but for the people that live in the community. Corey lives on W. 15th St.,” he noted.

Bottcher added that part of the plan is for ferries to link Brooklyn to Stuyvesant Town, where there would be a “bus depot” to take people crosstown.

However, Marcus interjected, “But not everyone is going east / west at that point. Some are going north / south.”

One Chelsea resident said a dedicated bus lane for Select Bus Service on 23rd St. “has been a disaster. Traffic is backing up on the street. That itself needs a constant review,” she said, warning the same thing could happen if buses are prioritized on 14th St.

“The real answer to congestion is going to be reducing the number of cars in Manhattan,” Bottcher told the meeting. “Corey supports reducing the number of cars coming over bridges and through tunnels to Manhattan.”

Wayne Kwadler, representing Lenox Health Greenwich Village, confirmed that the comprehensive-care center was concerned about the bike lane blocking access to its new ambulatory surgery center on the fourth floor of W. 13th St. off of Seventh Ave.

One young cyclist said she “would be so happy” if there were a crosstown bike lane on 13th St. But another cyclist, speaking against the two-way bike lane, noted there are already plenty of one-way crosstown bike lanes, such as on Ninth St. going west and 10th St. going east. There is also a bike lane on Eighth St.

The ad-hoc group of affected Village and Chelsea block associations plans to meet again this week.

“There’s strength in numbers,” said Janet Charleston, from the W. 15th St. 100 Block Association, as their inaugural gathering ended. “This is just our first meeting. This is just the beginning.”

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