Chelsea businesses bitter about bike lane; Project keeps rolling

By Patrick Hedlund

With the first section of the new Eighth Ave. bike lane already open to cyclists in the West Village, work recently began to extend the project north through Chelsea as part of the city’s plan to separate bikes from traffic up to 23rd St.

Over the past several weeks, work crews have started construction on a handful of pedestrian crossings at intersections between 14th and 23rd Sts., which will be followed by the installation of a protected “cycle track” lane on the avenue’s west side. The design divides bikers from vehicles by rows of plastic bollards, creating a car-free zone for cyclists. Previously, the bikers had to compete with drivers weaving in and out of the then-unprotected lane.

The project generated some significant opposition when first introduced last summer, sparking protests from local merchants and L.G.B.T. advocates, who feared potentially negative impacts on area businesses. Now, with the initial effects of the lane’s implementation starting to be seen, the consensus among many Eighth Ave. retailers is that their cost of doing business has skyrocketed.

“It’s going to kill me,” said Steve Ladenheim, the owner of Murphy Bed XPRESS between 20th and 21st Sts., who has been on the same block since 1971. “Anybody that has a business on the west side of the block, I guarantee they’re going to lose at minimum 30, maybe 50 percent of their business.”

One of Ladenheim’s foremost concerns, shared by other nearby retailers who rely on regular deliveries, is where incoming trucks will be allowed to unload and pick up along the avenue. With restaurants, bars, grocery stores and other delivery-dependent establishments dotting the busy stretch, merchants fear the loss of available parking spaces caused by the bike lane will damage their businesses’ viability.

“The amount of people you’re impacting is a hundred times that of the bikers,” Ladenheim said. “The bike lane can only hurt — it’s a lose-lose situation.”

At intersections where left-turn bays will be installed to accommodate westbound vehicle traffic, five to six parking spots will be lost in each case. So far, the city’s Department of Transportation has designated left-turn bays at 15th, 17th, 19th, 21st and 23rd Sts., which will result in the loss of about 25 to 30 total parking spots over the nine-block stretch. At the other intersections, where “pedestrian refuge” crossings are being constructed, those blocks will retain most of their original parking spots adjacent to the bike lane.

The loss of parking has already forced some delivery trucks to double-park on the east side of the street for drop-offs at stores across Eighth Ave. While merchants said some drivers will simply incur the cost of parking tickets to save the trouble of finding a spot farther away, the resulting snarls could reduce traffic down to two lanes in some places.

“We’re pissed off,” said John Pappas, co-owner of Chelsea Florist, at the corner of 22nd St., who recently had to double-park his store’s van on Eighth Ave. for a nearby delivery, resulting in a $115 ticket. “You can huff and puff all you want, but it will have no effect,” he said of trying to complain about the new lane’s impact.

Pappas’s family bought the store in 1977, and he noted that, aside from the parking issue, many potential customers will see the new bike lane — and its accompanying turn bays and pedestrians crossings — as a roadblock.

“It’s psychological,” Pappas said. “Once they see that concrete, they get confused. What do they do? They keep going.”

David Lehmkuhl, co-owner of the year-old restaurant Ate Ave. between 18th and 19th Sts., said the current delivery situation on Eighth Ave. is a “nightmare” that will only be exacerbated by the new bike lane. He also protested that the lane will permanently impact conditions on the street while benefiting bikers at peak hours mostly during warmer months.

“You’re building a barrier that’s there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long, but the most benefit that comes out of it is part-time use during the day,” Lehmkuhl said. “Nobody’s using it, but it’s there forever.”

He also believes that cyclists will continue to disregard traffic rules — riding in the opposite direction and not obeying crossing signals — the way he’s observed on Ninth Ave.

“They’re always about to get run over by a cab or truck making a turn,” Lehmkuhl said, noting that bikers are more alert in nonseparated bike lanes. “I don’t see where they say this is so much better.”

Many in the Chelsea community view the Ninth Ave. bike lane, whose cycle track design will be replicated on Eighth Ave., as a harbinger of things to come on the more heavily trafficked avenue a block east. Because of the speed and relative ease of installing the lane between 14th and 34th Sts. there last year, retailers on Ninth Ave. could only react after the fact — which for one meant going out of business.

“A lot of the merchants are still mad over on Ninth Ave.,” said Dirk McCall, executive director of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, which has worked closely with D.O.T. and neighborhood retailers regarding the bike lanes. He confirmed that at least one operation, a gallery space on Ninth Ave., had to leave because of the loss of business attributed to the lane. “These people, they lost their life savings, and it’s because of the bike lane,” McCall charged.

As on Ninth Ave., merchants on Eighth Ave. who have relied on business from cab drivers parking curbside have already begun feeling the pinch.

“It’s already affecting my business,” said Krishna Nandal, who has owned the Best Price Deli and Grocery between 17th and 18th Sts. for the past 12 years. The recent addition of a “No Parking Anytime” sign on her block — installed just for the bike lane’s construction period — has kept the cabbies away and resulted in Nandal receiving a $115 ticket for parking outside the store.

However, her own loss of parking pales in comparison to that of her delivery people.

“When we get a big delivery, they’re going to cry,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

Nandal also wondered where all the cyclists were to justify the new lane.

“Do you think that many people ride their bikes here? They have to make a special lane for them?” she asked.

“That’s crazy,” a customer chimed in. “It makes no sense.”

Robert Chisholm, who has co-owned the Chisholm Larsson Poster Gallery near the corner of 17th St. since 1981, agreed that the area might not have the critical mass of cyclists to necessitate such an extensive project.

“I’m not optimistic it will be used enough. We’re giving up a lot,” said Chisholm, who added he appreciates the concept of creating more street space for bikers, just not on this thoroughfare. “I really think Eighth Avenue has so much traffic. We’re giving up too much for cyclists,” he said.

D.O.T. is currently looking at establishing loading zones on side streets, but none are being considered  on Eighth Ave. itself.

“D.O.T. continues to address the concerns of businesses pertaining to this project, which will be completed later this spring,” said department spokesperson Scott Gastel, who could not elaborate more specifically.

However, some outstanding issues related to the bike lane continue to bother merchants and advocates, who have yet to receive a response from D.O.T. addressing their concerns. McCall said he was working to get a loading zone added in front of the Joyce Theater at the corner of W. 19th St., where large buses regularly drop off and pick up groups of passengers attending shows. But with a left-turn bay slated for that corner, which will eliminate parking and a place for the buses to unload, “you couldn’t make a worse decision,” McCall said. D.O.T. had no comment on the issue.

“I have a lot of faith in D.O.T.; I think they’re trying to do the right thing,” McCall maintained, adding that merchants are still calling him two to three times a week looking for new information. “I don’t really have answers yet,” he said, “and it makes me nervous.”

As for Ladenheim of Murphy Bed XPRESS, he said he’s witnessed a transformation of the neighborhood throughout his nearly four decades on Eighth Ave. — but never anything like this.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes in Chelsea,” he said, “and this is the one that’s going to impact the street the most.”