Merchant Ire Over Deliveries, Placards Dominates UWS Bike Lane Meeting

The new Columbus Avenue protected bike lane drew the wrath of local merchants angry about curb access last night. Image: Clarence Eckerson.

The new Columbus Avenue protected bike lane drew the wrath of local merchants angry about curb access last night. Image: Clarence Eckerson

Columbus Avenue merchants on the two blocks between 81st and 83rd Street led a chorus of complaints against that avenue’s new protected bike lane at a raucous meeting of Manhattan CB 7′s transportation committee last night. The committee co-chairs limited the discussion only to criticism of the bike lane, which runs from 96th to 77th Street, in an attempt to address specific complaints, but opposition quickly flew out of control. About half a dozen merchants spoke at the packed meeting, which at times descended into an anti-bike screaming match.

Those who tried to offer constructive criticism focused on the need for loading zones that function as intended. With passenger cars and placard-bearing vehicles clogging delivery areas, NYPD enforcement will be critical to smoothing out the curbside conflict.

The decision to allow only criticism started the meeting out on a sour note. “If you’re here to tell us how wonderful the bike lane is, you’re here on the wrong night,” said co-chair Dan Zweig. For general comments for or against the bike lane, they urged people to either e-mail the community board at “office [at] cb7 [dot] org” or to attend tonight’s public session of the full community board. That meeting will be held at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, at Tenth and 59th, at 6:30 p.m.

The co-chairs tried to make clear they wanted the meeting to be a productive session about specific fixes that could be made to the street design rather than a general referendum on the lane. “We’re evaluating it over the course of a year,” said Zweig. “Solving the problems will aid in making it a successful bike lane.”

Even as the committee leadership tried to emphasize substance, bike lane opponents in the audience turned it into a shouting match, routinely interrupting other speakers, community board members, and the DOT representatives who were there answering questions. Profanities flew a few times. At one point co-chair Andrew Albert could be heard muttering under his breath, “This is insane. This is not what it was supposed to be.”

The merchants who asked the community board to hold the meeting were most concerned with parking and loading in front of their businesses. “I can’t get deliveries,” claimed Ricardo Zingone, whose family owns a grocery store on Columbus and 83rd. “It took me three weeks to get an Entenmann’s cake.” Zingone has three commercial loading spots in front of his store, but complained that if someone parks in the middle space, trucks can’t fit anywhere.

Notably, some influential bike lane proponents are now tempering their support. Barbara Adler, the director of the Columbus Avenue BID, has been pushing for pedestrian and bike infrastructure on Columbus for five years. In May, she told Streetsblog that she was “extremely supportive” of DOT’s plan for a protected bike lane and that deliveries wouldn’t be a problem for the businesses she represents.

Last night, however, she criticized DOT’s implementation of the project. “What has happened now is a huge embarrassment and humiliation to all of us,” she said. She lambasted DOT for taking away far more parking spaces on certain blocks than original plans had suggested. “We thought we knew what we were getting.” She also said that plans to add back two parking spaces between 81st and 82nd Streets, where a left-turn lane removed almost every spot on the east side of the street, were insufficient.

Adler specified that her problem wasn’t with the bike lane itself, which she still supported, but the related effect it had on parking. “They have to be done right,” she said of bike lanes.

DOT revealed last night that the design installed on Columbus Avenue differed from the plans that were presented to the community in two ways. First, the plans only called for four pedestrian refuge islands, but 28 were installed. That’s a surprise victory for pedestrian safety which came as a result of additional funding, according to DOT’s Naomi Iwasaki.

The installed design also added a number of long left-turn lanes, so that the three moving lanes on Columbus wouldn’t be obstructed, Iwasaki said. Those lanes took the place of the floating parking lane when installed. Only 12 additional parking spaces were removed as a result of those changes, but those 12 were concentrated on only a few blocks, angering particular merchants.

The removal of additional parking spaces infuriated previously supportive community board members as well. After Iwasaki said that only a few parking spaces had been taken away, committee member Linda Alexander whipped around in her chair to face her. “How can you say that? How can you say that?” Alexander shouted. “I was a proponent. This is crap!”

There might be less of a problem with deliveries if the police department stepped up its enforcement, particularly of parking placards. The first merchant to complain about the lane was Nick Bazas, the owner of Quality Florist. As Streetsblog previously reported, Quality Florist’s vans have repeatedly parked in the bike lane to load and unload. “I had to park somewhere,” he said. “Either you double park or you park in the bicycle lane.”

Bazas admitted that under the street redesign, he has a commercial loading zone in front of his store where previously he’d only had metered parking. But he said the loading zone is usually filled with cars parked for hours at a time sporting parking placards from the police, the fire department, schools, the handicapped, and the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. “What do you do when someone parks with a plaque?” asked Bazas. “Is someone above the law?” DOT said to take it up with the police.

Police intransigence is also blocking an effort by DOT to free up some additional space for parking or loading on 82nd Street. The local precinct parks on that street, including a number of private cars belonging to officers, and DOT hasn’t successfully persuaded the precinct to disperse that parking. Council Member Gale Brewer endorsed those efforts, saying “this would be the time not to have PD private cars parking in that area.”