Putting Pedestrians First in FiDi? City's Search for Answers to Start Anew

The countless sidewalk sheds in the Financial District are among the barriers to better mobility for pedestrians. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Aug. 12, 2022

Will pedestrians ever be freed of the cramped and crowded sidewalks of the Financial District? It’s an old problem only growing worse, say community leaders, who are still awaiting action by the city.

Studies and reports on improving street management along those narrow, constricted corridors go back to the Giuliani administration. Now the DOT, which says COVID-19 stalled its currently planned study of the problem, has signaled a willingness to revisit it, with a stakeholders meeting promised for the fall. 

But Community Board 1 and other advocates, weary of waiting, want to make sure those intentions are finally turned into action—and that they have a say in how the city proceeds. Last month the board passed a resolution calling on the DOT to “develop a vision for a Financial District Streetscape that prioritizes pedestrian mobility and safety,” while also considering the needs of others in the area, such as businesses. It also wants the agency to account for $500,000 in discretionary funds that former Councilwoman Margaret Chin appropriated to the agency back in 2017 to begin solving the problem.

A DOT spokesman did not respond to questions from the Trib on the status of the $500,000, nor other questions regarding the agency’s intended short- and long-term goals for its future study. At a June meeting of CB1’s Transportation Committee, Jennifer Leung, a DOT representative who announced the restart of the study, repeatedly said she did not have answers to the substantive questions posed to her about the agency’s plans.

“We are excited to resume our Lower Manhattan Pedestrian Priority Study and look forward to outreach with the community and other stakeholders in the coming month,” DOT spokesman Vin Barone said in a statement to the Trib.

“We really want to see this big and important project get picked up and the city move forward with it,” said Patrick Kennell, a CB1 member and president of the Financial District Neighborhood Association, which has been a leading advocate for streetscape improvements. Along with studying the problem, Kennell said, he wants the DOT to begin trying some “little interventions” soon to test what might work. (The DOT tried a six-hour experiment one Saturday in August, 2016, when it turned a 60-block area of FiDi into shared streets, with a 5 mile-an-hour speed limit for cars.)

With the Financial District’s residential population growing rapidly, the city began looking at pedestrian mobility in 1997 with its Lower Manhattan Pedestrianization Study. Then, under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there was the 2008 “A Street Management Framework for Lower Manhattan.”  In 2015 CB1 supported “Make Way for Lower Manhattan,” a study that considered solutions such as pedestrian-and-vehicle shared streets, and closing some streets to traffic altogether. The next year CB1 compiled its own survey of the area’s piled garbage, sidewalk sheds and other pedestrian obstructions that are a major part of the problem. That was followed, in 2019, with the de Blasio administration’s promise to look at options for creating new pedestrian priority streets and other measures in Lower Manhattan (within a wider geographical area than the Financial District). The DOT says it now plans to begin that study, called the Lower Manhattan Pedestrian Priority Streets Project.

In 2019, Kennell’s group sponsored an updated “Make Way for Lower Manhattan,” a report that called for measures such as freeing up curb space for deliveries and garbage pickup by re-assigning spots for placard parking. It also advocated for a “slow street” plan for curbless, widened sidewalks and narrowed, separately marked travel lanes.

“We have to make sure that pedestrians who aren’t at the same footing as a car and a bike are prioritized, but that it doesn’t exclude all of these other uses that are very necessary to the area,” Kennell said at a meeting last month of CB1’s Transportation Committee. “And that’s the tricky balance.”

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