Chinatown Paul, business leaders want cars back on Park Row – and may prevail – Streetsblog New York City

Did the cops outrun the mayor? Or is the mayor just not ready to announce anything?

The NYPD put up flashing screens Friday, warning residents that Park Row — which has been closed to car traffic since the massive security escalation in Lower Manhattan since 9/11 — will once again become a shortcut for motorists, albeit later during the day, City Hall said the cops made a mistake.

But how long will it be a mistake?

Chinatown leaders have long lobbied City Hall to let drivers back onto Park Row, and freshman Councilman Christopher Marte and dozens of Chinatown businesses and local civic groups have renewed that effort since Mayor Adams took over, saying it’s time the vehicles to be released back onto a road that they believe connects the neighborhood to the Civic Center just to the south.

“Park Row is a multi-lane thoroughfare that we know can serve all the needs of our community. We support having an improved bike lane, pedestrian paths, added greenery and car traffic,” Marte wrote in an April 3 letter signed by more than 80 organizations and obtained by Streetsblog.

Lower Manhattan residents are proposing phasing in traffic only on the west (south) side of the road, but it’s unclear whether that would open up just one or two directions of traffic.

The NYPD’s digital sign at the corner of Worth Street said non-commercial vehicles will be able to enter the current security area on weekday evenings between 6pm and 7am, as well as on weekends. At least two cops told Streetsblog on Friday that the reopening to cars is a done deal — but it’s not, according to Mayor Charles Lutwak’s spokesman.

The NYPD put up a sign on Friday, March 31, saying the street would be open at night and on weekends.  Photo: Kevin Duggan
The NYPD put up a sign on Friday, March 31, saying the street would be open at night and on weekends. Photo: Kevin Duggan

Hizzoner plans to work with local residents on a “vision” for the corridor with the help of a $20 million funding boost for central neighborhoods courtesy of Gov. Hochul, according to Adams’ representative.

“Over the next month, the administration will work with community members on a vision for Chinatown through the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, including how Park Row can best serve everyone who lives, works and spends time in Lower Manhattan,” Lutwak said.

Marte told Streetsblog that he has long been in favor of returning the corridor between Worth and Frankfort streets, where the NYPD installed barriers and checkpoints nearly 22 years ago after the 9/11 attacks.

Officers seized other downtown streets in the immediate aftermath and then reopened them, but the NYPD maintained checkpoints around its fortress-like base to prevent possible car bomb attacks, according to a 2007 report .

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned to spruce up Park Row with a tree-lined avenue and lawns back in 2008, but those proposals never got past the NYPD’s concerns. As a result, only emergency vehicles and MTA buses were allowed until 2018, when then-Mayor Bill de Blasio added a two-way bike lane and more pedestrian space.

These walking and cycling lanes were opened in 2018. Photo: Kevin Duggan
These walking and cycling lanes were opened in 2018. Photo: Kevin Duggan

There is currently a way to get down from the Brooklyn Bridge to Park Row via a set of stairs, but the steps are dark and smell like urine, and the locals have dubbed them the “murder stairs.”

The NYPD has also taken the Park Row name literally, storing vehicles there, including on the bike lane.

Parked police cars block the Park Row bike lane.  Photo: Kevin Duggan
Parked police cars block the Park Row bike lane. Photo: Kevin Duggan

Marte hopes the funding will make a better connection for Chinatown and the rest of its downtown.

“We have hundreds of thousands of tourists — maybe millions — that come from the Brooklyn Bridge or come from the Seaport, but never make it to Chinatown or the Lower East Side,” he said. “So now we’re going to have an easy access point, one that’s clear, one that’s hopefully really beautiful for people to enjoy and help our small businesses, but also help just the ecosystem of this neighborhood.

“It’s been a lot of work coordinating with the government to make this a reality, but it looks like we’re close and hopefully we can get there,” Marte added.

That coordinated effort, however, did not include local residents, and some residents questioned why plans to return the space back to cars have not yet come up for even a cursory public review — quite a contrast to the months of hearings, reviews, visualization sessions and surveys that the Department of Transport conducts every time it proposes to reallocate street space for a cycle lane.

“Where is the community voice in this, how did this happen?” asked Lucy West, a longtime resident of the neighboring Chatham Green complex and a member of the Park Row Alliance, a civic organization.

“I don’t think there’s enough transparency about why and how Park Row is going to reopen,” added Jim Contnier, who lives across the street in Chatham Towers. “I’ll be more than happy if it’s never used for cars again, but I don’t think it’s right, I don’t think it’s fair, especially since it’s a city street that’s solely used for the police department.”

Marte’s letter argues that since the road is not new, it should not need such a bureaucratic process to go back.

“While we understand that some trial periods may be necessary, we hope that there is not much need for traffic studies as this is not a new road,” his letter read.

The plans had always been to bring the cars back, the Council member said, arguing that it would not mark a big change compared to the government vehicles that currently use it.

“Vehicles have always been part of this vision, whether it’s to facilitate the passage of ambulances – right now it’s a bus line – and we see city administration vehicles using it all the time,” the lawmaker said. “So, it hardly changes its usage, but highlights – hopefully with [Downtown Revitalization Initiative] money that comes from the state – first let’s make it kinder to pedestrians and cyclists.

It’s unclear how the change reflected in NYPD signs would help the Chinatown businesses that lobbied for it; especially since a south-only road would simply lead drivers away from Chinatown.

West, who moved into her building several years before the block was blocked, said the city needs to reopen Park Row to cars and reduce the increased police presence.

“We live in what I call a militarized gated community,” she said. “I think it’s a bit over the top.”

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