De Blasio: plans to expand pedestrian space on Fifth Avenue are ‘premature’

Spectators catch an early glimpse of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree before the lighting ceremony.

The city is backpedaling on plans to give more room to holiday shoppers on Fifth Avenue.

Two lanes of traffic were slated to be closed along the Manhattan avenue near Rockefeller Center through a pilot the Department of Transportation (DOT) set to kick off “shortly after Thanksgiving,” according to a letter the agency sent to Manhattan Community Board 5, dated Oct. 28 and obtained by amNewYork.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday said the concept is only under consideration and that it was prematurely leaked without being run through the proper channels.

“Whoever at Department of Transportation let that get out there — maybe it was accidental, maybe someone was trying to further their own agenda — but it was premature. It has not gone through the proper process and review. It was not signed off on by City Hall,” said de Blasio during an unrelated news conference.

“We’re going to look at that,” he added. “It may be a good idea, but it’s just premature.”

The closures would convert the curbside lanes on each side of Fifth Avenue into temporary, eight-foot sidewalks—replacing what is currently one bus lane and one travel lane—between 48th Street and 51st Streets. The city plans to use concrete jersey barriers to separate traffic and pedestrians along the stretch.

“The growing number of visitors around Rockefeller Center during the holiday season has led to incredibly high pedestrian volumes in the area,” wrote Ed Pincar, the DOT’s Manhattan borough commissioner, in the letter. “High numbers of pedestrians leads to sidewalk and corner crowding for long periods of the day and into the evening.”

Renderings of the proposed changes to come to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan around Rockefeller Center, according to a letter the city Department of Transportation sent to the local community board on Monday, Oct. 28.

Pincar used definitive language in the letter, but after its content circulated on social media and in news reports Monday a DOT spokesman issued a following statement saying “nothing has been finalized” and that the pilot was one of the “potential remedies” for the crush of people who visit the area for the holidays.

“We will keep you updated on forthcoming details of plans, which are still weeks away from implementation,” the DOT spokesman said.

The proposal has support from Borough President Gale Brewer, local City Councilman Keith Powers and the businesses around the avenue.

“We look forward to thoughtful pedestrianization in our district as we continue to deliver one-of-a-kind immersive experiences that can only be found on Fifth,” said Jerome Barth, the president of the Fifth Avenue Association Business Improvement District.

Brewer and Powers issued a joint statement urging, “as the holiday season approaches we can’t stick with the same old strategy of funneling hundreds of thousands of pedestrians into tight spaces.”

As for de Blasio’s remarks, Powers went on to tweet that he believed an “agenda” for better public spaces “is a positive.”

Advocates for safer streets in the area welcomed the concept, arguing it’s actually rather modest given the crowds that flock to Rockefeller Center and the nearby theaters on Sixth Avenue.

“It’s better than nothing but it’s very timid,” said Christine Berthet, the co-founder of the group CHEKPEDS. “I understand there that they have constrains with bus lanes — and you have to keep the bus lanes going — but I think they should do a lot more, up to 57th or 59th Streets and below Rockefeller Center.”

Berthet said the restrictive police access around Fifth and Sixth avenues during the holidays can be a “disaster” for people walking the streets, but hoped the Fifth Avenue pilot–if it comes–could lead to broader accommodations. 

“It’s a first step and they need to take it step-by-step sometimes,” She continued. “You learn it can be prudent.”

This story was updated at 4:20 p.m.