Call it a Fifth Avenue freeze-out.
A dramatic city proposal, pitched as an improvement to bus and bike lanes on Fifth Avenue, will reroute and restrict automobile traffic in the heart of Midtown and disrupt access to many of the city’s most famous landmarks just before the critical holiday shopping and tourism season.
Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue are all in the firing line as New York City makes one of the most daring attacks yet in its war on cars.
The Department of Transportation plan has ignited outrage from struggling businesses on the world-famous thoroughfare.
The traffic constraints “threaten Midtown’s and New York City’s economic recovery,” Jerome Barth, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, told The Post. “Not one business here supports the plan.”
The original DOT proposal in June, still on the city wish list, eliminated all auto traffic on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 34th streets. That plan was altered after encountering major resistance from the business community.
The DOT now intends to reduce Fifth Avenue from five lanes to four; strictly enforce two existing lanes of busways to improve bus speeds; add a protected bike lane on the left (east) side of the road, and expand sidewalks. Work is to begin imminently and be finished by the end of September. DOT would not give The Post any more detail, such as whether the changes involve construction of new curbs and sidewalks, and traffic signals.
The plan calls for major disruptions for autos. Southbound traffic from the Upper East Side will be forced to turn right at 55th Street. Autos that enter Fifth Avenue after 55th will be forced to turn right on 45th Street. Cars on Fifth Avenue will be restricted from turning right onto 51st, 49th and 47th streets. Existing traffic will flow normally north of 55th and south of 45th.
The goal is to push southbound traffic onto Seventh and Park avenues, opening up Fifth Avenue for buses and bikes. Private cars, Ubers and cabs will not be able to drive from, say, Central Park to Rockefeller Center; nor drive from Rockefeller Center to the New York Public Library.
That plan creates a potential nightmare scenario for commuters who are now driving into Manhattan because they are wary of packing into public transport in the era of COVID. Midtown drivers who rely on wide Fifth Avenue to get south toward the Midtown or Lincoln Tunnels, for example, might be forced instead to navigate through Times Square or around Grand Central Terminal to get off the island.
“The city wants to speed up buses, not bring more people to Fifth Avenue, ” said Ruediger Albers, the president of Wempe, a luxury jeweler on the ground floor of the Peninsula Hotel. He said his business declined 20 percent last year and laid off five employees because of COVID-19, and that “we still live without tourists.”
But public-transit advocates say speeding up buses on a restricted Fifth Avenue will help commuters, especially essential workers.
Fifth Avenue is a “very high capacity bus route that should deliver the speed and reliability that bus riders … deserve,” said Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for the Riders Alliance. He added that 47 percent of NYC bus riders are essential workers who have been “subjected to miserable commutes” on the “slowest bus routes” in America.
Opponents of the assault on automobiles say the restrictions will limit the appeal of Fifth Avenue attractions; cause confusion among returning holiday visitors; increase traffic on cross-streets and in Times Square already choked by gridlock; reduce handicapped accessibility, and create an eyesore of hastily assembled new signals and signage on a roadway meant to be a sparkling gem on the crown of the Manhattan grid.
With businesses hoping to rebound strongly this holiday season after a disastrous 2020, “it’s not the time to experiment on Fifth Avenue,” Barth said.
He claims the hasty proposal comes from a mayor “pushing for short-term political gain” with local constituencies such as alternative transportation advocates while eyeing a future in Albany.
Midtown landmark Saks Fifth Avenue opposes the city’s plan because of its “potential to inconvenience customers, increase congestion in remaining vehicle lanes and deter valuable foot traffic for retailers,” the company told The Post.
Gridlock is already choking the center of the Manhattan. A 2019 DOT report found that the average auto speed in Midtown was just 4.9 miles per hour, not much faster than walking, while borough-wide speeds had declined from 9 MPH to 7 MPH over the last 30 years.
New Yorkers with mobility issues might also suffer under the new plan, said advocate for disabled commuters Glen Bolofsky.
“Understandably the city is trying to limit congestion but, by limiting congestion it may be discriminating against the disabled community, whereas other New Yorkers can bike, walk, and take the subway to get to work,” he said.
“This plan will speed up the commutes of over 100,000 New Yorkers per day, promote sustainable transportation, and make the street design safer for everyone,” said DOT spokesman Scott Gastel.
The proposal enjoys support from local officials, cycling and alternative transportation advocates, and members of Community Board 5.
“The future of Manhattan is fewer cars and greater alternative modes of transit, like bicycles and buses,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) told The Post. “We can increase the foot traffic in Midtown through this proposal and end the gridlock we see on Fifth Avenue in holiday season after holiday season.”
“Cars are not the enemy,” countered Fifth Avenue realtor Adelaide Polsinelli, arguing that the city plan will increase congestion on side streets and damage “an already delicate balance of people trying to get back to their offices but fearful of taking public transportation.”
The Fifth Avenue Association has responded with its own vision, creating a “green corridor” much like the Champs-Elysees in Paris that connects Central Park in the north to Bryant Park in the south via a verdant pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.
The Association plan will most notably retain one lane of through traffic for automobiles without turning restrictions.
The Association proposal reduces Fifth Avenue from five lanes to three, also provides a two-lane busway and protected bike lane, and expands sidewalks by 40 percent.
The merchants want work to begin after the holiday season and be completed in 12 to 24 months, Barth said, adding that Fifth Avenue’s outsized impact on New York City’s economy and global image requires more thoughtful planning.
The “Midtown core” of Fifth Avenue provides 236,000 jobs, many in tourism and manned by minority workers, and generates 5 percent of all New York City tax revenue, according to data provided by the Association.
“The star power of Fifth Avenue is priceless, it’s the most important street in the world,” said Barth. “Making policy here that only speeds up bus traffic is extremely short sighted. The city in its wisdom should have a much broader approach.”