Archive for Manhattan
As the Midtown East rezoning vote nears, there have been a few articles published worth a bit of our attention. In today’s The Times, the City Club of New York takes centerstage as they bemoan the economic machinations behind Mayor Bloomberg’s plan.
The long-dormant good government group has issued a 24-page position paper on the rezoning plan, and essentially, they claim that the city’s plan amounts to an effort to sell development rights in the rezoned area for $250 a square foot. The money would go to transit improvements, but none of it, they say, is a constitutionally permissible taking. I’m not well versed enough in New York City property law to pass a judgment one way or another, but the point remains that this group is going after the fund designed to boost transit capacity.
If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, one more time, the rezoning and this fee could generate around $500 million for transit investment in the Midtown East area. The Commercial Observer recently ran down the list of improvements, and although it’s one I’ve covered before, it’s worth revisiting. For $465 million — not much less than the cost of the dearly departed 7 line station at 41st St. and 11th Ave. — the list features “widened stairways, additional escalators (leading to and from subway stations at Grand Central, Lexington Avenue at 51st and 53rd Streets and Madison Avenue and 53rd Street), and a pedestrian passage between the Grand Central subway and Long Island Railroad platforms.” Will these upgrades truly solve the capacity crunch and why does this cost so much?
While I’ve burned a lot of pixels on the QueensWay recently, the city’s other rails-to-park project is slowly inching forward. The LowLine, an ambitious plan to bring natural light underground in order to turn the Essex St. Trolley Terminal into a park, has garnered a lot of attention as a creative idea. Not surprisingly, I’ve been very skeptical about a plan that involves during unused transit infrastructure into a green space, but the organizers have assured me that there is no real transit use for it in 2013.
Lately, in between fundraisers and Kickstarters, the LowLine has developed a following of politicos. Last month, Manhattan representatives urged the EDC and MTA to work out a transfer of the space. The letter claimed that the Delancey Underground park “could generate at least $15-$30 million in economic benefit to the city by way of increased sales, hotel and real estate taxes and incremental land value,” and a Who’s Who of New York politicians, including our two senators, members of Congress, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Dan Squadron and Council Members Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, all appended their names to the effort.
And yet, the money needed is very problematic. While the founders have been able to fundraise minimal amounts to put together prototypes and other exhibits, Kim Velsey in The Observer highlighted the considerable obstacles that remain. Construction could cost anywhere from $42-$70 million, and annual maintenance would run around $2.4-$4 million. Even the most popular parks in New York can’t cover their expenses from concession revenues.
The park proposal has had more staying power than I ever imagined it would, but I still grow uneasy about turning over transit infrastructure to anything other than transit. It’s exceedingly difficult to find money and the will to build new transit spaces in New York City. Reserving pre-existing ones for future uses should be a priority. The LowLine is a creatively futuristic idea, but can it ever be anything more than that?
As Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure rushes to an end, his effort to rezone Midtown East is coming to a head as well. Bloomberg wants to see this project through before he leaves office, and while many stakeholders are objecting to the relative breakneck pace of a project that has to go through a mandated review process, the rezoning is moving forward. Last week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer gave the Midtown East his OK, conditioned on promises from the Bloomberg Administration to fund transit improvements. It’s a start, but is it enough?
“In order to make East Midtown’s plan a success, greater density in East Midtown should follow significant investments in its infrastructure,” Stringer said in his report. Expanding density before preparing the transit infrastructure, he says, “will have undesirable consequences for the City as a whole, [and] the ramifications of adding density to the already overloaded capacity of the local transit infrastructure raises serious questions about a development-first approach.”
Stringer’s ULURP review and the subsequent report focused largely on the impact the rezoning would have on the transit infrastructure currently in place. As regular riders of the Lexington Ave. IRT know, the Grand Central station is ill-equipped to handle more passengers. The trains themselves are packed, and the station — without much platform space or a large mezzanine area — can feel dangerously cramped at times. East Side Access will bring more riders into the area, and the rezoning would boost ridership on the line by well over 100 percent.
So what do you do with 15,000 new workers who will fill up 3.8 million square feet of office space and a few hundred thousand more square feet devoted to retail and hotels? In February, the MTA presented their mitigation plans, and Stringer grants his approval for the project as long as these plans are implemented first. These plans include new stairways — which eliminate some platform space — an enlarged mezzanine, new exits and an additional train per hour for the Lexington Ave. line. The 7 line would enjoy a few new staircases and high-speed escalators as well, and additional mitigation plans are being developed.
To fund all of this, Stringer calls upon the city to move towards what he calls comprehensive planning. “The City should advance proactive funding mechanisms, which could include, but are not limited to, direct capital investment, bond financing, or a special tax assessment district,” his report says. “Such funding mechanisms can provide capital dollars today that could be paid back by the proposed source (i.e. the DIB) over time.”
Now, this is all well and good, and Stringer is right to worry about the impact on transit such a rezoning would have. The system at Grand Central cannot handle many more people without some serious expansion efforts, but I worry that the proposed mitigation efforts aren’t enough. Incremental improvement is fine, but sweeping change may be in order. Plus, the rezoning isn’t the only project that will impact the area as two new East River high rises are going up in the East 30s.
The solution should be an increased focus on Phases 3 and 4 of the Second Ave. Subway. Now, I realize the MTA has only just started thinking about Phase 2, but as these Midtown East rezoning efforts move forward, Phases 3 and 4 are becoming even more important. This southern extension can siphon riders off of the Lexington Ave. line and to the new office space that will be developed. Additionally, bringing the subway south into an area with new office space could gain the approval of the Dan Doctoroffs of the city who would no longer view the subway line as a “silly spur that doesn’t generate anything.” It would generate relief for the Lexington Ave. line and could be a key selling point for new development in a rezoned area.
Ultimately, the rezoning will move forward, and without a champion, these phases of the Second Ave. Subway won’t for now. But they could be the key to the entire project, and Stringer’s report, while omitting reference to these phases, nearly says as much. “While the proposed rezoning targets development, any additional density onto a system that is over capacity will inevitably lead to potentially dangerous conditions,” he said. “It is therefore critical that the City mitigate the existing overcrowding conditions and create a real plan for investment in the East Side’s transportation infrastructure, including improving conditions at Grand Central.”
Whenever I think of the Lexington Avenue line and Midtown on Manhattan’s East Side, I am reminded of a Yogi Berra quote. “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” the famed Yankee catcher once said. On its surface, it’s a silly line, but when you think about, it’s makes a lot of sense. No one new will go somewhere that’s too crowded.
Midtown East and the Lexington Ave. line fulfill Yogi’s Yogism perfectly. Both are so crowded that no one wants to go there anymore. Riding the 4, 5 or 6 trains at peak hour is a singularly unpleasant experience, and walking around Midtown during the work day isn’t any better. As far as the eye can see, there are people, and no one moves as fast or as efficiently as anyone walking through this mess of humanity would hope.
Furthermore, because of these crowds, many new businesses look elsewhere for office space. They look to the Flatiron District, Silicon Alley or Chelsea. They look for places with diverse transit alternatives that are more accessible to other parts of the city. They look for places where people go because they aren’t too crowded.
Now, don’t get me wrong; Midtown is still an exceedingly popular place to work. Few firms are jumping ship, and the convenience of Grand Central as a hub for subway riders from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester and points north remains unparalleled throughout the city. But this is my roundabout way of asking if we need more office space in the area without addressing transit capacity concerns. It’s a vital question as the mayor’s last great plan to reimagine Manhattan — a rezoning plan, at that — moves forward.
The Midtown rezoning effort seems like a fait accompli. Nearly everyone seems to recognize the major issues with the plan, but no one is willing to stop it. Bloomberg has reshaped as many parts of the city as he can, and in the last five months of his reign, he wants to upzone Midtown as well. It sounds good, but do we need it? On one the hand, with the Hudson Yards and 1 World Trade Central on the way, New York will have a glut of office space hitting the market over the next decade. On the other, we could always have more. The costs though aren’t commensurate with the increase in square footage, and another major issue remains: The plan does not increase transit access.
In a meandering piece that takes a stand against Bloomberg’s plan, Michael Kimmelman of The Times touches briefly upon the transit issue. The following three paragraphs should be the centerpiece of any argument against the Midtown rezoning and a hint toward the right path:
New York can surely never win a skyscraper race with Shanghai or Singapore. Its future, including the future of Midtown real estate values, depends on strengthening and expanding what already makes the city a global magnet and model. This means mass transit, pedestrian-friendly streets, social diversity, neighborhoods that don’t shut down after 5 p.m., parks and landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building.
If New York wants to learn from London, Tokyo and Shanghai, the lessons aren’t about erecting new skyscrapers. Big cities making gains on New York are investing in rail stations, airports and high-speed trains, while New York rests on the laurels of Grand Central and suffers the 4, 5 and 6 trains, which serve East Midtown. They carry more passengers daily than the entire Washington Metro system.
Improving the lives of the 1.3 million people riding those trains would instantly make the city more competitive. Adding thousands of commuters who work in giant new office buildings without upgrading the surrounding streets and subways — the Second Avenue subway won’t do it — will only set the city back.
There’s no doubt in my midn that Kimmelman is correct. Without paying attention to the transit needs, the Midtown rezoning plan will overburden and already overtaxed transit line. The 4, 5 and 6 cannot fit more people, and the inbound 7 trains to Grand Central are nearing crush loads as well. East Side Access will help deliver more suburban commuters to the area, but the subways cannot handle the load.
Yet, instead of sacrificing the Midtown rezoning to the transit gods, what if we turned the plan into a transit savior? Through the proper combination of tax-increment financing and assessments on developers, the city can rezone Midtown while collecting money to ensure that the Second Ave. Subway can move forward — and through the upzoned area. Such a plan would be a win-win for a neighborhood that needs new building stock but also needs better transit access.
We shouldn’t be afraid of Bloomberg’s plan to upzone Midtown, and we shouldn’t be afraid of more density. We should be concerned with a plan to increase office space without a corresponding bump in transit capacity though. A creative solution isn’t far away, and a true leader would bring the two to the public in tandem. It’s not too late, but Bloomberg’s lame-duck clock just keeps on ticking.
Two minor transit stories surfaced today that warrant a quick mention. Toward the end of his tenure as MTA CEO and Chairman, Joe Lhota announced a plan to reduce the number of MTA Board meetings per year. Lhota proposed eight meetings and two public forums instead of 11 monthly meetings. This move lasted all of seven months as the MTA this week will vote on a plan to revert to its long-standing tradition of monthly meetings.
The Times first reported this story earlier today, and the details are buried in the Governance Committee materials [pdf]. Essentially, the change hasn’t fit in with operating procedures at the MTA. Data is gathered monthly even if it is reported to the Board only every six or seven weeks, and a long gap between meetings can slow down emergency appropriates and approvals needed to respond quickly to damage caused from, say, a major hurricane. Whether this is a case of a lumbering bureaucracy failing to adapt to a new normal or a clear sign that monthly meetings are required is up for debate.
In other news, renovations at two Northern Manhattan subway stops have begun, DNA Info reported. On its own, this isn’t exactly a pressing concern, but these aren’t normal stops. Back in 2009, a section of the ceiling at 181st St. fell on the tracks, and a subsequent inspection revealed structural concerns with the tiling at that station and 168th St. It’s stunningly taken nearly four years to get long-term repairs started.
The work will cost $42 million, and the MTA anticipates a completion time of 29 months. During the next two a half years, the 1 train will not run north of 137th St. for 13 weekends and 40 overnights. This is a prime example of a location where a total line shutdown would result in faster work, but many commuters north of Dyckman St. have no nearby alternate subway service.
For a few days now, I’ve been mulling over the debacle that has become 125th Street. Once planned to be Manhattan’s next crosstown Select Bus Service corridor with the M60 tabbed for off-board fare payment, express service and a dedicated travel lane, 125th St. fell the way of the 34th St. Transitway. Community opposition from an entrenched and vocal minority killed a project that would have benefited 32,000 travelers per day. I’d like to know how, why and what we can learn from the latest transit setback.
When DOT and the MTA announced on Tuesday their decision to shelve the Select Bus Service upgrades for the M60, they laid the blame on the area’s political bodies. “There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date,” the agencies said in a statement. “We do hope to have a continued dialogue with community stakeholders about ways that we can continue to improve bus speed and service, traffic flow, parking, and pedestrian safety along 125th Street. In the short term, we plan to work with the Community Boards to explore whether any parking or traffic improvements discussed during the SBS outreach process can improve 125th Street for all users.”
Theirs is a pretty damning position to take for two agencies that needs the support of Community Boards and elected officials, but it’s not an incorrect one. Senator Bill Perkins threw up nothing but obstacles, and Community Boards were more concerned with losing a few parking spaces and left-turn lanes than they were with the thousands who would benefit from smoother, faster bus rides. Minority obstructionism had trumped the needs of the majority yet again.
In the intervening days, various news outlets have tried to pinpoint the way this deal went sour. Responding to Perkins’ claim that the process was moving too fast, Streetsblog established a project timeline. WE ACT for Environmental Justice started calling for bus improvements in late 2011, and DOT and the MTA launched the project last September. For six months, the Community Advisory Committee held meetings and worked to develop plans for the bus corridor, but in March, Perkins threw his first fit. He claimed DOT had ignored public input but couldn’t cite specifics. In May, he held an emergency public meeting where the MTA and DOT produced plans designed to assuage his concerns, and in July, the bus lane dies.
Over the past 36 hours, Perkins has tried to spint the DOT/MTA decision every which way he can. In an interview with amNew York, he grew belligerent. “Not only is it premature,” he said of the move, “it’s a smack in the face of the community. We didn’t get the kind of process for input that was genuine and folks were feeling a little anxious about the project moving quickly without taking into consideration some of the concerns they had.”
The process. It’s all about the process. It was the process that the Community Boards objected to as well.
If Perkins carries some of the blame, so too do the Community Boards. They refused to vote for the project and seemed more concerned with parking — empty space for idle vehicles — than for bus improvements. Opponents have claimed that the M60 is a treasure for Laguardia riders that doesn’t take into account community needs, but 90 percent of bus riders aren’t going to the airport. (Many others are Harlem residents who use the bus to commute to work at Laguardia.)
Yesterday, Ted Mann delved into the Community Board opposition with a piece that focused on tangential complaints. CB 11 refused to support the M60 SBS route because the MTA refused to heed their complaints about another bus line. Mann gets to the meat of the issue:
One issue with the M35 stop is that it led to crowding at the already-busy intersection, the board said. But there’s another problem: the people who ride that bus, according to records of community meetings compiled by the DOT.
Neighbors have complained about psychiatric patients and homeless people traveling to the neighborhood via the M35 from facilities on Ward’s Island, records from a September 2012 public workshop led by DOT to plan bus improvements show.
“Patrons of the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, and the Charles Gay and Clarke Thomas homeless facilities on Wards Island disembark the M35 bus at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue,” a summary of the workshop says. “They hang around the immediate vicinity all day, creating excessive congestion. They panhandle and disturb the public at this busy intersection.”
CB 11 members tried to claim their concerns were about crowding at the intersection, but Mann’s reporting betrays their cover-up. The MTA too dismissed the complaints about the M35 as unrelated to the 125th St. SBS corridor. “In deference to concerns from Community Board 11, NYC Transit has weighed the pros and cons of both moving the bus stop and rerouting the bus route,” an agency spokesperson said to The Journal. “All the options studied present operational issues and are inferior to the current M35 route and stop configuration.”
So CB 11, it seems, also did not like the process. All of this talk about process leads me to think that the process isn’t actually the problem. Rather, stakeholders can blame “the process” when things don’t go their way. In fact, “the process” is actually just a code word for “we didn’t get what we want so we’re going through an obstructionist fit instead.” We’ve seen it on 34th St.; we’ve seen it with Citi Bikes; we’ve seen it with a subway to Laguardia; and we’re seeing it with a bus route on 125th St.
Eventually, the needs of the many have to trump over the needs of a select powerful few. It’s democratic to give community members outlets through public meetings, elected officials and Community Boards, but it’s also democratic to realize on both sides of the table what a collective sacrifice may be and what measures will improve a neighborhood. Now, 32,000 riders will continue to take a bus that’s slower than walking because Community Board members held the bus route hostage over an unrelated issue and politicians cannot come to grips with the idea of losing a few parking spaces along a busy two-way travel corridor. It’s not actually the process that’s the problem.
Entrenched NIMBY interests have won again. Despite the fact that it can be faster to walk along 125th St. than it is to take the bus, despite the fact that 32,000 neighborhood residents, commuters trying to reach their jobs in Queens and even some airport-bound travelers would benefit, intense opposition from Senator Bill Perkins and a few drivers worried about a handful of lost parking spots has led the MTA and DOT to shelve plans for Select Bus Service on the M60 and a dedicated bus lane along 125th St.
In a statement provided to me a few minutes ago, the MTA had the following to say:
There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date. As a result, NYCDOT and MTA New York City Transit have decided not to proceed with the M60 Select Bus Service project at this time. We do hope to have a continued dialogue with community stakeholders about ways that we can continue to improve bus speed and service, traffic flow, parking, and pedestrian safety along 125th Street. In the short term, we plan to work with the Community Boards to explore whether any parking or traffic improvements discussed during the SBS outreach process can improve 125th Street for all users.
This decision stems from months of protest from the Community Board and Senator Bill Perkins’ office over these Select Bus Route plans. This powerful stakeholders who are not representative of the community’s voices or needs claim that dedicated a lane to buses on 125th St. isn’t possible because too many parking spots would be removed and too many others would become metered. These voices have argued that implementing metered parking along a small section of 125th St. would make parking unaffordable to public housing residents (who can otherwise afford to own a car in Manhattan anyway). And they’re annoyed at the inconveniences turn limits would place on drivers.
Even after DOT scaled back plans for the bus lane to just a few of the more congested avenues and did away with the metered parking and turn restrictions, Perkins and the Community Board were not satisfied. And so 32,000 New Yorkers who need the M60 but find that it runs slower than 3 — three! — miles per hour are left holding nothing. The people who can’t afford faster transportation get shafted.
If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be so upset, but it isn’t. Across the city, politicians and Community Boards are barriers to progress on transit expansion. They object to bus lanes that benefit tens or hundreds of thousands because a few people may lose direct curbside access to their buildings or may have to work harder to find a free parking spot in congested neighborhoods. The message is clear: If you need the bus, the city and its politicians and community representatives do not care about you. Keep pressuring DOT for upgrades; vote out Senator Perkins. Something has to change.
Can you believe there exists a State Senator who thinks NYC DOT moves too quickly in implementing Select Bus Service improvements? Can you believe there is yet another Manhattan community intent on suffering through crippling crosstown traffic rather than enjoy a realignment of street lanes that would better prioritize transit? In the public farce of New York City, you better believe it.
This time, the corridor in question is the M60 via 125th St. Ostensibly a bus route that feeds Laguardia Airport, most of the M60 ridership uses the bus as a crosstown connection along 125th St. while some use it to access Astoria and Queens. A small portion — some travelers, some airport employees — use it to reach Laguardia. It is absurdly slow as it inches along the congested corridor at 2.7 miles per hour and spend approximately 60 percent of the time at a standstill.
To better accommodate the bus, DOT has proposed a series of changes. Streetsblog summed them up in March:
DOT is proposing off-board fare collection to speed bus boarding, transit signal priority to hold green lights for buses, and converting the M60 to a Select Bus Service route serving six stops along 125th Street. A one-mile stretch of 125th Street between Morningside and Third Avenues would be remade with camera-enforced, offset bus lanes, located between the parking lane and the general travel lane, much like the set-up that has significantly improved bus speeds on First and Second Avenues.
Along with the reduction of general travel lanes in each direction from two to one, DOT will introduce left-turn restrictions at most intersections between Morningside and Third Avenues. Left turns would still be permitted at Madison Avenue, to allow access to the bridge across the Harlem River.
DOT also proposed adding parking meters on 125th Street west of Morningside Avenue and east of Fifth Avenue. Between St. Nicholas Avenue and Lenox Avenue, the agency is also considering extending meter hours until 10 p.m. Putting a price on the curb speeds buses because it cuts down on double-parking and cruising for open parking spots.
It all sounds sensible and progressive — which, apparently, is cause for concern. In a letter to DOT, State Senator Bill Perkins urged the agency to “slow down.” (It’s hard to imagine DOT moving any slower on SBS rollouts while still making forward progress, but I digress.)
Despite community meetings and a public comment period, some people don’t like the plan, and they have Perksin’ ear. These folks argue that implementing metered parking along a small section of 125th St. would make parking unaffordable to public housing residents (who can otherwise afford to own a car in Manhattan anyway). And they’re annoyed at the inconveniences turn limits would place on drivers.
DOT has since revised the plan. The bus lane will run only from Lenox Avenue to Third Avenue. The turn limits will be rescinded, and no parking meters will be implemented along the corridor. Yet again there is no balance between the experts and the amateurs as another busy street has decided it prefers the congested status quo to a smoother ride for all.
DNA Info spoke to one person — Detta Ahl — who understood. “It was an holistic approach that would have made things safer for pedestrians and transit users. It’s not just people using the M60 that would have benefited,” she said. If only everyone else would understand as well, then, we wouldn’t have to suffer through sub-par bus service from Manhattan to its closest airport.
When last we checked in on the Sandy-ravaged South Ferry station, three months had elapsed since the storm, and the new southern terminal of the 1 train was in ruins. Work had yet to begin in earnest on the station reconstruction, and the photos were a stark reminder of the destructive power of salt water. Nearly every inch of the new station had been touched by the storm surge, and no one seemed to know when conditions would return to normal.
On the six-month anniversary of the storm, NBC News has again ventured underground to check out the conditions below the surface. Their piece — aimed at a national audience — rehashes a familiar story with with some small updates. Carlo Dellaverson offers up a tale of a station that needs to be rebuild nearly from scratch. “It’s a complete gut job,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said. “Every component of the station needs to be replaced.”
The NBC producer has more:
As communities rebuild and residents return to their homes, dozens of workers at the South Ferry station are taking the very first steps toward getting the station back online, starting with scrubbing mold from virtually every surface. Before the storm, 30,000 people passed through South Ferry each day, shuttling between Staten Island and Manhattan and around the labyrinthine streets of New York’s financial district.
Now, the stillness of the station is unsettling. The 90-foot platform sits empty, with strings of construction bulbs lighting two tracks and tunnel walls still covered with debris and dirt from the storm. Drywall and tiles have been ripped up by construction workers to expose the film of mold that quickly built up in the dark, humid space after the storm hit six months ago. The air is thick and pungent.
But the greatest damage inflicted from Sandy is not visible. The salty ocean water that flooded the station eighty feet below street level corroded nearly every piece of equipment in the space, adding considerably to the cost of recovery. Over 700 relay components – devices critical to the signaling systems of trains – were destroyed. A separate room of signaling equipment at the end of the platform flooded to the ceiling and is now a “complete loss,” said Joseph Leader, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chief maintenance officer, who is overseeing the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the station.
The MTA has attached a $600 million price tag to the reconstruction efforts, but details on the timing and process are still being hashed out. When push comes to shove, the agency is likely to strip the station down to a bare cavern and start the construction process all over again. Engineers will have to figure out how to harden the station to protect against future storms and future storm surges, and straphangers will have to face the reality of the loop station for a few years at least.
For now, the top priority is mold abatement. When I was there in January, the smell of the water-logged station was pervasive. Soggy ceiling tiles marred crew rooms and fried computer equipment sat where the storm waters had deposited it. The recovery and rebuild will be substantial, and when it’s all over, the second round of $600 million spent at South Ferry should last longer than the first. Otherwise, we’ll just keep paying for this station with tax-payer dollars storm after storm after storm.
With the reopening of South Ferry set for tomorrow morning at 5 a.m., the MTA has released a seven-minute video of B-roll footage from the loop station. Take a trip through the tunnels, watch gap-fillers in action and enjoy the pan through the gussied-up station. Meanwhile, for a trip down memory lane, the last time we had video from South Ferry, it looked like a bunch of scenes out of a disaster movie.