Chelsea Residents Rethink Open Streets Program



Metal barriers on West 21st Street. Photo by Rui Ding

A block association in Chelsea said it wants to remove the metal barricades lining the streets, at a recent Community Board 4 meeting.

“Everybody has talked about trying to beautify and make life easier and more accessible,” said Sandy Jacobus, vice president of the 400 West 21st– 23rd Street Block Association, in the meeting on September 22. “These barriers make the area much uglier and less accessible to many people.”

The barriers, with traffic signs that say “Road closed to through traffic,” are a part of the Open Streets program initiated by the city in May 2020, as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Streets participating in the program are blocked off by barriers, usually from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., so pedestrians and cyclists can have more space for social distancing. With a goal of having 100 miles of Open Streets, New York City created 83 miles last year, the most in the country, according to a press release from Mayor de Blasio, who made the program permanent in May. But as the city has gradually recovered from the pandemic and with vaccine mandates in place, some residents are questioning the need to continue Open Streets.

At the meeting, Jacobus and other members in her block association said they wanted to suspend the Open Street on West 21st Street between 9th and 10th avenues, a residential block with a seminary school on one side of the street.

“I do not see how the program as it now exists benefits the block or the neighborhood,” said Jacobus, who added that the Open Street is no longer needed for social distancing or a playground for children anymore.

But many other people living in the neighborhood are in favor of Open Streets. Gwen Vinocur, a mother of two young children, is one of them.

“When parks closed down for the pandemic, this was the only space available,” said Vinocur. “We’re really grateful for that.” Although Vinocur said they do not use the street now as much as they did during the pandemic, the barriers are needed when her children play tennis and ball outside.  “We would like to make sure that people keep it closed so that children can play safely in the street,” she said.

There are two types of Open Streets—temporary full closure without vehicle access and temporary limited local access. West 21st Street is the latter one, and because of that small businesses nearby said they were not bothered by the barriers. But most of them were not fully aware of the program either.

“I don’t know what the reason really is behind it,” said Michael Cantos, a manager at Enclave Valet, a dry cleaners on 177 9th Ave., next to the barricades. “It is just so much of a hassle for car drivers to move it back and forth.”

For Open Streets to work, the community must oversee the barriers. According to the New York City Department of Transportation, Open Streets are coordinated in partnership with local community organizations. While most local partners are block associations and business improvement districts, some individual residents volunteer to be the neighborhood liaison.

Jim Saylor, a Chelsea resident, has helped manage the Open Street on West 21st Street, since the location was selected for the program last year.

“We didn’t know what it was at first, and we didn’t even know whether we could move the barrier, so we started to educate ourselves and get in touch with someone familiar with the program,” said Saylor, adding that it took him a while to inform people in his block about the Open Street. The program survives because community volunteers help keep a barrier in place, he said. “If a car driver doesn’t put it back, somebody else will do. We’re all trying to work together.”

Melodie Bryant, a local organizer of an Open Street on West 22nd Street between 7th and 8th avenues, has worked with Saylor to make the program sustainable in their neighborhood. But Bryant said the work has not been easy. While the transportation department provides materials including barricades and signages, local volunteers need to be responsible for setting up and overseeing the equipment, she said.

“I wanted to give up so many times,” said Bryant. “But in the next morning, I still put out the barricades.”

The decreasing number of Open Streets doesn’t make the job of maintaining them any easier either. A recent report from Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit organization advocating for safe and equitable streets in the city, shows that 46% of 274 Open Streets listed by the DOT were “active,” where barricades appear in the street during operating hours.

Michael Lydon, a co-founder of Street Plans, an urban planning firm, who has also organized an Open Street in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, said he is not surprised by the finding. “The biggest issue or challenge is that it’s so reliant on volunteers to manage the bulk of these Open Streets,” said Lydon. “There just hasn’t been capacity to do so in a lot of places.”

Community Board 4 held a follow-up meeting on October 7 about the dispute over the barriers.

“Now it’s a question of organizing the streets so that everybody is comfortable with it, or at least minimally impaired,” said Christine Berthet, the co-chair of the transportation planning committee.

Saylor said he recently changed the metal barricades to orange traffic cones that are easier to move and make less noise, as a temporary solution. “It’s a new program,” he said. “We are all exploring how to move it forward.”

City Council is still hopeful about the program. Speaker Corey Johnson, who did not respond to requests for comment, issued a statement in a Transportation Alternatives press release. “It’s critical that we recommit to our Open Streets infrastructure now and in the years to come, and make sure we are providing this space equitably across the city,” he said.

The 400 West Block Association and the Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment.