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Rockefeller Center holiday season plan would open more space to pedestrians

Pedestrian crowding on the streets and sidewalks around

Pedestrian crowding on the streets and sidewalks around Rockefeller Center, Saturday, in Manhattan. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style ... near Rockefeller Center could become less congested if New York City tests a seasonal pilot initiative that would open up part of Fifth Avenue's roadway to foot traffic.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio isn't ready to give vehicles the red light.

Alarmed over last year’s hourly holiday season peak of more than 20,000 tourists, office workers, shoppers and sightseers cramming Fifth Avenue — causing dangerous crowding and long standstills — his Department of Transportation wants to ban automobiles from two of the avenue's five lanes between East 48th and East 51st streets, from shortly after Thanksgiving to shortly after New Year’s.

The pilot restriction appeared ready to go — the department’s borough commissioner sent a routine letter dated Oct. 28 about it to the local community board — until it became public. Then the mayor pumped the brakes.

"It had not gone through the proper process and review," he said at an unrelated news conference on Oct. 31. "It was not signed off on by City Hall. We're going to look at that. It may be a good idea, but it's just premature."

Now, the Fifth Avenue Association, local politicians, and some Long Islanders are hoping that de Blasio follows through with the automobile restriction that the Department of Transportation said in its letter would grant pedestrians 40 percent more space during the holiday rush.

“It’s safer for pedestrians. It’s one of the biggest tourist times of the year. … I think it’s a good idea,” said Chelsea Farco, 29, of Amityville, who works in customer service for a camping and outdoors company. “You’re coming into a place with such great access to public transportation. Why do you need to have a car in an area that’s already so congested?”

Under the plan, the curbside lanes would become eight-foot-wide sidewalks protected by concrete barriers. Currently, two lanes are for buses and three are for other automobiles. The plan would also restrict bus service to one lane.

An average of 750,000 daily visitors are set to see the Christmas tree, which will be lit for the season on Dec. 4, according to the official NYC tourism website. The crowd size is about double the average for other times of the year, according to landlord Tishman Speyer.

Last year, at the Rockefeller Center subway stop, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority recorded 74,812 average weekday swipes during the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s Day period, compared with an average of 62,453 on October weekdays, according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. On weekend days from Thanksgiving to New Year's, the average number of swipes was 40,745, he said, more than twice the October weekend average.

In 2017, those numbers were 71,970 at the Rockefeller Center stop on weekdays in the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's Day period and 33,021 on weekend days during that time frame, Donovan said.

A squabble over pedestrian space in New York City is hardly a new phenomenon.

For the 1997 holiday season, Mayor Rudy Giuliani closed 10 busy pedestrian crosswalks near Rockefeller Center to make more room for automobiles, erecting metal barriers and dispatching dozens of whistle-blowing and yelling cops to corral the crowds. Giuliani dismissed critics of the plan as "anti-car" and "hysterical."

And a decade ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg booted automobiles from parts of Times Square to create pedestrian plazas. Initially implemented as a pilot initiative, the plazas were soon made permanent and remain to this day.

This past July, Keith Powers, a city councilman whose district includes the Rockefeller Center area, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer asked the city to combat congestion by pilot-testing the full closure to automobiles of 49th and 50th streets, from Fifth to Sixth Avenues — the north and south sides of the tree and 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in addition to parts of Fifth Avenue itself, for the winter holidays.

“The holidays are the time you need this the most,” Powers said in an interview, adding: “Last year, when I was over there, it was a complete mess in terms of walking around and trying to get around Rockefeller Center.”

Asked about the potential disruption to automobile traffic, Powers said that the closure would just be a pilot initiative.

“If it doesn’t work,” he said, “we can look at other ways to address the traffic flow.”

Fifth Avenue Association president Jerome Barth noted that the NYPD tends to close streets to automobiles during the holidays at peak times of crowding anyway, on an ad hoc basis.

“Look, if that’s going to happen, why not have the predictability?” of regular closures for the season, he said, adding: “There’s simply not enough space to go around.”

He added that recently a lane of traffic was shut for construction work: “Nobody batted an eye, so it can work.”

Every Long Islander approached in Manhattan Thursday evening during a brief, unscientific sampling supported the plan.

Jane Morales of Syosset, a retired home economics teacher, lamented the crowds cramming near the Rockefeller Center tree during the holiday season.

"That whole area at Christmastime is congested. It's a horror,” she said, adding: “I think it’s frightening for the little kids trying to see this tree.”  

During past seasons, Morales said, she and her friends had walked over to the area after seeing a play to catch a look at the tree and window shop at Saks Fifth Avenue — but gave up over the crowds. "We turned around and said, 'That's it!' "

Dan Pugliese, 60, of East Meadow, said he welcomes the pedestrianization, citing what he considers the success of banning automobiles elsewhere in the city and motorists’ complaints in advance that he believes turned out to be unfounded.

“They did that same thing right in Times Square,” Pugliese, an engineer, said of the pedestrian plaza. “And that area is wonderful.”

Asked Thursday for an update, de Blasio demurred: “When we have a plan, you'll hear about it. There's just nothing new yet to tell you.”

Reminded that Thanksgiving was in two weeks, de Blasio said: “Yeah, I know.”

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