A Clash Over Open Streets

On West 103rd Street, looming changes to the blocks between Amsterdam Avenue and Riverside Drive are causing a rift. Some neighborhood residents want walkability — and others want parking.

| 16 Dec 2022 | 03:41

In some parts of the city, an “Open Streets” designation means a chance to walk freely through neighborhoods that might otherwise be congested with cars. It means pedestrians aren’t confined to narrow sidewalks, but can wander into the middle of the road without fear of collision. It means less honking, more foot traffic for restaurants and a welcome change of pace.

But for some concerned New Yorkers on the Upper West Side, making the pandemic-era program permanent also threatens a further reduction of over a dozen parking spaces that they say are desperately needed. “I’m not fearful of much of anything around here — except losing my parking space,” said Maxine DeSeta, a retired teacher and longtime local resident. She and Herb Alter, who’s lived in the Upper West Side’s northernmost neighborhood since 1968, joined forces to create a group in opposition to impending changes, called UWS4Parking.

For the past two-plus years, a three-block stretch of West 103rd Street from Amsterdam Avenue to Riverside Drive has been shut to through traffic, with metal barricades and a speed limit of five miles per hour for locals and other vehicles. The “number one” benefit of Open Streets infrastructure is “safety for walkers and the ability to share the street,” according to Peter Frishauf, a proponent of the initiative. A plan for more radical traffic-calming features, however, has a number of residents up in arms.

A Pandemic Lifeline

In May of 2020, the Open Streets initiative was launched as a salve for cooped-up city dwellers. The program offered people more space to move around outdoors, when social distancing was taken seriously, and has been touted as an economic lifeline for local restaurants and businesses. Over 100 miles of roadway across the five boroughs are now car-free or permit only limited access to vehicles.

West 103rd Street, in the Department of Transportation’s eyes, Frishauf said, was a perfect candidate. “The traffic volumes were low and the sidewalks are also very, very narrow,” he said. He’s worked to support Open Streets in his neighborhood, as a board member of the West 102nd and 103rd Streets Block Association and as part of the West 103rd Street Open Streets Community Coalition.

In addition to increasing safety for pedestrians, Frishauf sees the Open Streets initiative as a benefit to residents of the Marseilles Apartments, used as housing for seniors. “For them to get some fresh air and be outside,” he said, “they really had no good place to even sit in a wheelchair.”

Bumps In The Road

A new round of “enhancements” that would rid the blocks more permanently of through traffic was originally slated for October. But “supply chain issues” bumped construction back to November, Frishauf recalled, at which point a water main break caused further delays. Now, residents expect construction to begin imminently. Sidewalk bump-outs filled with potted plants will calm traffic, while street corner carve-outs will cater to “asphalt art,” June DOT renderings show.

Merely learning about the impending changes has been a slog, according to DeSeta and Alter. They said local community board meetings have been inaccessible, due to the technology required to join online during the pandemic and because of the general structure. “If you’re not involved in these things on a regular basis, you just don’t know how they work,” Alter said. “There’s a process that’s started — that’s been proceeding — that many of us were unaware of.”

Frishauf contended that community outreach has been ongoing since the beginning of the program in 2020. He said surveys and studies appeared in multiple issues of the block association’s newsletter and pointed also to local news coverage. “Regardless of how you feel about this idea, it was hardly a surprise,” he said.

Those on opposing sides of the issue have clashed on key statistics, like how many people in the neighborhood support the project. UWS4Parking, in a written statement, claimed that in a block association poll receiving under 200 responses, only 22% expressed support for the Open Streets program. An analysis of the survey from last year, published by the block association, indicates the opposite: 22% of respondents expressed the “lowest level of satisfaction” with new plans, while roughly 35% expressed the highest.

UWS4Parking members have nonetheless made it their mission to rally others who share their concern, initially by posting signs on parked cars asking residents to call the block association and DOT to express their discontent. “We irritated a lot of people,” DeSeta said — but the group has since “collected more than 500 signatures” from residents in support of their cause, according to a written statement.

The Problem With Parking

They’re fired up about parking in particular. Some spots have already been lost to bike corrals, a feature that is “not necessarily objectionable,” Alter said. Now, June DOT renderings show that an additional 15 parking spaces on West 103rd Street will be lost to the new traffic-calming features.

The neighborhood is home to older residents, families with young children and people with dogs — many of whom rely on cars, Alter said. For DeSeta, otherwise an avid public transportation user who formerly biked to work, it’s her canine companion that necessitates travel by car. “There’s no public infrastructure to even get to a state park,” she said. “I cannot put my 70-pound dog on public or private transportation.”

Enes Radoncic, a resident manager at Master Apartments on West 103rd Street and Riverside Drive, indicated that for some of the building’s staff, driving is the only reliable mode of transportation into the neighborhood. “I would definitely lose some workers ... [who] drive from far away to work,” he said. “And they cannot use the subway, first because of safety and second, because it’s really far, where they live.” Radoncic uses a car for weekend travel with his family and said that garages are too costly of an alternative to street parking.

UWS4Parking members have also expressed their desire to see Open Streets designations prioritized in “neighborhoods in need,” without easy access to nearby parks.

At an Impasse

Group leaders made plans to speak with Council Member Gale Brewer after DeSeta wrote to her regarding the situation. Brewer did not offer comment when contacted by the West Side Spirit.

Those fighting the Open Streets program in their neighborhood are adamant about what they’d like to see happen on West 103rd Street. “Stop,” Alter said. “Leave things the way they are.”

“I’m not fearful of much of anything around here — except losing my parking space.” Maxine DeSeta