Friday, February 13, 2009

Downtown Express covers the Chatham Oversight Hearing

Council pokes holes in Chatham Sq. plan

By Josh Rogers

The City Council peppered officials with questions on the Chatham Square traffic plan last week, exposing contradictions in the effort to lessen the problems caused by the security closures near Police Plaza.

The city will begin looking for contractors for the $50 million project in a week, but local politicians and the community boards are pressing for a halt to the planning in order to make changes. The plan would increase the sidewalk and plaza space in the dangerous square, and line the streets leading into Chatham in an effort to make it less confusing, but many Chinatown residents say the proposal has many problems.

Officials from the mayor’s office and the city Dept. of Transportation evaded many questions from Councilmembers Alan Gerson and John Liu during a three-hour hearing filled with tense moments Feb. 5.

Liu, chairperson of the Council’s Transportation Committee, started things off by insisting that the city panelists not spend an hour reading their statement. He asked them to condense it down to 15 minutes since some of the information has been discussed for years.

“We’re not starting off in kindergarten here,” he said, according the Council’s official recording of the hearing.

Later on, city officials reluctantly acknowledged the plan had differences from the Environmental Impact Statement they are using to go forward with the Chatham Square project, but said it was similar enough to proceed. It was a difficult assertion to check since the E.I.S. is no longer available on the N.Y.P.D.’s Web site. Spokespersons for relevant city agencies did not explain why the E.I.S. is unavailable.

Panelists also said last week that the E.I.S. was an important part of the public review process.

Luis Sanchez, the Lower Manhattan borough commissioner for transportation, said the community still has time to propose minor changes to the sidewalk configuration, which would not have to be finalized for another year, but later, Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3’s district manager, testified that city officials told her the board needed to make its final recommendations this month, before the city takes the work out to bid.

Brian Ketcham, C.B. 3’s traffic consultant, told Downtown Express Wednesday that he is scrambling to finish his final report to the board so it has enough time to recommend at least some changes. He said the city has not done the thorough traffic analysis needed to evaluate the proposal, and it has been hard getting information.

“They’ve been stonewalling me for two months,” he said. “I give them long lists of things I need, and they give me dribs and drabs.”

Ketcham said when the final plan was released last November, his initial assessment was it would improve an unsafe intersection, but as he has gathered more information, it’s clear to him that it will be a traffic nightmare, particularly when you factor in nearby projects expected to be proceeding at the same time — major work shoring up the Brooklyn Bridge, reconstruction work on Chambers St., and street work activity near the bridge in Downtown Brooklyn.

Scott Gastel, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said they’ve given Ketcham “substantial data” on the project and will continue to do so.

But the city did not have answers last week to basic questions that are typically part of environmental statements. On Wednesday the city still did not know or would not say how much traffic would increase on St. James Pl., one of 10 streets that currently lead into or right near the square.

“They did a very rudimentary analysis of it,” Ketcham said of the overall traffic study.

The environmental report was a study of the police-ordered closure of Park Row, which was the main connection between Chinatown and the Financial District/Civic Center area before 9/11. The reconfiguration of Chatham Sq. was proposed as a mitigation measure in the Park Row environmental study, so it was not the focus of the E.I.S.

Officials at first suggested that the entire plan was studied in the E.I.S.

“This Chatham Square Park Row project was approved through an E.I.S. process — that’s your testimony,” Gerson asked Andrew Winters, director of the Mayor’s Office of Capital Projects

“Yes,” Winters replied. But later officials acknowledged the plan was “similar” but not identical.

Winters first began working on the Chatham Square plan about five years ago when he was chief of planning for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is putting up nearly $31 million of the $50 million needed for the project. About three years ago, the project’s estimated costs were $25 million and the city has not explained the reasons why it has doubled since. It hopes to get some of the shortfall from Con-Ed and has not identified any other sources of money yet.

Gerson has alerted the L.M.D.C. that he plans to ask the corporation to cancel its agreement with the city on the grounds that the city has not lived up to all of its terms, including providing the E.I.S. to local libraries, like the eponymous Chatham Square branch.

Mike Murphy, the development corporation’s spokesperson, said the agency believes the city has met its commitments so far, but it will continue to monitor the plan.

City officials presented the Chatham plan two weeks ago to a very receptive L.M.D.C. board, which praised the city’s efforts. The board might have walked away unfamiliar with the opposition had not Judy Rapfogel, chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, pointed out that Community Boards 1 and 3 had opposed the project nearly unanimously.

City officials expressed frustration at the Council hearing because some aspects of the plan have been discussed at community meetings for years. Long ago, the L.M.D.C. suggested removing lanes on Park Row in favor of plaza space since police made it clear they were not going to reopen the street to traffic anytime soon. The street runs under police headquarters.

Assistant chief James Waters of the N.Y.P.D.’s counter-terrorism unit testified last week that “the threat is real, it’s clear and the only way to mitigate that threat is the closure of Park Row.”

But some neighborhood advocates say police headquarters should move to a place in the city that police could secure without disrupting residents and businesses.

Jan Lee, a Chinatown business owner and resident who has sued the city over the street closure, said Police Plaza is still unprotected because subways run under it, there is a gas station right near it, and one of the bridge exit ramps is very close.

“They’re vulnerable now,” Lee said. “The back door is open and underneath them as well. Clearly the security issue is a moot point. If someone wants to hurt them they can.”

The city wants to begin Chatham Square work this summer, so that the utility work is done by the middle of next year, when the repair work on the Brooklyn Bridge will begin. The bridge work will no doubt divert traffic to the Manhattan Bridge, which feeds into Chatham.

Lee, Gerson and others have suggested suspending tolls on the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel during bridge construction weekends in order to prevent the deluge on Chatham from the Manhattan Bridge, thus relieving the pressure to begin the Chatham work as soon as possible.

D.O.T.’s Sanchez told the Council that they were considering that very option but later officials admitted that they had not even asked the Metropolitan Transportation Authority about it. A toll suspension would have to be approved by the M.T.A.

Gerson was incredulous that the city was about to go to bid on a contract yet at the same time they were claiming to consider an option that could avoid the need to rush into the construction contract.

“You’re reaching a conclusion before you’ve completed the study you need to reach the conclusion,” he said raising his voice.
He also wants the city to hold off on narrowing Park Row, particularly since D.O.T., acknowledged there were no logistical problems to delaying that part of the plan.

Winters from the mayor’s office also said even if Park Row narrows, it could still reopen someday if the security situation changed.

“It would be a side street, but it would be perfectly functional,” he said.

That part of the plan has raised the most anger in the community because many residents want to retain the possibility of restoring Park Row as a major connection.

“The Berlin Wall came down,” Gerson said. “Things can happen.”

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