Stairs are a good step


The Public Theater’s plan to add a new staircase to the front of its Lafayette St. building provoked passionate reactions at last week’s Community Board 2 meeting. Brad Hoylman, the board’s chairperson, said afterward that he didn’t know whether the board would approve the proposal or not. In the end, C.B. 2 narrowly gave its O.K. for a revocable consent for the stairs and related elements.

Previously, C.B. 2 had actually come out against the plan on landmark grounds. But the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission supported the project.

On the face of it, and despite the vocal opposition to the plan from many Noho neighbors, we think adding the staircase is a very good idea. First of all, the Public Theater needs a more prominent entrance; this staircase will provide that. Also, it will create a public plaza of sorts, where people will gather to relax and enjoy the Noho scene.

The theater definitely needs better handicapped accessibility, and the two ramps that will be added as part of this project will address that need.

The most hotly debated issue is the so-called bump-out — the planned extension of the sidewalk into Lafayette St. by about 10 feet so that people will be able to safely walk around this new grand staircase. The bump-out won’t noticeably change the street, because there will continue to be a parking lane both north and south of it — while parking won’t be allowed on the bump-out’s edge. Yes, this pushed-out pavement will surely become a drop-off and pickup point for taxis and cars. But, over all, Lafayette St. — a very wide, one-way thoroughfare — will be minimally affected.

As it is now, this stretch of Lafayette St. — which lacks side streets between E. Fourth St. and Astor Place — is like a long canyon, and a fairly gloomy one, at that, at night. It sports the remnants of a once-longer Colonnade Row, constructed in the 1830s, when the street was an ultra-fashionable address. Across from the buildings, the Public Theater, originally built as the Astor Library, was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s by Joseph Papp; today, it is one of Downtown’s treasured institutions.

For all its historic architecture, this extra-long stretch of unbroken Lafayette St. distinctly lacks a focal point. The theater’s staircase will provide that. It will probably also help slow down traffic, as drivers will, consciously or unconsciously, ease off on the gas pedal as they pass by. At night, lighting added around this “stoop” will lend a new attractiveness.

The theater, however, clearly did not win over the community. This plan — especially the bump-out — needed to be sold with more consideration of neighbors. Often, when an institution proposes a plan that might, at first, seem self-serving, there is a knee-jerk reaction against it. But the fact is, this change will improve Lafayette St., for all of us. And let’s remember: Pedestrian space isn’t being taken away — a lane of traffic is.

Putting this proposal in perspective, it will be a win-win for everyone.