April 29, 2004
Chinatown Says Police Parking Makes Its Streets Too Tight
By SUSAN SAULNY
Residents of Confucius Plaza, near the Manhattan Bridge, put up orange barrels to keep police officers from parking in front of their building. "They took our sidewalk, our front," Justin Yu said.
Jan Lee would rather spend time anywhere but in the driver's seat of his pickup truck, circling the block on Mott Street in Chinatown where he owns an antique shop, hoping to find a place to park and unload his boxes.
On a good day, he will circle three or four times, trying to find a place not taken by an illegally parked car. On a bad day, it takes him hours, and sometimes he just gives up. So do other truck drivers with cargo headed to Sinotique, his store. He cannot call the police, because most of the cars parked in Chinatown's loading zones are in fact owned by police officers.
"Multiply my problem by literally hundreds of people in Chinatown," Mr. Lee said, "and you'll get an idea of what it's been like here for the past few years."
Even though the attack on the World Trade Center happened two and a half years ago, residents and business owners in Chinatown say their neighborhood, just a short distance from ground zero, has not recovered. Because of the security measures imposed on the nearby police headquarters and other government offices, they say, conditions in their part of Lower Manhattan have actually grown worse.
Streets have closed. Traffic patterns have changed. Buses have been rerouted. Several checkpoints for cars remain.
Parking conditions are the worst, moving from bad to unbearable, Mr. Lee and others say. Correction and police officers and other government employees have turned to the streets of Chinatown for long-term parking, a process that started before 9/11 when a municipal garage under police headquarters closed for renovation. The reopening of the garage has been delayed since the attack by changes in plans.
"This law enforcement illegal parking is a major, major, major problem," said City Councilman Alan Gerson, who represents the area. "They park on sidewalks, by fire hydrants, in no-standing zones. It's total parking anarchy, and it's disruptive and dangerous to people trying to walk."
A random survey of parking recently showed that people in Chinatown were left with a meager amount of street space after various law enforcement officials had parked for the day.
On Bayard Street between Baxter and Mulberry Streets, 18 of 19 parked cars displayed dashboard placards from the Police or Correction Departments. On Bayard Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets, all 15 cars parked displayed Correction or Police Department placards although they were in no-standing zones. And on Mulberry Street between Bayard and Canal, the scene was much the same: 21 of 29 cars parked in restricted zones also displayed law enforcement placards.
The Police Department has conceded that the security measures are inconvenient but insists that the changes are necessary to protect the concentration of government buildings near Chinatown. Police and city officials say they do not see the parking situation in the dire terms used by neighborhood merchants.
Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne said officers should not use the streets for all-day parking. He did not acknowledge that they were, and he did not comment further. The narrow streets that form the heart of Chinatown (and that formed the notoriously chaotic Five Points before it) have been bustling for centuries. People in the area say, however, that since 9/11, the intensity of congestion has been unusual even by their standards.
After the attack, several blocks of Park Row, a major north-south artery for the area, were closed to unauthorized traffic, as were parts of smaller streets in the Chatham Square area. Some residents still have to present identification at checkpoints around One Police Plaza in order to get to their apartment buildings.
Justin Yu, who owns a shop in Confucius Plaza near the Manhattan Bridge on-ramp and is also the building's co-op board president, places orange barrels outside his storefront just to keep the police away.
"They took our sidewalk, our front," Mr. Yu said. "They park all over the place - the real police, fake police, correction officers, police from out of town. We don't have anything left."
Paul J. Q. Lee lost his family's 113-year-old gift shop at 32 Mott Street in October because of what he called the lingering effects of 9/11 on the neighborhood's economic vitality. "The war on terrorism seems to be a war on Chinatown," he said. "What's hurtful is that we are now being treated like the enemy."
In 2002, residents of two Chinatown co-ops, along with Mr. Gerson and other elected officials, sued to stop the city and the Police Department from closing streets and leaving police officers' cars in a neighborhood park, James Madison Plaza.
Last year, Justice Walter B. Tolub of State Supreme Court ruled that it was time for the police to take the first steps toward removing security blockades and ordered them out of the park by April 15. In February, the police offered a declaration to the court based on its assessment of how the department's security measures have impinged on the neighborhood, saying they have had "no significant effect" on Chinatown.
"While these security measures may be perceived as inconvenient, they are necessary to protect the city, state and federal facilities in the area and would not result in an adverse impact to the overall character of the neighborhood," the statement read.
A lawyer who handled the case for the city, Janet Siegel, an assistant corporation counsel, said this week that the department had fully complied with the court's orders and was interested in working with Chinatown, not against it. "The Police Department is continuing to work with the community to see that all concerns are addressed," Ms. Siegel said.
Still, people in Chinatown say they are not being heard.
Danny Chen, a software engineer who lives in Chatham Green, a 21-story co-op on Park Row that sits just inside a police barricade, describes the period after 9/11 as the city's "reign of anti-terror."
"They look at Chinatown and say, 'Hey, we need parking, so let's take it from the Chinese. Oh yeah, it's for security,' " Mr. Chen said. "I can't express how angry I get when I think about how they think of us."
While Mr. Chen and others celebrated the return of James Madison Plaza to community use, they say they will not be content until Park Row is open and the parking issue is solved.
A Police Department spokesman said that the municipal garage should be open soon, but that its capacity would be limited.
"Clearly the reopening of the lot will be a big help," Mr. Gerson said, "but there needs to be a master parking plan developed for Lower Manhattan to assure adequate parking for residents, workers and visitors."
Mr. Gerson is urging support for the Park Row bill, which he has introduced to establish guidelines to address the issue of street closings, including providing for adequate public input. A hearing on the bill is scheduled before the City Council on May 3.
"The point is, we need a process to assure communities that their needs are not ignored," he said.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company