The new Grand bike lane isn’t, Little Italy merchants complain

By Jefferson Siegel

A new, green-hued bike lane traversing Soho, Chinatown and Little Italy has many storeowners seeing red, fearful the lane’s presence will hurt business and create a dangerous situation.

Less than a month ago, the Department of Transportation installed the new lane along Grand St. between Varick and Chrystie Sts., using a design that physically separates the bike lane from traffic with a row of parked cars. 

“It sounds like a good idea, but on this street, in particular, there’s not enough room,” said Ernest Rossi, owner of E. Rossi Co. Outside the door of Rossi’s longtime business lies 34-foot-wide Grand St., sporting a 5-foot-wide, green bike lane; a 3-foot-wide, painted buffer area; an 8-foot wide lane of parked cars; a 10-foot-wide lane of traffic, and a second lane of parking on the street’s opposite side.

Rossi said the north side of the street, where a simpler bike lane used to be, will soon be used for commercial parking.

“It will make the street even narrower,” he said. “A fire truck or an ambulance won’t be able to get through.” 

On the block between Centre and Baxter Sts., a tractor-trailer from Quebec parked on the green-marked bike lane as workers from a corner store rushed up to the big rig to unload furniture.

“What can I do?” the driver asked. A cyclist was forced to pedal up onto the sidewalk to bypass the truck, which was clogging the designated lane.

Several business owners said they supported bike lanes, but all echoed Rossi’s belief that their narrow street was not conducive to one. 

Ernest Lepore, president of the century-old Ferrara cafe and pastry shop, is himself a cyclist.

“I’ve been riding my bicycle in from Brooklyn since I was 16, so I’m for a bike lane,” Lepore said while sitting at a table in his popular shop. The tantalizing smell of baked goods did little to soothe his displeasure.

“Grand St. is an emergency thoroughfare,” Lepore continued. “Last week two fire trucks couldn’t make the turn,” onto Mott St., a fact several other business owners confirmed. “There’s no provision for cabs, tour buses, fire trucks or ambulances.” The cafe owner said deliveries to his establishment are now scheduled for before 11 a.m. daily because of the street congestion, which he said is caused by the new bike lane.

His sister, Adeline, noted the drop in business.

“There used to be 42 tour busses a day, now they’re down to 35,” she said. “Little Italy is now ‘Little, Little Italy.’ The bike lane prevents people from getting here.” The two said business was off 25 percent since the new lane was installed. 

“This could be the demise of Little Italy,” Ernest said, adding, “I question how many more cyclists we’re going to create with this new bike lane.” 

D.O.T. presented the lane proposal to Community Boards 2 and 3 in July. The agency told the boards Grand St. was a “popular cross-town bicycle route” and an essential bicycle network link to the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges.

Before the bike lane was installed, several dozen concerned local business owners held a meeting with Councilmember Alan Gerson to express their opposition to the special, protected lane. 

Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, said the board had sought input from the business community. 

“The only formal communication the community board has received on the matter was a letter of support from a commercial building owner on Grand St.,” Dutton said. 

“The design was initially made with the input of both the Sanitation and Fire departments, so their initial concerns should have been addressed,” Dutton said of local shopkeepers. “It’s possible, however, that illegal parking has been impacting the success of the design, and we may be asking for changes to further discourage illegal parking and accommodate parking needs.”

At midday on Monday there were few cyclists on Grand St., but one bike messenger rushed down the center of the traffic lane.

“I hate it,” Doug D., of Brooklyn, said of the green lane while pausing long enough to radio his dispatcher.

“The bike lane’s designed for people who ride their bikes slowly,” he complained. He pointed to another obstruction, a ladder standing in the lane leaning against a building scaffolding.

“It’s the small things, like the pedestrians that don’t follow the rules,” Doug said as nearby a man pushed a cart through the lane. “I prefer dealing with cars,” he added before pedaling off. 

Leonard Altabet, manager of Manhattan Grand Optical near Mott St., worried about the lane’s potential impact on local businesses in the economic downturn.

“Little Italy is tourists,” he said. “It’s going to kill the tourist industry.” Altabet complained that tour buses have difficulty making it through the newly narrowed traffic lane. He believed siting the lane on a less commercial and wider street, like Kenmare St. two blocks to the north, would have made more sense. 

John Fratta, president of the Little Italy Restoration Association, is concerned about the effect on the community’s “viability.” At a meeting with D.O.T. and the community board, Fratta said the street should have been left the way it was, and that the old unprotected bike lane on the north side of the street should not have been replaced with the protected lane on the south side of the street.

“D.O.T.’s response was, the harder we make it for cars to drive in New York, the less cars will come to New York,” Fratta said. He said his group and several others are considering filing an Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit used to challenge decisions by government agencies. 

“It’s like Transportation Alternatives is running the New York City Department of Transportation,” Fratta continued. “We’re not against the bike lane, but you can’t disrupt our whole traffic pattern for a bike lane.” 

Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives — an advocacy group for cycling, pedestrians and public transit — stressed the need for replacing the old bike lane with the new, safer version. 

“As installed a couple years ago, the Grand St. bike lane was problematic,” Norvell said. “All that congestion and double-parking rendered it all but unusable.” 

“This new design is exciting, because it gives good physical protection to bicyclists, without taking up a lot of real estate. This is a route used by many Williamsburg Bridge commuters, and the city’s first protected cross-town route, so it’s going to get a lot of use,” he added. 

D.O.T. said the new bike lane is a pilot project. By the end of this month, Muni Meters for commercial parking will have been installed on the street’s north side, at which time the agency will start monitoring traffic developments. 

“Grand St. was and remains a one-lane street from Varick St. to Chrystie St., aided by new turning lanes at key intersections,” D.O.T. spokesperson Seth Solomonow said in an e-mailed statement.

“Again, this project is not complete,” Solomonow said. “Once it is, we expect there may be a few weeks’ adjustment as the community and motorists get used to the changes, and we will make additional changes as necessary in consultation with the community.”

As 5 p.m. approached, several bike commuters pedaled down the lane on their way home. One of them was Lower East Side resident Michael Ondruska, who commutes by bike to his work near Battery Park and mountain bikes on the weekends. 

“On Spring St., nine times out of 10, there are cars parked in the bike lane,” he observed. “This one is better because it’s got the parking median. It gives you insulation from moving traffic.”

Ondruska noted that while businesses and the “commercial aspect” are vital components of the city, residents are, too, and just as important as the first two.

“You have to be respectful to all three,” he said. “I use my bike to go to work, and I’d like it to be a little safer.” 

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance community organization, said he supported a bike lane on Houston St. — not on Grand St.

“Bike lanes in the right place are a benefit, but this is the wrong place,” he said. “A protected bike lane might work on a five-lane thoroughfare like Ninth Ave., but Grand St. is not the right place.” 

Soho residents charge that the new lane accommodating cyclists is making it difficult for them to unload their automobiles after shopping trips.

In September 2006, the Bloomberg administration announced plans to install 200 miles of new bike lanes by June 2009. As of now, 140 miles of new bike lanes have been added.