A makeover for the malls along Allen and Pike Sts.

By Bonnie Rosenstock

The pedestrian malls along Allen and Pike Sts. have got to be the most depressing islands on lower Manhattan Island. City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan’s District 1, described the malls as “dangerous, decrepit, disgusting and a detriment to the community. No one would want to live on the same block,” he said. “The visual pollution has been allowed to be rundown for decades.”

The 13 elongated malls on Allen and Pike Sts. run north-south for 14 blocks from the East River waterfront at South St. through Chinatown and the Lower East Side and culminate at Houston St. They are full of potholes, are litter-strewn, the foundations are sinking (the malls were filled in on top of old tenement basements), unlevel and have no green spaces.

Allen St. ought to be “an informal living room for people living in overcrowded conditions,” declared architect Anne Frederick, executive director of Hester Street Collaborative, based at 113 Hester St., a nonprofit organization created to improve the physical environment in underserved communities. The malls are a key source of open space in Chinatown, Two Bridges (the East River waterfront area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges) and the Lower East Side. Yet the malls’ “current derelict condition does not meet the desperate need for open public space in these densely populated, largely immigrant communities,” stated a Hester Street Collaborative press release prepared for their interactive community design event, “Take Back Your Park Day,” last June.

That disconnect has already begun to change, thanks to the joint efforts of Lower East Side and Chinatown stakeholders who are leading local involvement in the redesign, renovation and revitalization of the Allen-Pike corridor for residents, businesses and visitors. Formed in 2003, the United Neighbors for Revitalization of Allen/Pike St. (UNRAP) coalition includes Asian Americans For Equality, Community Board 3, Hester Street Collaborative, the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and Gerson’s office. Through visioning sessions and design charettes — coordinated by H.S.C. — residents, elected officials and activists, neighborhood organizations and the city’s Parks and Transportation departments have been actively engaged in discussing the capital design process.

Community recommendations centered on three major categories: how the malls can support local residents and businesses, safety and transportation improvements and how to incorporate community and historical identity.

Allen St. was co-named Avenue of the Immigrant in 2006; so, in keeping with that theme, the various islands should reflect the diversity and history of the area — African-American, Asian-American, Chinese, Hispanic, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican — in their plantings and design, festivals, temporary and permanent art installations integrating local artists and students from nearby schools, and plaques and paving to incorporate cultural references.

“We don’t want every island to be a cookie cutter,” said Gerson. “We propose a balance between common elements that show the unity and diversity of the neighborhood.”

Roberto Ragone, executive director of the Lower East Side BID and chairperson of UNRAP, would also like to see the area’s early history acknowledged. In a phone conversation, Ragone explained, “The Lower East Side was an apple and cherry farm at one time, owned by a Frenchman, Étienne de Lancey.” The De Lancey estate extended from the Bowery to the East River and from Stanton to Division Sts., encompassing 120 blocks, making it the largest landholding by a single family on Manhattan Island. Delancey St. was named after his son, James. “It would be nice to have a tribute for that, too,” Ragone added.

Traffic calming and protecting pedestrians are of particular concern because of the history of pedestrian and cyclist accidents in the area, noted H.S.C.’s Frederick. Community proposals include improving the streets and sidewalks parallel to the islands; reducing the number of traffic lanes by widening the malls; changing the signal timing so that vehicle left turns and pedestrian crossings don’t coincide; creating marked pedestrian crossings along the length of the malls with “bump-outs”; and connecting the malls with some intersection closings.

“The malls are very narrow and disconnected, and you can’t walk between them,” stated Frederick. “The idea is to try to connect them or widen them so you can walk continuously down to the waterfront.”

Gerson, who said he conceived of the project shortly after 9/11, wants it to be “a centerpiece.”

“There was talk about creating a Champs-Élysées down to the West Side waterfront, which I supported, and we’re making progress there,” he said. “I also felt there should be an East Side Champs-Élysées. This was the perfect place because of the need for improvement and geography. It will be a wonderful walkway from Houston St. near the East Village, Soho, Little Italy and through Chinatown and the Lower East Side to the East River, and eventually the new East River waterfront park. It’s an exciting green project, as well as an enhancement project.”

The bike lanes are now alongside the parking, and trucks pull into the lanes, explained Frederick. Therefore, the community proposal is to have bike lanes next to the malls for their entire length and separated from the street, which could also act as a buffer for noise and slow down traffic.

Also, there are two malls side by side on East Broadway and Division St., which people thought could be combined.

“They are interested in creating a public plaza or greenmarket on that site, or even an event gathering space,” explained Frederick, although she acknowledged that this presents several challenges. The M15 bus would have to be rerouted somehow, and there needs to be access to the gas station located there.

On the business side, the greening of the malls is “very important as a draw for recreational and leisure space to bring people into the neighborhood and help them discover it as a daytime destination,” stated Ragone. “The same way that good transportation can play a role in economic development, we feel that open space and greening and sites for temporary and permanent art exhibits at the Allen and Pike St. malls are key to the economic development as well.”

He noted that the area has made a comeback after 9/11 as a nighttime destination. The bars, clubs and restaurants are very popular, and the area redefined itself for cutting-edge music and art, with new galleries coming in.

“But we need the impetus for additional visitors and getting residents from the more eastern portion of the Lower East Side to go west toward Orchard and Delancey Sts.,” Ragone said. “We think the malls will play a big part in that.”

Ragone predicts that pedestrians and bicyclists will play an increasingly important role in New York City neighborhoods in terms of shopping.

“Because there are a lot of young people who use bikes, it will lure them into the neighborhood,” he said. “The Allen St. mall represents a user-friendly depot to explore the Lower East Side, and everyone will have a place in the area to relax.”

Another idea was to try to support local small businesses and food vendors that would be showcased on the malls, rather than bringing in outside vendors. Also, public restrooms could be reopened, or the buildings converted to food concessions, a library gallery or visitor center.

One mall’s renovation has been completed at Allen St. between Broome and Delancey Sts., for which the Lower East Side BID raised money. People can be seen walking through the new pathway or relaxing on the benches. There are planting beds, an art installation and a scholar’s rock. It is also serving as a prototype for community input to see what is working and what isn’t.

“People liked having an art element,” noted Frederick. “But they said they wanted more green and higher plantings to make them feel safer and more enclosed from traffic.”

She also said that UNRAP was advocating for a “heftier” barrier than the post-and-chain fence to protect the plantings, but the Parks Department argued that if one part gets knocked over, it is easier to replace than the whole section. There is now one very visibly mangled section at a crossing, which was rammed by a vehicle.

“What we are looking to do is insure that all the recommendations made here are actually integrated into the design proposal, and that community members have a voice throughout the whole process,” Frederick said, “that we have a seat at the table throughout the whole design process.”

Both Parks and D.O.T. have the final say in the actual design. The malls are Parks property; between the malls, like the bike lanes, is D.O.T.’s domain, which has its proposal — for joining several of the malls together — posted online.

“We are excited about what D.O.T. is proposing,” said Frederick. “They are planning to connect the malls along four streets and reclaim more of the street and make much safer bike lanes.”

At a recent Parks Department public hearing, reported Gerson, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe stated they should be able to get funding to complete the entire job. The original price tag was between $400,000 to $500,000 per island. With delays, the projected cost has risen to $900,000 each. Currently, there is funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for half of the remaining malls, “but we hope with the stimulus money, we will have enough next year for the balance,” said Gerson. “We are shovel-ready.”

The next six malls to be done are three on the southern end of Pike St. and three on the northern end of Allen St. Work should begin as early as this summer.

“The first priority is once and for all to get these done,” stressed Gerson. “The community has suffered with this for too long, and the city will be better off for it.”

On Sat., April 25, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., as part of the Earth Day celebration — in conjunction with the New York Restoration Project, Time’s Up and Green Apple Maps — H.S.C. will present a small exhibition at the Allen St. Mall Comfort Station between Delancey and Rivington Sts. on the ongoing community involvement gathered through the extensive visioning process. City plans have not yet been finalized, but to stay informed and for a complete overview of the revitalization plans, visit H.S.C.’s Web site at www.hesterstreet.org.