Block-Long Sidewalk Plaza Proposal Divides West 97th Street Neighbors

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A conceptual rendering of a multi-use greenway along West 97th developed by Friends of Stryker Park, which emphasized that a specific design proposal has not yet been developed. | FRIENDS OF STRYKER PARK

BY JACKSON CHEN | An Upper West Side nonprofit organization is introducing three one-day plaza events in June on a block of West 97th Street, but some neighbors question whether that is appropriate and worry about the precedent it may set.

Friends of Stryker Park was created by UWS residents who are looking to permanently convert the north sidewalk of West 97th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues — which is usually deep, measuring 50 feet across — into a multi-use green space with chairs, tables, and other public amenities. After encountering resistance from other residents as well as Community Board 7, the organization has returned with single-day events aimed at giving neighbors snapshots of what a permanent plaza could look like.

According to Friends, a “One Day Plaza” will be held on June 11, 18, and 25 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the northwest corner of West 97th Street and Columbus Avenue. The schedule lays out themes on those Saturdays as Family Day, Health and Wellness Day, and Celebrate Summer Day, respectively, with each also including music, food, and street activities of general interest.

The group hasn’t given up on its effort to permanently alter the block. In fact, it acknowledges that the one-day events are intended to build support for the block’s transformation while also gathering feedback from the community on how to go about doing that.

“[We] got interested in the block because of the potential,” said Jim Henderson, co-founder of Friends of Stryker Park. “The bigger idea is to look at what can be done to enhance the block.”

But that bigger picture is precisely what concerns longtime neighbors who warn that changes to the block –– even for one-day events –– would detract from the residential feel and bring in tourists.

The north side of West 97th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues as it currently looks, with an unusually deep sidewalk measuring 50 feet. | FRIENDS OF STRYKER PARK
The north side of West 97th Street from Amsterdam Avenue looking toward Columbus Avenue as it currently looks, with an unusually deep sidewalk measuring 50 feet. | FRIENDS OF STRYKER PARK

Lillian Moore, a longtime resident of West 97th Street, noted that with a superblock running from West 97th to 100th Street and no through streets at 98th and 99th, foot traffic is unusually heavy on both 100th and 97th Streets. There is no room to accommodate a plaza that would narrow the pedestrian sidewalk, she argued.

“There’s no streets between 97th Street and 100th Street,” Moore, a member of Community Board 7’s Transportation Committee member, said. “We have schools, driveways, health clinics. We’ve got a farmer’s market.”

Moore charged that there are commercial incentives behind the one-day plazas that would lead to the eventual creation of a permanent version.

“People are beginning to understand wherever they can grab the land, they’re grabbing it,” Moore said.

Alongside concerns for space, other residents emphasized the risk that a plaza along West 97th Street would detract from its neighborhood feel.

“I believe it’ll turn into something for tourists,” said Julie Leak, a 20-year resident of Columbus Avenue. “It’ll create havoc for people who live [there] because it’s going to be very noisy.”

Leak said she’d be attending the first two one-day plazas and taking notes on what impacts they have on the block.

Moore said she is working with other opponents of the permanent greenway to protest each of the one-day plaza events from noon to 1 p.m. at their West 97th and Columbus location.

But Bob Leonard, another co-founder of Friends of Stryker Park, said the group’s efforts would improve a neglected block for which they have coined the description “a sea of concrete.”

Besides introducing a place for residents and passersby to hang out, the Friends group said its proposal would better a street that currently has problems including unmarked driveways, poor maintenance of lights and trees, cracked sidewalks, and flooding conditions.

To date, the Friends group has won support from 700 residents on an online petition to transform the block into a permanent plaza.

The group has no specific design in mind just yet for the West 97th Street Plaza, said the Friends’ Henderson, but would submit a proposal next year to the city Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program that awards funding to nonprofits that develop public spaces. For now, Henderson said, the group is focused on the upcoming one-day plaza events.

Some neighbors have voiced support for the idea of beautifying the area overall. Danny Perry, a longtime resident of West 97th Street’s south side, said the changes pushed by the Friends of Stryker Park, would be an improvement on a largely unused street. Perry said he welcomed the one-day plazas as opportunities for the community to see the possibilities for the drab block.

“When you’re just talking about 97th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, the block has been the same the whole time,” Perry said. “It’s a long strip of concrete that’s pretty desolate.”