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City backpedals on expanding Midtown pedestrian space for the holidays

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De Blasio called the plan “premature” and said City Hall had not signed off

Holiday shoppers and tourists pack onto Fifth Avenue during the holidays.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The mayor is walking back plans to give holiday shoppers more space in Midtown.

A top Department of Transportation official penned a letter to the district manager of Manhattan Community Board 5 Monday, spelling out a pilot program that would temporarily shutter two lanes of Fifth Avenue traffic near Rockefeller Center. But on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio backpedaled on the pedestrian upgrade and said the effort is “premature.”

“Whoever at Department of Transportation let that get out there—maybe it was accidental, maybe someone was trying to further their own agenda—but it was premature,” de Blasio said at an unrelated Thursday press conference. “It has not gone through the proper process and review. It was not signed off on by City Hall.”

The “Holiday Pedestrian Congestion Mitigation Plan” spelled out in Pincar’s letter would eliminate a car lane and a bus lane on each side of Fifth Avenue between 48th and 51st streets, and open that space up to pedestrians. Concrete jersey barriers would enforce the changes. Pincar said installation was expected just after Thanksgiving and that the pilot was slated to stay in place until the new year.

“While it is wonderful that so many people are visiting the city’s most renowned holiday destination, these high numbers of pedestrians lead to sidewalk and corner crowding for long periods of the day and into the evening,” Pincar wrote in his letter.

But DOT claims those plans weren’t actually final, despite Pincar spelling out a timeline. His letter also includes renderings of the proposed changes.

Courtesy of the Department of Transportation

“While a letter was sent to local officials notifying them of potential remedies, nothing has been finalized,” DOT spokesperson Alana Morales said in a statement. “We will keep you updated on forthcoming details of plans, which are still weeks away from implementation.”

Up to 20,000 pedestrians move through the three block area per hour during the holiday season to peruse the stores and seasonal window displays on the famed shopping corridor, according to DOT data. If the changes are implemented, they’re expected to bump pedestrian capacity by some 40 percent, according to Pincar’s missive.

Several safe street advocates lauded the pilot program on social media, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. In a joint statement on Thursday, Councilmember Keith Powers, who represents the Midtown area, and Brewer urged the mayor to move forward with the pilot program.

“As the holiday season approaches we cannot stick with the same old strategy of funneling hundreds of thousands of pedestrians into tight spaces,” Powers and Brewer said.

Powers went on to address the mayor’s comment in a tweet, asserting “an agenda for safer streets and more public space is a positive.”