Astor plan still has legs

By Jessica Mintz

Plans for a more pedestrian-friendly area around Astor Pl. and Cooper Sq. are on the table again. The Department of Transportation plans to work with representatives from Community Boards 2 and 3 to take a fresh look at the process.

In a meeting of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee last Wednesday, D.O.T announced the formation of a joint task force that would start from scratch and end with a coherent vision for spending about $500,000 in federal enhancement money on pedestrian improvements in the area.

“We are not proposing anything,” said Randy Wade, director of pedestrian projects at D.O.T.; instead, she said, D.O.T. planned to serve only as technical consultants. “I don’t want you to think D.O.T. is coming to you with a plan.”

Wade did make reference to a traffic study done by D.O.T. in 2001 that suggested eliminating southbound traffic on Fourth Ave. She also said that the task force might want to consider adding safe crossings south of Cooper Union, where Third and Fourth Aves. merge into the Bowery. Ultimately, said Wade, “The question is, ‘What does the community want?’”

In spite of Wade’s insistence to the contrary, Jim Smith, chairperson of C.B. 2, has no illusions about starting from scratch.

“Basically, this is going to be D.O.T.’s plan. They’re looking for input,” said Smith in a telephone interview after the meeting. “Ultimately, D.O.T. will come out with a plan for the redesign and refurbishment of Astor Pl. and the immediate area and they will implement it…. I think they already have a fairly good idea of what they want to do.”

Anna Sawaryn, chairperson of the Coalition to Save the East Village, is equally skeptical about beginning anew after years of emotionally charged dealings with Cooper Union about its general large-scale development plan.

“Although Randy Wade said there is no real plan, this is what they have been discussing [for the last several years],” said Sawaryn, referring to the narrowing of Fourth Ave. and elongating the small, triangular Peter Cooper Park below Cooper Union. “There is no doubt in my mind that Cooper Union is behind this.”

Cooper Union spokesperson Claire McCarthy said that the academic institution’s plans went only as far zoning and building, and that decisions on traffic changes or pedestrian areas are, as they always were, entirely up to D.O.T.

“We don’t have any particular needs,” said McCarthy. “We made some suggestions in the past, and we will be talking to [D.O.T.].”

Sawaryn said that the coalition would like to see pedestrian-zone planning put off until the existing development projects in the area settle down. “There’s too much chaos and construction to add another project,” she said. “It seems like a waste of time and money right now to do all the streetscape changes that might have to be taken apart anyway when they start constructing buildings.”

At the meeting, committee chairperson Aubrey Lees questioned whether the $500,000, earmarked for use in 1996, was in danger of being forfeited because it had gone unspent for so long. Wade confirmed that D.O.T. was applying for extensions to use those funds.

“If we waited since 1996, what’s the reason to do it now?” questioned Sawaryn. She also said the coalition would like to consider spending the $500,000 on other street-related projects that the community might need more. “We’d like to see it go for street repairs, or to fix congestion.”

Sawaryn also worried the community might not have enough of a chance to make its mark on the final plan.

“These are community board task forces,” said Smith, who emphasized that the meetings are open to the public. “Whoever else wants to have a task force, it’s a free country,” he added, referring both to Cooper Union and other community groups.

The task force, which is scheduled to meet during the first week in December, has no set timeline to produce plans.

“We’re hoping that it will be long enough for us to be satisfied that our input has been given and digested by D.O.T., and reflected by D.O.T. in the final plans,” said Smith.