Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monday Night at the Swinging 60s Senior Center: Williamsburg Transportation Town Hall

Last evening we sauntered over the few blocks to the Swinging 60s Senior Center on Ainslie Street by Manhattan Avenue. (In just a couple of years, when we finally will achieve the status of sexagenarian, we expect to be hobbling over there a bit more often.) Several of our local elected officials had called for a Williamsburg Transportation Town Hall from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Although moderator Rich Mazur of the North Brooklyn Development Corporation had ten items on the agenda given out as the "topics" that would be discussed, most of the meeting was taken up with just two issues: the bike lanes along Kent Avenue, part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, which have caused parking, safety and other woes for the Hasidic community, businesses on the street, and local residents; and to a lesser degree, the current inadequate service and proposed Metropolitan Transportation Authority cuts on the L, G, J, M and apparently doomed Z subway lines serving the area.

There were maybe 200 residents there, though we are pretty bad at judging crowd size when we don't actually use our fingers to count. (It was pretty shocking to us last summer when people started quoting our guesstimate of the audience at the Metropolitan Opera in Prospect Park as reliable).

The crowd seemed a pretty representative sample of the Williamsburg community except for a paucity of hipsters. We sat in the back, with a bunch of young Hasidic guys, and two women of a certain age who reminded of us of the aged male hecklers in the old Muppet Show. They criticized everyone.

Councilmember David Yassky, who apparently called the meeting with State Senator-elect Daniel Squadron, was speaking when we arrived. Councilmember Diana Reyna was also sitting on the panel up front, along with other officials whose names we didn't quite get, though we think there were representatives of U.S. Reps. Nydia Valesquez and Ed Towns. Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, unable to attend to a death in his family, also had someone from his office there.

Facing the politicians and the crowd were the MTA's director of government affairs Hilary Ring and the agency's Brooklyn point man from community relations, Andy Inglesby, and (we think) the New York City Department of Transportation's Brooklyn commissioner Joseph Palmieri and bicycle program coordinator Josh Benson.

Yassky began by saying Williamsburg has not been well-served by the strained transportation system and will be devastated by the proposed MTA cuts to bus and subway service (including permanently making the Queens terminus for the G train at Court Square rather than ever going to Forest Hills - which it hasn't for nearly every recent weekend we can recall; ending all M trains at Broad Street, Manhattan, rather than ever going back into Brooklyn all the way down to Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst; and killing the Z line altogether).

Since everyone from the Brooklyn newspapers to Channel 12 and local bloggers were there, we expect to see a lot of material online about the meeting from people who actually report legitimate news stories and will defer to them, linking as stories appear.

The first post we saw this morning, though, was from bikers Harry Schwartman and Jeff Tancil, with an account at nyccommuterblog:
Simple summary: the Hassidim are pissed. . . business owners are also pissed. So was this lady behind us, who represented everyone's palpable displeasure with the new bike lanes on Kent Street.

Speaking as a dude who bikes every day and is wholeheartedly in favor of bike lanes, including one on yummy wide Kent Street, I can get their beefs.

The Hassidim can't safely drop their kids off and it does sound like some cops didn't get the memo about stopping exceptions, leading to some perhaps dubious tickets.

The business owners and their bunged up deliveries most certainly get the short end of the stick.

So, the bike lane is not ideal. As a biker, I don't ask for the world. I want a basically car-free space, where I feel might rights and person are respected: I am not scrapping for a wee sliver of the road that I most certainly deserve to be on.

Anyhow, David Yassky sort of played conciliator and agreed that there should be further discussion amongst affected parties.

As an alter kocker, the last time we regularly rode a bike on a public thoroughfare was in 1998, when we lived on a cattle ranch in northeast Wyoming and pedaled between Sheridan County and Johnson County (okay, the Ucross ranch straddled the county lines) on U.S. Highway 14-16.

We rode against traffic so we could catch the waves of the passing drivers, that being how you drive on federal highways in the people-deficient Cowboy State. In jam-packed New York City, we walk or drive when not dependent on the MTA. And we don't hang out on Kent Avenue So frankly, we were both disinterested and uninterested in the bike brouhaha that dominated the meeting.

But here's more, courtesy Ben Fried on Streetsblog:
Convened by City Council members Yassky and Reyna, the meeting got off to a rough start after MTA reps delivered news about service cuts that will affect the neighborhood. The tone was set for a contentious discussion of Kent Avenue. "Business owners came out against it," said Sholom Brody, a member of TA's Brooklyn Committee. "The problem is 'no standing'; they're really upset about the stretch between Clymer and Division Avenue," a small portion of the lane's full length.

The parking situation has already been through community board review. In April, CB1 approved plans for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, which would offset the removal of parking spots on Kent by identifying new spaces on side streets. (The current bike lane is a stopgap until the Greenway is built.) All told, DOT made three presentations to the community board about the project [PDF]. Opponents now say this process was insufficient.

An NYPD ticket blitz immediately after the parking rules took effect appears to have inflamed opposition, and the usual canards, of course, are in full effect. According to Brody, one bike lane opponent claimed to have seen only 20 cyclists use the lane over the course of a full day, a figure that DOT refuted with its own 12-hour count -- 500 cyclists.

Streetsblog regular Dave "Paco" Abraham inspected the new lane on a recent ride organized by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Any hindrance to drop-offs and deliveries caused by the "no standing" rule need not give rise to a hot-blooded confrontation, he says. "The problem is very workable and the BGI and CB1 supporters readily admit it should be addressed and corrected."

And here's the other side, thanks to Ben Muessig's article in The Brooklyn Paper:
Opposition to newly painted bike lanes on Kent Avenue is so strong in Williamsburg’s Hasidic community that one Orthodox leader vows that the faithful will block traffic if the city does not remove the cycling routes.

In South Williamsburg’s Satmar section, the wheels were already spinning against the bike lanes — which eliminated curbside parking and standing when they were painted last month — and now City Council candidate Isaac Abraham kicked the conflict into a higher gear when he said this week that private buses would obstruct Kent Avenue to pressure the city to remove the lanes and reinstate alternate-side parking.

“We will ask all the drivers: ‘When you pick-up or drop-off our children, put your bus in an angle, block the entire street, wait ’til the parent gets to the door of the bus, [and] slowly — very slowly — take your child off or put it on the bus, [and] don’t rush to get back on the sidewalk,’” said Abraham, who added that the protests would occur every morning from 8 to 10 am and each afternoon from 4 to 7 pm and would be accompanied by rallies.

“One day the traffic will be backed up all the way to Long Island City to [the] Department of Transportation Headquarters, traffic will come to a halt,” he said.

Abraham revealed to The Brooklyn Paper his calls for a traffic slowdown just before a contentious Nov. 24 neighborhood meeting that addressed the controversial Kent Avenue bike lanes, which are placeholders for the proposed Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway — a divided cycling and walking path planned to stretch from Greenpoint to Sunset Park.

Members of the Hasidic community said that blocking traffic is their only effective way to protest the no-stopping, no-standing signage that they have fought since the city installed the signs on a Saturday last month and immediately issued tickets, even though observant Jews aren’t allowed to move their vehicles on the Sabbath.

And the New York Observer weighs in with "The G is for Gloom":
At a transportation town hall meeting at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center in Williamsburg on Monday, Andrew Inglesby, New York City Transit's assistant director of government and community relations, spelled out the challenges the agency confronts:

"It's a tough number that we had to get to," he said, referring to the M.T.A.'s obligation to balance its budget. "No matter what you do you're going to get grief from one neighborhood or another. And we really feel like we spread the bad news for everyone."

Acknowledging the breadth of the current crisis, activists and elected officials perceived G service as crucial to the health of Brooklyn and Queens.

"Anytime you're cutting the G," said Jake Maguire, a spokesman for Councilman David Yassky of Brooklyn, "you're stunting the development of the communities along the G corridor, which is really significant. So I think that has a serious impact for the city."

When we entered we were asked to sign in, and if we wanted, to fill out a paper asking "what issue you would like to see addressed this evening." Although we didn't fill one out, on our way out around 8:20 p.m., we found a pile of these discarded forms in the garbage at the back of the room.

Some of the issues that these community residents wanted discussed included "The future of Williamsburg and population expansion," "Bus service (direct) into Manhattan," "Efforts being made to separate pedestrian and bike traffic on the Pulaski Bridge," and "The fact that you're robbing us blind!!"

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