When Adi, the tunnel boring machine hard at work beneath Second Ave., reached the end of its western end, the MTA rightly celebrated. For a project that’s been decades in the making, the end of a TBM run is cause for celebration indeed. It’s easy, though, to lose sight of the fact that the subway won’t be ready for revenue service until at least December of 2016.
The merchants and residents of Second Ave. haven’t forgotten. For years, they’ve raised a cry about the state of their avenue. From 96th on down, the bustling commercial strip has been marred by construction work, debris and a state of disarray. Crosswalks are haphazardly constructed and blocked off while dirt piles up and sidewalks trimmed to just seven feet. Nothing about it is all that welcoming for residents, shoppers or business owners, and merchants, in particular, have been asking for change for years.
At the end of last week, the MTA, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and various elected officials gathered on the Upper East Side to celebrate the beginning of that change. The authority announced plans back in October to beautify the construction site, and this week, they unveiled the model block between East 92nd and East 93rd Streets with more changes to come throughout the construction zone over the next few months. “We tried ask the question, ‘What can we do considering we’re going to be here for a long, long time?'” MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu said during the press event.
Flanked by Jeffrey Bernstein, chair of the MCC, Dan Garodnick, City Council member, and Jonathan Bing of the State Assembly, Horodniceanu walked through the various upgrades. For those living in the area, the most obvious improvements are physical ones. The crosswalks will have barriers to protect pedestrians; the construction sites will be wrapped more orderly; the sidewalks will be expanded to nine feet in some areas. For merchants, each street corner will feature a wayfinding sign with information about open businesses, and the construction site will broadcast those businesses that are behind the netting as well. It’s all about improving the quality of life.
“The goal of this renewed marketing strategy and the model block is to allow New Yorkers to look past the construction and see the vibrant businesses that are here,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick. “This area has been neglected for too long, so we welcome the MTA’s commitment to work with the merchants and the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce to make the entire corridor more presentable and help us send the message that Second Avenue will always be open for business.”
Beyond the construction site itself, the MTA is helping to promote shopping along the avenue. It will distribute two million MetroCards in vending machines along the Lexington Ave. IRT with a message about supporting local businesses on the back, and it is working to revamp the Shop Second Ave. website. The new slogan — “Shop Second Avenue…It’s Worth It!” — is a work in progress.
Of course, it’s a positive that politicians and the MTA have finally been able to come together to help merchants. As Bing noted, he has tried to win grants and tax breaks for Second Ave. businesses but had been met with resistance from both the State Senate and former Gov. David Paterson. Stil, I have to wonder what took the MTA so long to get these improvements off the ground.
During the press conference, Horodniceanu addressed that question. “We were really not doing enough,” he said. “Our contracts are not geared toward this length of time.” So to solve these problems, he, his staff and the MTA contractors tried to figure out “what small things we can do to make a difference.”
For now, as construction moves ever onward, politicians will continue to pressure the MTA to improve the work site. “We have six more years of construction,” Garodnick noted. “It’s a safe bet business owners will encounter new challenges.”
As the representatives and business owners look forward to the day when Second Ave. has both Select Bus Service and a subway, they know it will, in the words of Assemblyman Bing, have “the best transit options in the city.” The construction will disappear; the shoppers will return; and everyone will prosper. But that day is a long way away, and for now, minor changes are much appreciated. “It’s brining order out of chaos,” Garodnick said while standing across the street from the launch box. “It’s an improvement.”
Click through for more photos from the model block and press conference.