Every morning, when Rebecca Lieb jogs on West 56th Street to reach Riverside South Park, she is confronted by traffic on the 12-lane West Side highway filled with cars and service trucks turning into the intersection where pedestrians have to cross.
With a surge of new residential high-rises in the West 50s near the Hudson River, ongoing construction has caused either complete or partial sidewalk closures from 54th to 59th streets between 11th and 12th avenues, for the last two years. And the situation forces pedestrians to make perilous detours to access the park.
“Crossing the intersection is one of the most dangerous things that the residents do to get through to the park,” said Lieb, who recently presented a proposal to Community Board 4 to request the Department of Transportation install a pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of 56th Street and 12th Avenue. Lieb has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 25 years, and jogs in the park regularly.
Riverside South Park is a recent addition to the Hudson River waterfront. While the last two phases of the park are still being developed, the latest stretch of the waterfront opened around 2007, creating a greenway for those like Lieb who live in Hell’s Kitchen and near Columbus Circle.
“One of the 10 things that scares New Yorkers more than ISIS is things falling from the sky,” said Dan Hresko, referring to the numerous construction sites in the neighborhood. A Brooklyn resident, Hresko used to wait tables at restaurants in Columbus Circle.
The New York Police Department, using monthly statistics from the Motor Vehicle Collision Report, said that there were eight collisions at the intersection of 56th Street and 12th Avenue during the month of August — two more accidents than last year. While there were no injuries reported in August 2015, there have been 4 injuries at the intersection this year, because vehicles were following other cars too closely, disregarding traffic control, and changing lanes unsafely, according to the report.
The transportation committee of Community Board 4 decided to take up the matter with the city after Lieb presented the issue.
“This is the first complaint we’ve received from a resident in the area, and we’ve written to the DOT to look into the situation,” said Christine Berthet, committee co-chair.
Not everyone thinks a crosswalk is warranted. Gregory Haas, city planner of the DOT, said it was “illegal” for pedestrians to cross at 56th and 12th because there was no signal at the intersection.
He said he has yet to review the situation but pointed out how a crosswalk might be a challenge. “There are trees separating 12th Avenue from the highway, and a crosswalk would mean clearing the green space. And cutting down trees has never been easy,” he said.
Most residents prefer to avoid the highway and walk up to 59th Street, where a dimly lit underpass below the dark olive bridge opens up to the waterfront. The bike lane that runs between the bridge and the park was recently cordoned off due to construction. resulting in swarms of cyclists in the area reserved for walking.
“The board clearly reads ‘Cyclists must dismount,’ but no one seems to pay any attention to it,” said Mark Rausher of New Paltz who visits his elderly mother, a resident of the Upper West Side who frequents Riverside Park. Rausher said such closures make it extremely dangerous for seniors to enjoy their walks.
Ryan Phillips recently moved to the neighborhood with his girlfriend. He said the park itself is much safer than the route getting there. “Although I haven’t heard of any specific crime around 59th Street, the underpass is not too welcoming at night,” he said.
Crime has increased in the area. While the residents around the five block radius weren’t aware of any physical assaults in the neighborhood, data on 311 calls reveal that there were 26 grand larceny and robbery reports made to the NYPD in the past two years.
With at least three new residential buildings in the neighborhood opening up in the past year, Kathy McFarland, a real estate broker with Town Residential, says green spaces around residential apartments add to the value of the property. However, the overall rentals in the area are seeing a downward trend. “A one-bedroom apartment on a high-floor in a high-rise has fallen from $3800 to $3200 per month,” she said.
McFarland said that people prefer to live in newer buildings if they have access to public spaces and other amenities. “People don’t seem to mind living next to construction sites if they can be closer to a park, with a view of the Hudson,” she said.
Daniel Ticona moved into VIA, the new pyramid-shaped apartment building on West 57th Street, two months ago. He walks his dog in the park every evening, and recently noticed that one of the street lights on the corner of 59th Street and 12th Avenue was out while another was flickering.
“I don’t think too many people come here once it gets dark. Sometimes there are cars turning at the corner of 59th. I think a red signal at the intersection would definitely help,” he said.
However, Haas said the intersection was not a high-traffic zone and did not legally warrant a signal.
“It’s a chicken and egg problem – because it is dangerous, pedestrians won’t prefer to use the path, and because there is a lack of sufficient pedestrian traffic, the intersection won’t satisfy for warrants to install a signal,” said Charles Komanoff, the former president of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for pedestrian rights. “Only a highly aroused community and an enormous amount of organizing can break the DOT bureaucracy,” he said.
Lieb said no agency except the community board has been responsive to her concerns. She fought for the removal of cars from the sidewalk in front of the Honda garage on West 56th Street last summer, writing to the city council, the NYPD, and the Department of Consumer Affairs but received no response from any of them.
“Last year, I had sent out emails and made calls to council member Corey Johnson’s office about the cars blocking the sidewalk, but there was no timely response. This time around, I decided to go directly to the community board,” she said.
A spokesperson from Corey Johnson’s office said in an email that the blocks near the intersection in question fall under District 6 jurisdiction, not District 3. Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s office replied in an email that they weren’t aware of any issues with entering the park, and that people have the same access they’ve always had.
Haas said the matter will be reviewed. “The DOT is looking into the issue. We will first evaluate the traffic situation at the intersection to warrant a crosswalk at the site,” he said.