Bollards and ‘breasts’ are still not fully embraced in the new Meat Market traffic-calming design

By Heather Murray

Meatpacking District residents and business owners turned out in force at the Jan. 13 Community Board 2 Traffic and Transportation Committee meeting to comment on the buxom-looking bollards and drab slabs in the temporary design of new pedestrian spaces along Gansevoort and Greenwich Sts. and the project as a whole. A team of Department of Transportation officials was on hand to field their input.

Although much of the reaction continues to be negative, there is optimism that, with some tweaking, the design can be improved.

D.O.T. called the meeting with C.B. 2 several months after the project’s May 2008 installation in order to gather feedback before moving ahead with creating a permanent design.

The six pedestrian spaces in the street beds of Greenwich and Gansevoort Sts. are separated from traffic by tree planters and concrete blocks and bollards and range from a large, open area on Gansevoort St. to smaller “neckdown” enclosures in front of Gaslight bar and Vento restaurant at 14th St.

D.O.T.’s project goals include increasing pedestrian safety, bringing greenery — as seen in the new High Line park — down to street level and creating spaces for activities and events.

According to D.O.T., data collected during two weeks before the project’s implementation and afterward, changes in traffic volume have been “negligible.” Meanwhile, travel time through the area has decreased by 13 seconds during weekday evening rush hour between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and increased 49 seconds during the weekend late-night rush hour between 12 a.m. and 2 a.m. The speed of traffic through the area has increased during the 6 p.m.-to-7 p.m. peak hour and decreased during the weekend 2 a.m.-to-3 a.m. peak hour, “due to reduced travel lanes,” the D.O.T. presentation states.

Ivy Brown, who lives in the “Triangle Building” between 13th and 14th Sts. on Ninth Ave., feels the project has increased pedestrian safety.

A piece of tape that the Department of Transportation put down to mark traffic lanes along Ninth Ave. in the Meat Market. A local preservation group says the unsightly silver tape is harming the historic cobblestones’ “integrity.”

“I used to run for my life to cross Ninth Ave.,” she said. “There was nothing to stop the rodeo of cars and taxi cabs. I appreciate that D.O.T. created this. I think the benefit to the residents and the safety that it has brought is great.”

Brown, who spent 10 years in London while growing up said, “We don’t have parks here like we do in Europe. This is not a city that has pedestrian spaces. I happen to ride a bicycle and this happens to be phenomenal for me,” she said of the new traffic-calming structures.

Similarly, Greenwich St. resident Nancy Blanford said, “My bottom line is that I sleep at night. People aren’t honking outside my building every night at 3 a.m.”

Blanford thinks it will take D.O.T. “a couple more iterations before everyone is happy.” But she added, “I’m grateful that the attempt is being made.”

But Horatio St. resident Marjorie Colt said the plan isn’t working nearly well enough.

“D.O.T. needs to do something about the noise and taxis and traffic,” she said.

Colt’s major concern is that, as she put it, “aesthetically, it’s horrible. It’s a mishmash of different textures and sizes, and the white plastic lines drawn on the plaza are defacing the cobblestones,” she said. She added that “the bollards — now universally referred to as ‘breasts’ or ‘nipples’ — they’re horrible!”

Colt said Meat Market traffic has increasingly worsened during the past 10 years as the district became a chic shopping and nightlife destination. She lived in the area for 40 years before and remembers the neighborhood’s relative quiet then.

“Who knows how long this is going to be the hot neighborhood for restaurants and clubs,” she wondered. “Who knows?”

Colt said she feels another issue D.O.T. might have to resolve is “who will pay for the maintenance of the plaza?”

Currently, the Meatpacking District Initiative — a commercial development group whose goal is to support the Market’s functioning as “a 24-hour ecosystem” — has spent more than $50,000, or 20 percent of its annual budget, buying plants for and maintaining the public spaces.

Annie Washburn, M.P.D.I. executive director and a C.B. 2 Traffic and Transportation Committee member, charged that the city promised to give M.P.D.I. $40,000 toward maintenance of those spaces and that the promise was never fulfilled.

David Rabin, M.P.D.I. president and the main partner in Lotus, the W. 14th St. nightclub and restaurant, and Los Dados, a Mexican restaurant on Gansevoort St., said M.P.D.I. has no money in its budget to maintain the plazas and “we will not continue to maintain them.”

Washburn said the group has put on successful events at Gansevoort Plaza, including its annual Design Week and the NYC Wine and Food Festival.

But this past holiday season, when a local business wanted to erect a “Rockefeller Center-style” Christmas tree in the plaza, the city nixed the idea. The business had pledged to make a contribution to M.P.D.I. that would have covered the costs of maintaining the pedestrian spaces throughout the winter. Washburn said the city rejected the idea because religious symbolism isn’t allowed on D.O.T. property.

“We’re in a difficult situation, because we don’t have a budget to support the spaces” like an actual business improvement district, or BID, would, she said.

Washburn complained about the hot-dog carts and other vendors who camp out in the pedestrian spaces late at night. Rabin said in an e-mail that on one warm night after midnight, there were 14 vendors set up at Gansevoort Plaza. The city told him the vendors have a legal right to be there since the plaza is considered an extension of the sidewalk, he said.

Rabin said the street vendors “spew smoke all over the area and leave tons of garbage in their wake,” which M.P.D.I. later has to clean up. They also attract hungry bar and nightclub patrons, who linger in the plaza after outdoor cafes have closed at 1 a.m. on the weekends.

“Residents get angry about the people who are out there being noisy, but no one is empowered to quiet them down nor clear them,” he said.

Other concerns Rabin raised included increased car traffic due to the narrowing of Ninth Ave., “the horrible aesthetics and the completely unrealistic and fantasy-land idea that people can take public transportation to our neighborhood late at night.”

Initially, M.P.D.I. was enthusiastic about the idea of adding pedestrian spaces that would double as traffic-calming devices.

“Four years ago, when we began this process of getting public space, I was excited for our area,” Washburn said. “Back then, from what I understood, the space we were talking about was Gansevoort Plaza. What we, in fact, got was one large plaza and five oddly shaped and unusable spaces that create a lot of chaos and clutter on Ninth Ave.,” Washburn stated at the Jan. 13 meeting.

With the current traffic-flow configuration, “it’s literally impossible to get to many of our businesses,” she said. “They’re languishing.”

Washburn acknowledged that D.O.T. “never said this is going to be here forever” and she is confident that the final design will be more in tune with the community’s needs. “I have a lot of faith in D.O.T.,” she said.

Yet the current design just fails in multiple ways, in her view, and notably cannot shake the “breasts” description.

“The bollards really do look like nipples,” Washburn said. “It’s not even subliminal. It’s pornographic.”

Matt de Matt, who owns Gaslight bar and lounge at 14th St. and NinthAve., said since the project was installed, he had to hire someone to sweep the new neckdown area outside his establishment and water the plants.

He has also added more bouncers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to handle the increased crowds coming to catch taxis on the new neckdown outside his place.

“The drunks coming from a nightclub wait outside our restaurant to get a cab,” he said. “If they start arguments with our customers, that becomesour problem.”

However, de Matt thinks that, over all, the idea for the plazas is “a wonderful thing,” because it makes the streets safer for pedestrians. He does wish the design meshed more with the neighborhood’s character, though, and feels the city should pay for upkeep of the plaza spaces and planters.

C.B. 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman said after the Jan. 13 meeting, “I think the Gansevoort traffic forum went really well. We’re glad D.O.T. kept their promise to come back to the community after six months to hear community concerns. Clearly, as we heard, some adjustments are in order, such as on some aesthetic details and to accommodate taxis, possibly through the creation of a taxi stand.”

Hoylman said the community board will continue to work with local businesses and residents to improve the plan.

Jo Hamilton, C.B. 2 first vice chairperson and a Jane St. resident, said she felt the Jan. 13 meeting was “a great success on a number of levels.” She said the majority of speakers seemed pleased with the project, especially neighboring residents who “were under stress by the late-night honking.”

Hamilton felt that many speakers liked D.O.T.’s new way of using street design to reclaim space from cars.

However, Hamilton said, “The overwhelming consensus here was that the design was not optimal. D.O.T. explained that what’s there is what they could put together for a temporary project. … D.O.T. is very, very committed to making this into a permanent project.”

Asked if she would like design to be changed right now, Hamilton responded, “Oh, sure, but that’s not going to happen. It needs to go through an approval process with Landmarks and the Art Commission to come up with a design that’s appropriate.”

Hamilton explained that one challenge D.O.T. has with the Gansevoort design, as opposed to other pedestrian spaces in the city, is that “you can’t move the curbs” due to the area’s historic-district designation. “Instead, you have to find elements — for now, the bollards and the planters — that can safely separate people from cars. If this does become permanent, then D.O.T. needs to find an appropriate element to separate people from cars.”

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation strongly dislikes the current design, said its executive director, Andrew Berman.

“The objects themselves are a random and visually chaotic assortment with no connection to the neighborhood character or the cobblestones,” Berman said. “In general, we would like to see the objects used to create the pedestrian spaces be as simple and consistent as possible.” He added that the pattern of spaces themselves is “similarly random” and asked that their size and shape also be kept simple and consistent.

Berman requested that the tape strips placed atop the cobblestones be removed to protect the stones’ integrity.

D.O.T. estimated in its presentation that the final design phase will run from July of this year to June 2010. Construction would start in July 2010 and run through June 2011.

Additional comments on the project can be e-mailed to Colleen Chattergoon at cchattergoon@dot.nyc.gov.