By Andrew Buemi
In 1811, the City of New York adopted an urban design plan that became famous for its logical, navigable grid system. While it has helped preserve the character of the West Village, it has also contributed to unintended consequences that continue to reverberate as the City evolves.
The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 intended to catalyze the structured street development of Manhattan from its southern tip through present-day Harlem, while also allowing the “free circulation of air” to stave off disease. By this time, the City had seen the crippling effects of yellow fever and cholera epidemics during the mid-1700s and early 1800s. Greenwich Village became a haven for those seeking the fresh air and open land of what was, at the time, a small hamlet technically outside of the City limits. As a result, Greenwich Village—and what has become the West Village—was excluded from the Commissioners’ Plan and today retains much of its original layout.
In 1914, 7th Avenue, whose southern-most point was 11th Street, was extended southward to connect with Varick Street at Clarkson Street (this required Varick to be widened, resulting in the destruction of several landmarks). The extension allowed for better passage of vehicles—and the facilitation of business—from Midtown Manhattan to TriBeCa, which was a thriving commercial district. Soon after, construction of the IRT subway line—today the 1, 2, and 3 lines—began. The 7th Avenue South extension hence became a critical artery connecting northern Manhattan to the Village and below. However, in the process, it spawned odd plazas, multi-legged intersections, and dangerous conditions for bikers and pedestrians in the Village.
Last month, members of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 (CB2) Transportation Committee unanimously approved a Department of Transportation (DOT) initiative that will make commuting a little safer for the Village’s non-motorists: a protected bike lane on 7th Avenue, extending from 30th Street to Clarkson Street. According to the DOT, there have been over 230 vehicle injuries, 175 pedestrian injuries, 96 bicycle injuries, and one fatality on this stretch of 7th Avenue from 2011 to 2015 alone.
Included in the DOT Plan is a parking-protected bicycle lane with concrete pedestrian islands on the east side of the street (reducing four travel lanes to three); the installation of split-phase traffic signals at the intersections of 14th Street and 7th Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and West 11th Street, West 4th Street and Christopher Street, and Bleecker Street and Barrow Street; and the addition of mixing zones to all other intersections off 7th Avenue.
The project also describes additional pedestrian safety improvements like concrete islands and painted curb extensions, which will force vehicles to slow down while shortening the distance between sidewalks for pedestrians.
A DOT spokesperson recently indicated that work on the 7th Avenue protected bicycle lane between West 30th Street and Greenwich Avenue will begin this summer and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. However, the DOT does not expect to begin construction of the protected bicycle lane between Greenwich Avenue and Clarkson Street/Carmine Street until 2018 due to ongoing utility work in the area.
The DOT Plan is welcome news for many residents, but leaves others demanding more. The CB2 Committee has called for an additional signalized crossing at Leroy Street and expanded pedestrian spaces, particularly at Grove Street, plus an extension of the project down to Canal Street. Other residents point to the existing bicycle lanes and more robust pedestrian protections on 6th and 8th Avenues, wondering why it has taken so long for 7th Avenue to become a priority.
The parents and faculty of P.S. 41 on West 11th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), who since 2013 have been advocating for safety improvements along 7th Avenue South, have been among the most vocal proponents of more robust change. Last June, a group of federal, state, and local elected officials wrote to the DOT on behalf of the P.S. 41 community and CB2, calling for a “complete street redesign of 7th Avenue,” which would “greatly improve pedestrian crossing times and reduce traffic collisions.”
The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 was, for all intents and purposes, widely effective in facilitating the flow of goods and people at a time of rapid growth. It has also laid bare the inherent issues with running a grid design into the labyrinth below 11th Street, where no two intersections are the same.
As the P.S. 41 community, cyclists, and pedestrians living in and visiting the Village would argue, the unique history and present-day reality of the Village behoove officials to take extraordinary precautions when devising City-wide initiatives impacting the area.
Visit nyc.gov/dot to learn more about the DOT’s 7th Avenue South Plan.