A little sense, safety and peace for Chatham Square  

Volume 21, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 20 – 26, 2009


A little sense, safety and peace for Chatham Square  

The city is getting ready to award $50 million worth of contracts intended to make one of New York’s most dangerous and confusing intersections safer. Chatham Square, where traffic converges from about 10 Chinatown and Financial District streets as well as the Manhattan Bridge, is an urban planning disaster. One might think that any improvement plan would be embraced by Downtowners, but instead it has triggered staunch opposition. City officials appear confused by this but they shouldn’t be.

The changes may be on the right track, but they clearly need some adjustments. They’re also being rushed through without enough time for significant community input.

The plan comes seven years after Park Row — which had been the main connection between Chinatown and the rest of Lower Manhattan — was closed by police, which cited security concerns near its headquarters.

The city now admits the closure caused traffic problems. This comes after several lawsuits and court-ordered environmental studies. A state judge ruled that the city took over park land illegally and he chastised police for acting like a brute occupying force in Chinatown.  

Police fostered a healthy level of distrust in the neighborhood and the Dept. of Transportation exacerbated the situation with its bulldog style community “outreach” efforts that we have been chronicling the last few months.

It’s not too late for the city to fix the problems. The plan does have promise. It takes large amounts of street space from cars and gives them to deserving pedestrians in the form of plazas. It may indeed lead to more traffic congestion in the square under the current free tolling system, but making driving more inconvenient is not necessarily a bad outcome at this juncture.  Hopefully, it will create more pressure to implement the best ideas for the city to grow in a sustainable way — traffic pricing or bridge tolls. 

The new plazas, if they’re well designed — at $50 million they better be — will be a boon. Drivers will have an easier time finding their way through the square and knowledgeable advocates have proposed adjustments that the city can and should give serious consideration.

As we reported last week, Luis Sanchez, Transportation’s borough commissioner for Lower Manhattan, told the City Council that there is still a year before final decisions need to be made on curb configurations, which relates to many of the adjustments the advocates are suggesting. The city’s need to rush is being exaggerated.

The most contentious part of the plan, the narrowing of Park Row, is separate from the Chatham Square redesign and should not go forward. We do not share the neighborhood optimism that police will allow Park Row to reopen sometime in the next decade or so, but it would be the height of irresponsibility to spend money building a plaza that has been so soundly rejected by two community boards. 

Brian Ketcham, a traffic analyst who’s advised Community Board 3 and Park Row plaintiffs, told us that the city plan can work with some changes.   

The best and most uncontested part of the plan — building a pedestrian ramp to connect Chinatown to the City Hall subway stop and the Civic Center — should be done as soon as possible.  That would be a great way to begin to rebuild trust.