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Brooklyn’s Chinatown ramps up struggle against DOT’s plan to convert Seventh and Eighth avenues to one-way streets

September 13, 2021 Helen Klein, Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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In an ongoing conflict, residents and merchants in Brooklyn’s Chinatown are continuing to demand that the city revamp its proposal that would turn Seventh and Eighth avenues in the neighborhood into one-way streets, complete with protected bike lanes on each, as well as widened sidewalks in certain areas.

While the city’s avowed goal is to make the strips, between 39th and 66th streets, safer for pedestrians and cyclists, those who live and work in the neighborhood contend that the changes would actually make it more dangerous, as well as badly impacting local businesses already struggling in the wake of Covid 19 and a spate of Asian hate crimes.

Among the concerns: 

  • A net loss of nearly 200 parking spaces in an area where traffic is already snarled and businesses are struggling;
  • A reduction in the number of lanes of moving traffic from two to one on Eighth Avenue at 60th Street, which residents say will result in a bottleneck;
  • The relocation of the B-70 southbound bus route from Eighth Avenue, where the bus currently runs in both directions, to Seventh Avenue, as well as five-block spacing between bus stops that are now two to three blocks apart; and,
  • Because Seventh Avenue in Sunset Park would be one-way southbound, traffic exiting the Gowanus at Seventh Avenue and heading northbound would not be able to continue straight into Sunset Park, but would have to turn onto 65th Street and then turn north at Eighth Avenue, which is already a high-traffic intersection.
Their t-shirts made the message clear. Eagle photo by Helen Klein

These concerns were hammered home to a team from the city Department of Transportation, who presented the proposal to the Community Board 10 Traffic and Transportation Committee and an overflow crowd of local residents on Thursday, Sept. 9, at the Park Asia Restaurant, 811 66th St.

Holding signs reading “We oppose DOT’s conversion plan of 7th Ave & 8th Ave,” “Oppression in Progress” and “Racist Mayor, Stop Oppressing Our Community,” and wearing t-shirts reading “Community Voice Matters,” dozens of protesters lined the sidewalk in front of Park Asia prior to the meeting, repeating their mantra for the evening, “No Input, No Project.”

At an earlier protest covered by the Eagle, on Aug. 26, a crowd led by Paul Mak of the Brooklyn Chinese American Association gathered in front of DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman’s house in DUMBO “All we want to do is talk to you so we can talk about our concerns,” Mak yelled outside the home, at the time.

“This project is about saving lives on two main corridors in Sunset Park and how we are going to accomplish that,” replied DOT representative Scott Gastel in the aftermath of the August protest. “When children and seniors are being injured at a rate exceeding the borough average by 40 percent, action must be taken.”

At the more recent meeting, inside Park Asia on Sept. 9, the crowd’s comments underlined their anger and anxiety over the proposal that they believe the city is trying to ram through, a perception strengthened by the fact that DOT wanted to move forward with the plan without coming to any of the affected community boards (7, 10 and 12), until the agency lost a lawsuit brought by local residents represented by CB 10 member Stephen Harrison under Article 78, contending that DOT was skirting the mandated community review process.

Stephanie Wong, executive director of the United Chinese Association, said, “Before DOT made its decision, they never contacted community leaders. We live here. We work here. We shop here. Not you. You sit at your desk in front of your computer. We know what we need. Not you. This plan is for DOT. Not us. We are requesting that the DOT provide a better plan by including the neighborhood.” 

Brooklyn Asian-American Civilian Observation Patrol Chair Louie Liu agreed. He said that the plan was “not based on reality and doesn’t fit into people’s lives here.” A bike lane on Eighth Avenue, he added, “will cause more casualties. You don’t know how people live here, how people work here. It’s not for them. It’s for you.”

“You [the DOT] were very good at sugar-coating it,” noted Yu Lin, but he said taking away lanes of moving traffic is like removing veins from the human body. “When you take them away, you kill the body. When you take away the lanes, you will kill the community.”

“Our voices matter,” proclaimed one sign. Eagle photo by Helen Klein

It will be the “children and seniors” who will “suffer, if the plan isn’t right for the community,” added Kenny Guan, a member of CB 7.

“I don’t mind the one-way streets,” noted Mak, stressing that what concerned him was the single lane of moving traffic along large portions of the strips. “I don’t mind a bike lane but I have a problem with a six-foot bike lane and a five-foot buffer. It will kill business.” Expanding the sidewalk in areas, he added, will not make it easier for pedestrians but allow illegal vendors to display more merchandise, who should be dealt with via enforcement.

Adding that opponents of the plan had collected 20,000 signatures in two weeks, Mak demanded, “What do we have to do to make you listen?”

“The arrogance” of the agency is “unbelievable,” Assemblymember Peter Abbate told the DOT team. “You don’t seem to care. We’re willing to work with you.” But, he stressed, “Eighth Avenue is the wrong spot” for a protected bike lane. “It’s actually going to cost people’s lives.”

Abbate also railed against the idea of moving the southbound B-70, and noted that the increased spacing between bus stops actually means that riders, many of them seniors, would have to “cross five intersections” to get to the nearest stop. He also contended that the city’s Fire Department “has not signed on. I think it’s going to add a lot to response time.”

And, “the final piece of arrogance,” according to Abbate, was DOT not bringing a translator to the meeting, despite knowing that the changes would impact a “large Chinese community.” It was Abbate’s chief of staff, Irene Chu, who served as translator.

Several Community Board 10 members joined Abbate in his condemnation of the plan. Jaynemarie Capetanakis, the principal of nearby P.S. 69, at Ninth Avenue and 63rd Street, said that DOT had implemented “a microcosm of how one-way conversions work in the neighborhood” with Ninth Avenue made one-way from 62nd to 64th streets. “It’s violated every single day. I fear that the one-way conversion would not solve the problem, but create a problem.”

CB 10 member Joe Sokolowski zeroed in on the increased spacing between bus stops. “When there are so many seniors in the area, that’s not fair,” he contended. The plan overall, he said, “is going to cause confusion and accidents. I think it’s all about the bike lanes. I don’t think it’s to help the community.”

Another board member, Dean Rasinya, agreed. “My opinion is that this is a political push by the mayor to push his programs before he gets out of office.”

There are two more hearings on the proposal, both via Zoom, for CB 7 and CB 12. When pressed, the DOT representatives declined to say what the next steps would be, beyond that.

“The questions I’m hearing are ‘Will you come back with a new proposal with changes before you implement the plan?’” CB 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann told the DOT representatives.

“We didn’t say we are going to stick with it, but there’s no way to give you a definite answer right now,” replied DOT Community Coordinator Leroy Branch.

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