By Arthur Z. Schwartz
FLASH—Just as Westview was going to press, Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower granted a Temporary Restraining Order barring the NYC Department of Transportation from implementing its plan to bar all cars and vans , and most trucks from 14th Street, a move DOT says it wanted to make to “speed up buses.” The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of block associations, who are represented by Westview contributor Arthur Schwartz. Essentially, Judge Rakower said that DOT, which represented that it had statistics and modeling to measure the impact of the closure, had not given that data a sufficient “hard look” as required by the State and City Environmental Quality Review Acts. Her injunction is in place until at least August 6, when the block associations and the DOT are due back into court. The article below was written by Arthur Schwartz several days before the ruling.
As WestView goes to press, the entire community awaits a decision by Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower about whether she will issue an injunction to stop the City’s plan to turn 14th Street into a “Busway,” barring cars from the street unless they are making pick-ups or drop offs.
A coalition of over a dozen block associations, led by the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, have joined with several of the larger buildings in our community, the Vermeer (at 77 Seventh Avenue) and the Victoria (at 5 East 14th Street) to file suit in NY State Supreme Court to stop the plan cold, and to force reconsideration of the bike paths which threaten to turn 12th and 13th Streets into traffic nightmares. The Busway is scheduled to go into effect July 1, along with the elimination of numerous bus stops by the MTA in the name of “bus speed up.”
These eliminations, which include the M14A stops on 9th Avenue and Horatio and 8th Avenue and Jane Street, are the subject of a second lawsuit filed under the NYC Human Rights Law—more on this next month.
Here is an excerpt of what the Busway Petitioners argued to Judge Rakower: “Petitioners bring this suit pursuant to the N.Y. State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), and the NY City Environmental Quality Review Act (“CEQRA”) … and the New York Freedom of Information Law. Petitioners also assert, pursuant to Article 78 of the CPLR, that the plan to eliminate one lane of traffic on the north and south sides of 14th Street, and to establish a “bus and ‘truck’” lane (“hereinafter the “14th Street Plan”), and the adoption of a related plan to make permanent 16 foot wide bike lanes on 12th and 13th Streets in Manhattan (hereinafter ‘The Bike Lane Plan”), are arbitrary and capricious actions by the DOT.
“Neither Plan has been properly vetted under SEQRA or CEQRA, the DOT has refused to release any studies or data supporting its decisions, and both plans are … actions by government which threaten the wellbeing of residents of the Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Flatiron communities in Manhattan, and threaten the character of those neighborhoods…
“This suit is brought in order to stop the implementation of the 14th Street Plan, and to bring about the restoration of the 12th and 13th Street streetscapes to their former condition unless these interrelated plans are evaluated in accordance with SEQRA and CEQRA, until all FOIL requests are lawfully responded to and unless the plan reveals some modicum of rationality.”
These actions by the DOT were originally envisioned in 2017-2018 as part of a mitigation plan to remedy what was expected to be a lack of subway service on 14th Street at a time when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) was planning to shut down L Train service from Brooklyn, and across 14th Street, for a 15 month period. The 2017-2018 plans were designed to accommodate a projected massive increase in cross-town bus service, a number exceeding 85,000 riders a day (MTA’s estimate) and 2–5,000 cross-town bike riders a day (DOT’s estimate). The subway shutdown will no longer occur, and service will only be slowed down on the L Train late at night and on weekends. Despite prior unresolved litigation about the applicability of SEQRA and CEQRA, several “community meetings,” and all sorts of obscure “modeling,” and additional meetings after the shutdown was called off, the DOT has refused to evaluate either the interrelated 2019 14th Street Plan or the Bike Lane Plan (which we call, collectively, the 14th Street “Corridor Plan”) pursuant to SEQRA or CEQRA, which means that any assessments made by DOT have been done without taking a legitimate “hard look” at the impacts, and without consideration of various alternative proposals. Not only that, DOT has come up with a new “rationale” for the Corridor Plan, since the original rationale was no longer viable. That rationale (making bus service faster) amounts to no more than PR material. The result, Petitioners contend, will be increased vehicular traffic on all east and westbound streets between 12th Street and 20th Street, bringing with it air pollution, noise, and vibrations endangering the 19th century buildings which line these blocks, challenging the character of the Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Flatiron communities, and likely causing delay in the cross-town transit of emergency vehicles…
“This shifting rationale, despite meetings with various community boards, several of which have denounced some or all aspects of the plans (see Exhibit A, resolution of Community Board 4, and Exhibit B, resolution of Community Board 3), is not how government in New York City, or anywhere in New York State, is supposed to function.”
Thirty-three years ago the Court of Appeals addressed this kind of planning in Chinese Staff and Workers Assn. v. City of New York, where the City at least acted like it wanted to comply with SEQRA by doing an environmental review of the effects of a construction project on the “physical environment,” but ignored broader environmental questions, set forth in language that should guide us today:
“Initially, we note that there is no basis here to rely on any special expertise of the agency since all that is involved is the proper interpretation of statutory language. It is clear from the express terms of the statute and the regulations that environmental is broadly defined … and expressly includes as physical conditions such considerations as ‘existing patterns of population concentration, distribution or growth, and existing community or neighborhood character’ [citation omitted] … That these fact factors might generally be regarded as social or economic is irrelevant in view of this explicit definition …”
“A significant effect on the environment may be found if a proposed project impairs the character or quality of … existing community or neighborhood character … It is not relevant whether the proposed project may affect these concerns primarily or secondarily or in the short term or in the long term since the regulations expressly include all such effects.”
Not only does the DOT ignore the impacts, the two interrelated actions result in a myriad of non-enforceable or confusing rules. Some passenger vehicles will be allowed on 14th Street for some purposes, but some will not. For-hire vehicles can pick up and drop off passengers, but yellow cabs cannot do pick-ups. Enforcement will be “achieved” through tickets given out by cameras, which somehow will peer into the inside of vehicles and track them, not by live traffic agents stopping vehicles to check for a for-hire order. There is no statutory definition of a “truck” here. The action epitomizes arbitrary and capricious decision making.
Sixty years ago Jane Jacobs fought Robert Moses and his plan to run an expressway down 5th Avenue. She established the notion that the key to rational planning is the involvement of communities. Now 60 years later, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg is the new Robert Moses, imposing her “progressive” notion of the NYC streetscape. She has been DOT Commissioner for six years, but traffic, noise and pollution are worse, and bus speeds slower. Now she wants to make every cross street in the Village and Chelsea a cross-town auto thoroughfare.
Mark my words—she will be stopped!
Arthur Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village.