Idea to improve Mulberry, create Jersey St. plaza

Georgette Fleischer, center, and Minerva Durham, right, speaking with D.O.T.’s David Breen about the plaza plan at the May 5 meeting.  PHOTO BY GERARD FLYNN
Georgette Fleischer, center, and Minerva Durham, right, speaking with D.O.T.’s David Breen about the plaza plan at the May 5 meeting. PHOTO BY GERARD FLYNN

BY GERARD FLYNN  |  Since the mid-1990s, the summer Mulberry St. Mall has lured tourists to Little Italy, allowing them to dine at sidewalk cafes that are extended out into the street, which is closed to traffic.

But closing Mulberry St. down to traffic for four months every year has had its share of vocal critics from the start.

On the evening of Mon., May 5, some of those were in attendance downstairs in Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which faces the famed thoroughfare, to protest a proposal for a significant facelift to the historic street.

In 2013, the cathedral, which was elevated to basilica status by the Vatican several years ago, applied to the Department of Transportation’s “Plaza Program.” The Bloomberg-led initiative, which dates back to 2008, provides funds to create plazas “that will transform underused streets into vibrant, social public spaces.”

Monsignor Donald Sakano, Old St. Pat’s pastor, wants to use the money to restore the old feel of the neighborhood, making pedestrians take more notice of the many landmarked structures on the block, he said.

The monsignor sees the proposal as a done deal, with its implementation “immediate.” 

But D.O.T. project planner David Breen told the roughly 50 locals at the meeting that the proposal is still in its “very, very early stages.” He stressed that the D.O.T. officials were there to just “workshop ideas,” not much else. The plan would develop with community input and that D.O.T. “has no agenda,” he said. But, as the evening wore on, that was clearly a view not shared by everyone.

Proposed alterations to one block of Mulberry St., between Prince and Houston Sts., and the adjacent Jersey St., between Mulberry and Lafayette Sts., include sidewalk widening, with planters and new lighting “harkening back,” the monsignor said, to the old days. 

Jersey St. might look more plaza-like when the project is slated for implementation by July, after one more public hearing and the hoped-for nod of approval from Community Board 2.

The plaza program requires letters of support from nonprofits and businesses in the community. A C.B. 2 member or members reportedly did meet with Monsignor Sakano to discuss the proposal.

Large stone or cast-concrete blocks looking big enough to build the pyramids might also be brought in to define the plaza area and provide perches for seating.

A design of similar finished plaza drew approval from some but sighs of disappointment from others, when the gravelly looking Bogardus Plaza in nearby Tribeca, with its smart chairs and tables was shown.

In addition, some local residents are still riled at D.O.T. after the agency allegedly backpedaled in 2011 on promises not to replace an art space at nearby Petrosino Square with a Citi Bike bike-share station. 

Georgette Fleischer, founder of Friends of Petrosino Square, fought the city on the bike-share site all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost last year.

While some left the meeting expressing satisfaction with the proposed changes, Fleischer has no faith that D.O.T. will do right this time around. 

“I don’t trust them,” she said, adding she worries the department will do a flip-flop on assurances — guaranteed by the monsignor — that the project won’t close the street permanently.

As for Sakano’s expectations of more serenity, she said, Mulberry St. is already serene enough. She said the priest was “absolutely incorrect” in saying the completed project would bring out the neighborhood’s old flavor, cobblestones and all. Instead, she said, it would just add to the city’s “suburbanization.”

“This will turn Mulberry St. into a street just like any other plaza, choked with tourists,” she said.

Fleischer was also particularly incensed that they only found out two days before the meeting that C.B. 2 had already given its support to the project, which is required to obtain the funding. The May 5 meeting was led by Sakano, and was not a C.B. 2-sponsored meeting, she noted.

The board passed a resolution of approval in September 2013 that concluded, “Whereas a large number of letters in support of the proposed project were received from local residents, business people, cultural, educational and other nonprofit institutions, property owners and elected officials, and several residents came in person to express their support (including a representative from the Broadway Residents Coalition who praised the Basilica’s Monsignor Sakano for his helpfulness to the community);

“Therefore be it resolved that Community Board 2 fully supports the proposal by the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral to plan enhancements for Jersey St. between Mulberry and Lafayette Sts. and Mulberry St. between E. Houston and Prince Sts. and encourages D.O.T.’s Plaza Program to approve and provide financial support to carry out this important project.”

The resolution was approved unanimously with 38 board members in favor.

However, Secunda subsequently stressed to The Villager that what C.B. 2 approved was merely the planning process itself, and not the final proposed plan.