Task force cries Astor plan will draw ‘drunk hooligans’


By Albert Amateau

Members of the Astor Place Task Force were appalled last week at the city’s proposal to include public, 24-hour seating in the redesign of the busy Astor Place / Cooper Square intersection.

The redesign presented at the Jan. 6 meeting of the joint task force of Community Boards 2 and 3 calls for benches outside the gates of Peter Cooper Park and seating areas in a new public open space to be created in the triangular roadbed area just south of the park.

But what designers and agency officials called “an extraordinary opportunity to green, soften and beautify” a harsh intersection, East Village members of Community Board 3 said is an invitation to crowds of noisy drunks from neighboring nightlife venues to hang out until the early hours.

“Benches in public areas will encourage drunken hooligans to congregate in an area that already has a lot of bars and hotels and will be getting more,” said David Crane, chairperson of Community Board 3’s Transportation and Public Safety / Environment Committee, who conducted the meeting last week.

“People already congregate on the sidewalks at night,” said Alexandra Militano, a task force member and chairperson of the C.B. 3 State Liquor Authority and Department of Consumer Affairs Licensing Committee. “We don’t have a dearth of sidewalk cafes,” Militano added.

“You have a very beautiful design, but you’re creating problems for people living here,” Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, told the city representatives. “We have two major issues — noise and rats,” she said, suggesting that the innovative and extensive green areas proposed for the redesign could harbor rats. “Bars across the street have been a constant problem — the source of drunken loudness. We want the park locked at night and places not locked to have no seating,” Stetzer said.

“You’re not here at night,” Martin Tessler, a former C.B. 2 member who lives just north of Cooper Square, told the city officials at the meeting. “It’s like Disneyland with alcohol,” he said.

Encouraging noisy nighttime crowds would especially impact JASA Green, the 14-story residence at 200 E. Fifth St. with 150 apartments for seniors, Stetzer said.

Nevertheless, many task force members acknowledged the aesthetic and environmental benefits of the redesign, which would transform Cooper Square at the intersections of Bowery, Fourth Ave., Astor Place and Lafayette and E. Eighth Sts.

Under the project, Astor Place between Lafayette St. and Cooper Square (Fourth Ave.) would be closed to vehicles and incorporated into the new plaza. Decorative paving would mark the route of the former road segment.

After four hours of discussion, the task force voted to give the plan a qualified approval, including a recommendation that there be no open public seating, except behind gates that would be locked at night.

The $6.5 million project would include four locations:

• The Astor Place subway plaza between E. Ninth and E. Eighth Sts. at Fourth Ave. and Lafayette Sts.

• “The Alamo” plaza, where the large black cube sculpture by Tony Rosenthal is located on a traffic island at Astor Place.

• The gated Peter Cooper Park triangle — south of The Cooper Union’s Foundation Building — between E. Seventh and E. Sixth Sts.

• A new green triangle south of the park, to be known as the Village Plaza.

Grace Church intends to open a private high school on the west side of the proposed Village Plaza beginning in September 2012 on the west side of Cooper Square.

While seating possibilities are envisioned for all four areas, Board 3 task force members were especially against the proposal for permanent seating outside the gated area of an enlarged Peter Cooper Park. They were also against the proposal for seats in the new triangle to the south of Peter Cooper Park, which would have no fencing whatsoever.

Nevertheless, there was a suggestion that movable daytime seating might be acceptable if some neighborhood organization agreed to take the chairs or benches away at night.

The Department of Design and Construction, the lead agency in the project, intends to submit its preliminary plans for the project, including the task force resolution against open 24-hour public seating, to the next meeting of the city Design Commission for approval.

But the project, which has been on the city agenda for at least six years, is not likely to begin before 2013.

“This is a jurisdictionally complex project,” Andy Wiley Schwartz, an assistant commissioner with the Department of Transportation, told the Jan. 6 meeting, noting that D.O.T., the Parks Department, the Department of Environmental Protection and D.D.C. are involved in the project. “It will bring big changes to an important part of Manhattan,” he said.

The impetus was the construction of New York City’s Third Water Tunnel, an important section of which is on E. Fourth St. just south of the Astor Place / Cooper Square project. The redesign was put on hold when the water tunnel project was delayed for budget reasons. Now back on track, the water tunnel project is expected to be completed in a year or so.

“D.E.P. told us they could restore the streets the way they were or rebuild them along a new design,” Schwartz said. Although the federal government has withdrawn funds originally earmarked for the Astor Place project, city funding for it is now in place, he said.