Buses return – a Chinatown-City Hall connection


By Claire F. Hamilton

It was a bittersweet victory on Sunday for the politicians and Chinatown residents on a ceremonial bus ride from City Hall Park to Chatham Square to celebrate the partial reopening of Park Row, closed to traffic 9/11 due to its proximity to One Police Plaza, the courthouses and Brooklyn Bridge.

Proponents of the road’s reinstatement, who include Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Councilmember Alan Gerson, State Sen. Martin Connor and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, reiterated that this was just the first step forward in a struggle that has taken a toll on Chinatown businesses and commuters for three years. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent conclusion that high security could accommodate transportation — up to 200 M.T.A. buses per day between Worth St. and City Hall— was a belated appeal to neighbors’ efforts that include two lawsuits over what they said had effectively become an N.Y.P.D. parking lot.

The M-103 bus, which begins at City Hall, now passes through checkpoints before going near police headquarters into Chinatown and then the Lower East Side. There are no plans now to bring other bus routes back to Park Row.

Speaker Silver, who fought for Park Row concessions, spoke Sunday to celebrate the bus return. The mayor also is trying to convince him to approve construction of a West Side stadium and some have speculated that Bloomberg agreed to the Park Row change to curry favor with Silver. The speaker said he did not know if the mayor was motivated by the stadium issue but the bus decision was “two years too late.”

While Silver does not believe Park Row’s accessibility posed any security threat, he acknowledged the importance of security and said to a small crowd at Chatham Square, “We should begin to relocate things that need greater security to other parts of the city…We need Park Row fully open, and we’re going to show that it’s a manageable route,” he said.

Park Row’s turnaround comes two months after Bloomberg signed local law 185-A or the “Park Row Bill”— which requires the city to conduct an environmental study for any street that is closed for more than 180 days. “I think politics caused the change in security,” said Gerson, who introduced the law. “People use security to justify things…and it’s a lot easier to use [Park Row] as a parking lot,” he said.

While there was a consensus among many celebrants that the mayor’s decision grew out of a large-scale, political snowball, three residents who met privately with Bloomberg and Councilmember Margarita Lopez a few weeks ago — Paul Lee, Danny Chen and Jeanie Chin — said they thought the meeting arranged by Lopez was a key breakthrough.

“We’ve all been banging our heads against the wall for three and a half years. Between the N.Y.P.D. and Bloomberg, we’ve had zero communication,” said Lee. He said the meeting was to look for a “back-channel deal,” meaning that if no deal were met, the group would walk away with lips sealed. Bloomberg and Lopez, who rose to the council on the strength of her community activism on the Lower East Side, have a “wonderful, oddball relationship,” said Lee.

Lopez had worked on Park Row legislation early on but, “At the time, I couldn’t touch [the issue] because it wasn’t my district,” she said. It wasn’t until the first hearing, when residents voiced their frustration with the N.Y.P.D., that Lopez decided to try and bring in the mayor. She thought Bloomberg followed the City Charter by allowing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to handle the Park Row issue but it led to problems. “I think Mayor Bloomberg failed to see this issue earlier and that he was wrong, but as a mayor he has to be very careful,” she said. “Yes, he’s mayor but the one who sets policies is the commissioner.”

In his April announcement of Park Row’s reopening, Mayor Bloomberg focused on post-9/11 security. But it wasn’t until eight months after the towers fell that buses were barred from the road for what the N.Y.P.D. called security reasons. And the closure came shortly after Chen, a Chatham Green community board member, complained on behalf of residents that police parking already interfered with the visibility of commuters at bus stops. “They were taking a slash and burn approach. When you give law enforcement ultimate control, things like this will happen,” said Chen.

Police parking has angered residents beyond the confines of the contested thoroughfare. Civilian vehicles showing N.Y.P.D. permits are routinely parked all over Chinatown, and emergency vehicles were said to have frequent trouble getting around them.

Chin, a Chatham Towers board member who also attended Lopez’s meeting, believes that Bloomberg was genuinely surprised by the details she shared with him. “He had been going by the word of police on security — so he didn’t hear anything,” she said. Chin pointed to the inconsistencies of a “security problem,” saying that only the north side of police headquarters was said to merit such tight security. “There was no respect for people in our neighborhood,” she said.

Although there were suggestions of moving police headquarters on Sunday, Lopez balked at the idea, and said that One Police Plaza is crucial to the surrounding judicial system. She also believes strongly in security measures. “In America, we no longer have the luxury of thinking ‘maybe nothing will happen’,” she said.

After 90 days, the N.Y.P.D. will determine whether more bus traffic is advisable. Most activists are pushing for a full-scale reopening. Community members will meet to address the scope of an Environmental Impact Study on May 24. Silver told the crowd Sunday, “We’re going to bring the community back to the level it was before Sept. 11.”

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