By Michael McDowell
A plan to reconstruct the rotunda over Riverside Park at 79th Street does not include a protected bike lane, a factor that angered some residents who attended a meeting last week.
The West 79th Street Rotunda links the Upper West Side to the West Side Highway, and offers access to the Hudson River Greenway. It also sits atop the Boat Basin Café. Officials estimate construction will start next year and last for at least four years.
An initial plan for the $150 million project—which is entirely city-funded—was presented in 2017. But even after a number of meetings, key decisions remain controversial, and unresolved.
That much was clear following a lengthy and at times contentious meeting of the Community Board 7 Parks & Environment Committee on Monday night, which was held jointly with the Preservation and Transportation Committees. At the meeting, NYC DOT and the Department of Parks & Recreation presented a fourth iteration of their plan to reconstruct the rotunda.
The project involves several structures: a bridge over Amtrak, which runs underneath Riverside Park, and the rotunda itself, which is a multilevel facility that includes a parking garage, pedestrian plaza, and traffic circle.
Particularly controversial remains the configuration of the traffic circle at the top of the rotunda, which must accommodate automobiles, the M79 bus, pedestrians, and a growing number of cyclists, who use the circle to access the Hudson River Greenway.
There is no plan for a protected bike lane in the traffic circle. Instead, the latest design proposes cyclists share a narrowed, 18-foot lane with vehicles, including the M79 bus. The M79 passes through the traffic circle about every five minutes during peak hours.
Approximately 31-feet of lane space is available, according to a design spec.
In an assertion that provoked more than a few raised eyebrows, a DOT representative stated that it’s actually safer for cyclists to share lanes with vehicles in situations where there is more complex movement. DOT also held that a protected bike lane in this space would create a false sense of security for cyclists.
Instead of a protected bike lane, DOT plans to add a “red material, a high-friction surface treatment” to pavement adjacent to the narrowed, eighteen-foot lane; cyclists will be discouraged from utilizing the red area, but will not be cited for doing so.
This plan was met with confusion, skepticism, and near unanimous dissatisfaction.
“This is one of the main entrances to the busiest bikeway in the United States…this is by no means a child- or park-friendly treatment, this is better, given the constraints you have—maybe. But we’re doing a big construction project, and in this day and age, this is almost no improvement at all and it’s kind of a shame that we would be spending this sort of money to do almost nothing,” said Mark Horton.
Horton stated that he traverses the traffic circle during his commute on a regular basis, and has done so for many years.
DOT did not have counts on hand as to how many cyclists regularly pass through the circle.
“I think you’ve utterly failed Vision Zero,” said Andy Rosenthal. “This Community Board, a couple of months ago, voted for a protected bike lane on Central Park West, which DOT failed to put in, and now a woman’s dead. We can avoid that here.”
Rosenthal was referring to the death of Madison Lyden, a 23-year-old Australian woman who was struck and killed by a garbage truck in August.
“You’ve got 31 feet—sounds like you’ve got plenty of room,” Rosenthal continued. “Biking has tripled in the last couple years, and it’s only going higher, as programs like CitiBike expand…There is also a lot of pedestrian traffic [in the traffic circle], which we really haven’t talked about. If you do go with this design, I think there’s something you need to do that’s a visual cue: put a crosswalk in. That’s a visual cue to drivers that something is going on here,” Rosenthal said.
“It’s a place for a potential tragedy,” added David Vassar, to murmured agreement.
“This is the legacy of Robert Moses,” a man said, shaking his head. “Why not close it to vehicles—have them use 72nd Street?” his neighbor mused.
The rotunda poses unique challenges. For one, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), issued by the Federal Highway Administration, specifies that bikes and pedestrians are not to use roundabouts, due to the dangers posed by vehicles using on-and-off ramps. In addition, as the rotunda is landmarked, DOT and Parks are limited in the kinds of design changes they are permitted to make.
Some notable updates are to be made: the traffic circle will be resurfaced, and the off-ramp from the West Side Highway will be narrowed from two lanes to one. Signage alerting drivers to the presence of cyclists and pedestrians will be added. But with 31 feet of space, plenty for the M79 and motorists, several people in attendance found DOT’s explanation for why it wasn’t adding a protected bike lane unconvincing.
The traffic circle at 79th Street is one of the few access points to the Hudson River Greenway and is the route mandated by DOT; adding an additional access point is problematic, given the presence of the Amtrak tunnel beneath Riverside Park and the West Side Highway.
Joannene Kidder, Executive Director of Community Affairs and Chief of Staff at the Division of Bridges, acknowledged that it would be “physically possible” to create a bike lane. But DOT cycling experts advised against it.
Other aspects of the plan are equally controversial, especially a proposed staging of construction on the 77th Street ballfields, where the West Side Little League plays its games.
Some elements of the design are less controversial.
The city will also add space on the pedestrian level, for administrative use, storage space, or possibly another concessionaire. The look of this storefront will be very similar to the 102nd Street Fieldhouse. Boat Basin Cafe kitchen exhaust fans will be moved from the pedestrian plaza to two grassy areas adjacent to the highway ramps that are not generally accessed by park users. The fountain, in the middle of the rotunda on the pedestrian level, will be restored.
The package of design changes must be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
DOT and Parks will next meet with Community Board 7 on January 10, to discuss changes and improvements related to the structure’s landmark status, before DOT and Parks appear before the LPC. An advisory vote on the design by the full board will follow, and could occur as soon as January 28.