Making Hell’s Kitchen Less Hellish

Ninth Avenue Renaissance Town Hall Meeting
Running time: 3:35

Monday night was the first meeting of the Ninth Avenue Renaissance project. About 130 neighborhood stakeholders filled the gym at the Holy Cross School in Midtown to begin a process to transform Ninth Avenue from a dysfunctional, traffic-choked, polluted highway into, what organizer Christine Berthet says should be "a neighborhood Main Street" for Hell’s Kitchen and Clinton.

The evening’s high point was Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s ten minute speech. Perhaps sensing a political vacuum in City Hall on these issues, Stringer is rapidly emerging as the city’s leading elected official on traffic, transportation and Livable Streets. "Traffic congestion," Stringer said, is "the number one quality of life issue" for the borough of Manhattan and the city as a whole. And while other world cities are tackling their congestion problems, "everywhere you look in Manhattan there is a traffic jam, gridlock, pollution."

"The truth," Stringer said, "is that we have not had a new idea about transportation since we built the subways."

scott_stringer2.jpg Though he didn’t mention him by name, Stringer (right) seemed to be pointing directly to Mayor Bloomberg’s recent sustainability speech when he said "It is incredible when you think of all the damage we’re doing to this city and the fact that we don’t have bold, forward-thinking transportation planning when we know that we have one million more people coming here by 2030."

Stringer also noted the non-existence of a citywide transportation strategy or even a serious public discussion about these issues in the current political environment. "Why can’t we as a city have an intelligent conversation about traffic? Why can’t we have a five Borough transportation agenda and talk about things that are controversial?" Stringer asked.

"I think we should talk about whether congestion pricing can work in New York City. There, I said it. Let’s not have a political fight over this. Let’s have a real dialogue. Let’s talk about real sustainability. Let’s have a discussion about bus rapd transit. Let’s talk about bike lanes. Let’s also talk about the fact that there is no reason why the poorest neighborhoods should get the most pollution."

If we don’t talk about these things, Stringer warned, "The one thing I can guarantee is that, come 2030, we will be a second rate city and people will say, ‘They didn’t plan properly.’"

While Stringer somewhat stole the show, saying things that you simply don’t hear any other citywide elected official saying these days, the main goal of the meeting was to provide neighborhood residents and stakeholders with the opportunity to talk about their local traffic and public space issues. While these kinds of open mic town hall meetings are sometimes hijacked by axe-grinders and loonies, virtually every single one of the twenty or so people who stood to talk were concise, eloquent and had something valuable to say.

A representative from St. Vincents hospital said that their emergency vehicle route time had increased because of Ninth Avenue congestion and the result has been an increasing number of "catastrophic incidents." In other words, their patients are dying in traffic. To applause, a number of residents called for better enforcement of honking, blocking the box and other motorist infractions. One guy, who introduced himself as living on "the southern shore of Lake Related" noted that traffic cops seem to emphasize "keeping the traffic moving rather than ticketing people who are blocking the box or honking their horns." He said that he sometimes tries to get the Port Authority cops at the Lincoln Tunnel to enforce these rules and they just say, "No. It’s the city," and go back to reading their newspapers. A number of speakers brought up bicycling issues and spoke out in favor of George Haikalis and Roxanne Warren’s Vision42 light rail plan.

fred_kent2.jpgNext, Fred Kent from Project for Public Spaces (left) ran through a slide show about what makes great public spaces. Kent said that he thinks "we are going through a sea change in New York City" comparable to the environmental awakening that led to the first Earth Day in 1970. He senses that "there is a real passion for a very different future for New York City and it always comes back to the street. And once we begin to reclaim the street as a public space it will be a transformative agenda for New York City."

Kent described the avenues of Hell’s Kitchen as an area filled with "chaos" and "unfit for human habitation the way it is currently managed." He urged the community to press for "a SWAT team approach by the city and Port Authority, to just pick a target and say, ‘This area is going to be very different in a week,’ and then just make it happen."
Finally, Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance urged Livable Streets advocates to focus on three things as they work on these changes. First apologizing for the traffic created by his annual New Year’s party, he delivered his advice in ’70s TV show metaphor:

1. Just the facts: Focus on the problem. Study what’s going on. Analyze the data and present information in the language that policy-markers understand.

2. Book ’em Danno: Enforcement is incredibly important. Work closely with the precinct. Fines and fees have to be strict and enforced.

3. Think in the long-term: Keep in mind what is happening 10 and 20 years out and know that even small changes take a long time to make happen in New York City.

The meeting was a pre-cursor to a design workshop that will take place Saturday January 20, 2007, 2 to 5 p.m. at the Holy Cross School, 322 west 43rd Street. The workshop will be facilitated by Project for Public Spaces.

  • Tina

    The video shows Stringer talking some good ideas and about congestition pricing. He is a brave person, but with more support for it than ever and a public warming to the idea, more politicans should be so frank and honest.

    It really blows my mind that Mayor Bloomberg can be so damn good on just about any other issue except Transportation. And that is the one issue that is most intergral to the whole city. I mean we all do it EVERY DAY!

  • Harry Hood

    130 people for a community “Town Hall Meeting” at the beginning of a community process is incredible and inspiring!

    Kudos to the Department of City Planning and Jack Schmidt (Traffic Division) for attending with 2 other planners. Working with communities is not an easy process, their attendance is a positive first step.

  • BC

    Keep going Stringer. But dump the “There’s been no new idea” line. It’s wrong and stupid. There’s been tons of new ideas about transportation and you mentioned a few last night: congestion pricing, which has been talked about since the 1950’s, and BRT. Mayor Lindsay had carfree 5th Ave and almost made Central Park carfree. It’s not the ideas which are missing, but the will to put them in place.

    Stringers new speech: “The ideas for making a better future are out there. Now let’s put them in place.”

  • Steve

    I am not from this neighborhood, although I worked at the McGraw-Hill building during the 1980s. I am curious what the 9th Avenue Renassiance people think about the transformation of the adjacent Time Square area into such a tourist magnet. No doubt most welcome the removal of the sex shops, but I’m wondering whether the traffic problem is driven not only by the Lincoln Tunnel but also the tourists.

    More generally, how (if at all) does planning public spaces differ when you anticipate lots of tourism, as compared to when you are thinking exclusively about local residents?

  • Q.R.

    Not to be a tool, but you mean “Clinton”, not “Clinton Hill”, right? Although saying “Hell’s Kitchen and Clinton” is kind of silly anyway…

  • Maria


    Don’t forget about Thru Streets — the biggest transportation idea that’s been implemented during the 8 years of the Iris Weinshall regime. Visionary!

  • JK

    H’mm, though not “visionary” I like Thru Streets and do think it’s actually an innovative approach to helping pedestrians while keeping traffic moving. Also, while bold and visionary is wonderful, keep in mind what the great Jan Gehl said about making many small changes every year, year after year until a big change has been wrought. This is the idea behind the Safe Routes to School program — which Stringer and the advocates should push in a much bigger way.

    Incidentally, it’s interesting that Fred Kent senses NYC is ready for big changes. Fred has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the Queens and Brooklyn assemblymembers who control the balance of power in the Assembly are anywhere near voting to give the mayor the power to create a cogestion pricing zone — which is probably the only measure able to reduce the regional traffic in Hells Kitchen and other neighborhoods with the misfortune of being near a bridge or tunnel entrance.

  • Ashley

    As a long time resident on 44th street, there are times (matinee day, summer Friday get away time) that I cannot hear myself think with the honking of horns and the screaming of people in cars for hours. And that is with the windows closed. You have to take into account not just the pollution, car conjestion, danger of the elderly crossing the streets; think about the mental health of the residents that live here. The cars come and go, we live here.

  • anonymous

    Iris Weinshall has been DOT Commissioner for 6 years, not 8. And how brave is Scott Stringer? He is Manhattan boro president, and the opposition to congestion pricing is in Queens and Brooklyn. He’s not risking anything.

  • Maria

    Who is saying he’s taking a big risk? I didn’t hear that. The only real power a borough president has is his bully pulpit and it’s not even that big of a pulpit. Stringer is using his limited media time and space to talk about a set of policy issues that no one else will talk about on the citywide level and he deserves credit for that. Virginia Fields didn’t talk about it. And you don’t see a whole lot of Manhattan Councilmembers talking about it either. Stringer is the only guy.

    Frankly, when you’re the only guy putting forward an issue, there is an element of risk-taking in that. Especially in Bloomberg NYC where most of the rest of the city’s electeds, officials and business elite are in communications lock-down, afraid to say anything that might be getting out in front of the Big Guy.

  • ABG

    Good point, BC. I’d add three more ideas that “we”ve had since we built the subways: parkways, expressways and car tunnels. And we had the will to put them in place too! Too bad they were sucky ideas.

    As far as mass transit goes, the Second Avenue Subway, the THE Tunnel (stupid name) and George’s light-rail plans are good ideas. BRT is an idea, but it’s problematic.

    Is that it? Is that all we got? What about the huge swaths of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island that aren’t served by subways? How about bringing back the trolleys that used to run in between the subway lines in the outer boroughs? How about updating the never-implemented IND Second System plan? Why is everyone’s vision so limited?

  • What about the huge swaths of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island that aren’t served by subways? How about bringing back the trolleys that used to run in between the subway lines in the outer boroughs? How about updating the never-implemented IND Second System plan?

  • Cap’n Crunch


    Iris Weinshall was appointed Commissioner of the Department of Transportation on September 8, 2000. Ms. Weinshall came to that position after a career of more than 20 years in city government. Her most recent previous position was First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

    Commissioner Weinshall served from 1988 to 1996 as Deputy Commissioner for Management and Budget at the Department of Environmental Protection. Previously, she was President of the New York City Financial Services Corporation, a nonprofit organization which functioned as the financing arm for the City’s economic development initiatives. Prior to this, she served as Regional Vice President of Integrated Resources, Inc. where she structured limited partnerships for property acquisition and operation. Earlier, she held the position of Senior Vice President of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, where she oversaw the development and implementation of the State’s overall economic development program.

    Iris Weinshall is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, attended Brooklyn College where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in History and received her Masters in Public Administration from NYU. She is married to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and they have two daughters. She was appointed Commissioner on September 8, 2000.

  • Steve

    Iris Weinshall is Chuck Shumer’s wife?!

  • Tina

    Yup, she’s taken.

    BTW: it is Charles Schumer, not Chuck Shumer. Who dat?

  • JK

    I hope Stringer is not a hero, but a good politician. It would be a sign of progress if talking about pricing, and reclaiming the streets from traffic is now good politics — at least in Manhattan.

  • David Kupferberg

    FACT: A two-track Second Avenue Subway will be at capacity by 2027. If you don’t believe me, read the EIS.

    Oh, yeah. George Haikalis, Stephen Dobrow (R.I.P.), myself, and others have long advocated the East Side Access Upper Level Loop Alternative (ULLA). The MTA’s Deep Cavern Alternative (DCA) would prevent NJT from operating to Grand Central Terminal, cost at least $1 billion more, and be a major terrorist target. We have been able to QUALitatively and QUANTITatively show how the ULLA is far superior to their DCA.

    David Kupferberg
    Member, Committee for Better Transit, Inc.

  • David Kupferberg

    This is what we REALLY need:

    – Second Avenue Subway (four tracks north of Houston Street)

    – Extend Second Avenue Subway to The Bronx and via JFK Rail Link

    – Extend 7 Train via High Line

    – 4-track 34 Street-LIE Line

    – Utica Avenue Line via 6th Avenue Express (current 6th Ave Express via 2nd Ave Local)

    – Extend Nostrand Ave IRT to Kings Plaza

    – Extend New Lots IRT to Spring Creek

    – Convert LIRR Port Washington Branch to TA Operation

    – Restore Rockaway Cutoff

    – Extend A from Lefferts Blvd to Jamaica

    – Upgrade Jamaica BMT between Broadway Junction and 121 St for express service

    – Extend F to eastern Queens

    – Extend E to Valley Stream (convert LIRR St Albans service to TA operation)

    (The truth hurts, eh?)

  • ABG

    David K., we may not need that exact list of improvements, but we need at least some more transit imagination behind the Second Avenue Subway, the THE Tunnel and BRT.

    The challenge is that a lot of the people who’ve settled in the subway-less, trolley-robbed low-density tracts of Central and Eastern Queens and Southeastern Brooklyn have become NIMBY car potatoes. So far they’ve been able to block the N extension to La Guardia and the restoration of the Rockaway Cutoff. They may also be in a position to block funding for the South 4th Street Tunnel and a lot of the other improvements you recommend. How do you plan to convert or overcome them?

  • ABG

    Make that “we need at least a little more transit imagination beyond the Second Avenue Subway, the THE tunnel, and BRT.”


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