Fear L Shutdown will be ‘Nightmare on Kenmare’

To better accommodate a plan to increase bus routes during the planned L train shutdown, the DOT is proposing two options for Kenmare St. One scenario would preserve two-way traffic on the street, while the other would make the street westbound only. | Image courtesy of NYC DOT

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) presented some fine-tuned details of the L train shutdown plan to Community Boards 2 and 3 the week before last. Complaints about the project’s accompanying mitigation plan that have been raised for months from community groups from the Lower East Side to the West Village were raised yet again — but this time, DOT was ready with more specifics on a few key parts of the plan.

Regarding one particular street corner, DOT presented two options for Board 2 to consider for Kenmare St. — where, under the plan, two new bus routes would be added through Soho and Little Italy. A total of four new bus routes linking Manhattan and Brooklyn would transport an expected 17 percent of displaced L train riders. (It’s estimated the remaining 79 percent of former L riders would take other subway lines, while 4 percent would take a new East River ferry route connecting to Stuyvesant Town.)

Soho and Little Italy residents are concerned about a tight turn from Kenmare St. onto Cleveland Place. An unavoidable reality is that Delancey St. — a six-lane crosstown corridor — turns into Kenmare.

“That is a very challenging corridor to deal with,” Aaron Sugiura, DOT director of transit policy and planning, said at Board 3’s July 10 Transportation Committee meeting. “It’s one of the terrible gifts that our forefathers left us with — dumping Delancey St. out into a street that’s 40-feet wide. We have to deal with that.”

Kenmare St. currently runs two-way with two travel lanes, plus two lanes that are used for travel or parking. To add a bus lane, DOT is proposing two possible options. One would include two traffic lanes — with one lane going in each direction — and one bus lane, plus a parking or loading lane on the north side. The second option would scrap eastbound traffic entirely, maintaining a lane for travel or parking on the street’s south side. A separate change would restrict left turns from Lafayette St. onto Kenmare, and add pedestrian space at Petrosino Square, in response to voiced concerns that traffic turning from Lafayette onto Kenmare often veers into the westbound lane to make the sharp turn more easily.

However, the second option and the Petrosino Square proposal, “would be a disaster,” according to Georgette Fleischer.

“How can our fire engines get where they need to go?” said Fleischer, president of the Friends of Lt. Petrosino Square. “Closing it off is not a solution.”

More than five years ago, a fire at 41 Spring St. killed one person, burning her beyond recognition. Fleischer said blocking eastbound traffic on Kenmare St. would make it harder for first responders to access the narrow streets in that neck of the neighborhood. Already, she sees firefighters turn left down Lafayette St. going in the wrong direction against traffic from the Ladder 20 firehouse at 253 Lafayette St.

“It’s already a crisis point in terms of emergency vehicles getting where they need to go,” Fleischer said, adding the neighborhood was traumatized after the 2013 fatal arson incident at 41 Spring St.

One-third of vehicles on Kenmare St. are going to or coming from the Holland Tunnel, with a majority of the traffic heading westbound, according to DOT. The department predicts HOV-3 (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. — another part of the L shutdown mitigation plan — would cut traffic by 75 percent on Kenmare St.

Small business owners are also concerned the added traffic on Kenmare would make it more difficult to get deliveries and negatively impact them. At least two people proposed bus routes that would avoid Kenmare St. altogether, including Michele Varian, founder of the Downtown Independent Business Alliance. Stores on all the streets that intersect Kenmare St. will have difficulty receiving deliveries, she said. Meanwhile, the added bus traffic and the droves of commuters, Varian and other small business owners fear, will deter people from coming into their businesses.

“It will also become a pedestrian deterrent,” Varian said by e-mail, “in that the wall of buses and people unloading and waiting for buses, it will be difficult to cross and navigate.”

Some people at the two community board meetings asked DOT and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for HOV-3 implementation at all the East River bridges — even 24 hours a day rather than the current 17-hour scheme that is planned. But DOT representatives argued that would extend the traffic impacts into Long Island and Westchester — increasing the “stakeholder reach” for an already unprecedented and massive undertaking.

“To be honest, I was taken aback when they said there were too many stakeholders,” said Kate Birmingham, a Stuyvesant Town resident and community activist. “We should be looking at what’s best for New York City as a whole.”

The planned HOV-3 hours of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the Williamsburg Bridge were better than she expected. However, she and others, particularly on the Lower East Side, want to see the HOV-3 enforcement around-the-clock, seven days a week.

“Whatever we can do to break that habit is a good thing for everyone,” Birmingham stressed. “Not just for me, not just for some stakeholders, but for everyone.”

Meanwhile, the planned 14th St. “busway” between Third and Eighth Aves. during the hours of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. would still allow local access along the crosstown corridor.

The city explained that for-hire vehicles and commercial trucks would be allowed to turn onto the busway, but then would have to turn off the crosstown artery onto the next immediate avenue. Enforcement would be done through bus-lane cameras and police.

According to DOT’s analysis, the majority of pickups and drop-offs occur on the avenues.

The local-access policy is a response to extensive feedback from the public, notably the 14th St. Coalition, which is suing the MTA and DOT over the mitigation plan. The coalition raised concerns about preserving local access to 14th St. for deliveries, for-hire vehicles and personal vehicles for residents with private garages.

Requests for more electric buses — or at least compressed natural-gas buses — was another top concern at the Board 2 and 3 Transportation Committee meetings. However, the critical issue is a lack of depot space and infrastructure, according to an MTA representative at the meetings. In short, electric buses take hours to charge, which would take the vehicles out of circulation for bus routes that need the maximum amount of capacity during the L train shutdown.

Buses are far more efficient than cars since they each hold 60 to 70 people. And the MTA reiterated that the buses would meet 2015 US Environmental Protection Agency standards. Nevertheless, the community’s fears about how air quality and, as a result, their health would be impacted during the 15-month L shutdown remain.

Also under the plan, various spots in Manhattan would see expanded pedestrian space — including at Union Square, University Place, and Sixth Ave. at 14th St.

With changing usage along 14th St., DOT predicts pedestrians will increase by 139 percent — more than doubling the amount of foot traffic, nearing pedestrian volumes seen in Midtown at 34th and 42nd Sts. at Sixth Ave. Along the 14th St. corridor, pedestrian volume at Union Square and Eighth Ave. would increase by 53 and 76 percent, respectively, under the plan, DOT predicts.

The shutdown is slated to begin next April for 15 months. New street markings are expected to be in place by this coming November. In the meantime, community organizations are staying vigilant as the shutdown nears in the coming months, many calling this a crisis moment for the neighborhood.

“This is an emergency for Downtown Manhattan,” Pete Davies, a longtime Soho community activist, told Board 2’s July 12 Transportation Committee meeting.

“Fifteen months will be the death of a small business that is heavily impacted,” he warned about the Kenmare St. bus loops. “We need resources to deal with this.”

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