Grand Street Business Owners Want L-Pocalypse Bike Lane Turned Back Into Parking

The Grand Street bike lane in December 2018.
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The Grand Street bike lane in December 2018. Yehuda Pollack / Gothamist

Now that the full L train shutdown is on the verge of being replaced by a new "nights and weekends" work plan proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, some small business owners want the city to also reverse course on street changes intended to accommodate 225,000 displaced daily L train riders. Specifically, merchants and motorists are doubling down on their war against new bike lanes.

As a sign of the growing resentment, West Village cyclists last Thursday discovered vandalism on bikes lanes that included the spray painted words, “Bring back our parking.” The bike lanes, on 12th and 13th Streets, are one of several in Lower Manhattan and North Brooklyn that have been added as part of the city’s Department of Transportation transit mitigation plan for what was to have been a 15-month suspension of L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. That was upended two weeks ago, when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled another engineering assessment that determined it would be possible to repair the tunnel on nights and weekends and avoid a full shutdown. (The MTA board will hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the new plan's viability.)

On the other side of the river, bike lanes are in the cross-hairs in Williamsburg, where transit officials had been prepping for the L train closure. Last fall, the DOT began installing a protected bike lane on a mile stretch of Grand Street between Morgan Avenue and Rodney Street. It has resulted in the loss of more than half of the metered parking spaces over six blocks. Of the 255 total spots, 175 spots were removed, with 80 now remaining, according to the DOT. On the eastbound side, all of the spaces were eliminated. The move especially upset some of the small business owners there who say their livelihood depends on the spaces for customers and delivery vehicles.

Area businesses had from the beginning opposed the redesign, but now that the full L train shutdown plan appears to be dead in the water, they are asking why the bike lanes need to stay given the changed circumstances.

“It’s a disaster,” said Aura, the owner of Empire Lock, a locksmith store that has been on Grand Street since 2013.

Aura, who declined to give her last name, said she has seen the number of customers at her shop slip dramatically since the city took away metered parking in front of her store. “We need the meters to survive,” she said.

Similarly, Felix Palomo, who owns and runs a restaurant called Bahia with his brother Luis, said he did not understand why the plan could not be reversed.

“So far the L train is not happening,” he said. “They don’t know. Our main thing is our parking.”

He said waitresses who have worked with him for 20 years have complained about making fewer tips because of a drop in lunchtime customers. Deliveries on the westbound side are now more difficult, with double-parked trucks blocking the lane at times.

Palomo said he has thought about talking with the other businesses and hiring a lawyer to represent their interests.

The DOT has given no indication that the bike lane could be painted over. But on the day Cuomo announced his new L train proposal, Mayor Bill de Blasio opened the door a crack for a possible re-examination of the city’s transportation improvements plans. “If it turns out that this really is a sea change, then we’re going to evaluate what it means and if we’re going to look at these things in another light,” he said. But he added: “Until we’re 100 percent certain, we’re going to keep all of the precautions we have ready and waiting just in case.”

Following the incident in the West Village last Thursday, the DOT, in a joint statement with the New York Department of Police, said that, "efforts for the L tunnel closure will remain in place as we continue to review the plan presented last week."

Meanwhile, members of the City Council, including Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso, have called on the MTA and city to stick to its original bike and transit-improvement plans. “The impending L train shutdown has forced us to make considerable progress on the fronts of transportation and business services out of necessity. It would be negligent to let months of concerted efforts go to waste,” Reynoso said in a statement last week.

"Complete streets" advocates in Brooklyn want the city to commit to finishing the bike access plan along Grand Street. Most of the bike lane work on Grand Street has been completed, and in November the DOT said that any remaining construction would continue through the winter.

Responding to the suggestion by small businesses that the city should return all or some of the parking spaces in light of the new L train plan, Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joseph Cutrufo said, "New York City is in the midst of a transportation crisis. We have some of the slowest buses in the nation. It would be a real step backwards to turn those spaces into car storage."

As part of a 2017 survey, the Grand Street Business Improvement asked 65 merchants what percentage of their sales "come from car trips." Although far from scientific, the study found that 17 percent of the businesses surveyed said more than a third of their sales come from people who drove. A total of 11 percent said they didn't know. Nearly 88 percent said they were not considering relocating because of the L train shutdown.

Cutrufo argued that studies have shown that streets with improvements in bus and bike access have seen in a jump in retail activity. Specifically, one 2012 report by the DOT found that one of the city's first protected bike lanes on Ninth Avenue between 23rd Street and 31st street saw retail sales increase by 49 percent, compared to a 3 percent increase across all of Manhattan.

Other aspects of the transit mitigation plan in North Brooklyn for the L train shutdown on Grand Street include a dedicated bus and local access lane—in which cars driving on cross streets are not permitted to turn into Grand—that would be in effect from 5 a.m to 10 p.m. The DOT has also said it would increase the Citi Bike network in North Brooklyn, adding 200 new biking docks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. In December, the agency also presented a plan to have Citi Bike build an additional five stations in Bushwick. The number of bikes was not specified.

Although the cycling community has welcomed the improved access, riders on Grand Street have complained of unfinished stretches along the bike lane, saying they create confusion and more importantly, hazardous conditions for riders.

Prior to the DOT’s unveiling of the redesign plan, Grand Street had gained notoriety for being one of the most dangerous pedestrian and cyclist areas in North Brooklyn. At least three cyclists have died in fatal crashes on Grand Street since 2016.

Anna Maria Wolf, the co-owner of two bike shops in Williamsburg, including King Kog, which opened in December on Grand Street, argued that disruptions like the L train shutdown can sometimes force cities to change for the better.

“The flip side is that when you have these massive transportation upsets, it gives city planners and activists the time to push forward-thinking and bold agendas that people might not be comfortable with,” she said. “It would be heartbreaking to see miles of green bike lanes torn out to put parking spaces back in.”

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