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Protesting the Port Authority's PATH Safety Project 

By Winnie McCroy

Greenwich Village residents, activists and politicians -- among them several gay New Yorkers -- have banded together to oppose the Port Authority's plan to create additional PATH train entrances at Christopher at Bedford streets, and Chritopher and Waverly streets. Some even fear the historically significant gay neighborhood, site of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, could be forever altered if the PATH project goes through. The controversy is just the latest brouhaha involving a neighborhood beset by quality of life concerns. 

Residents and activists, including members of the Christopher Street Preservation Alliance, are not only worried about protecting a landmarked neighborhood, they're also incensed at what they perceive as the Port Authority's lack of sensitivity to their concerns. 

"Along with everyone else in the Village, including politicians, I think this is a disastrous proposal," said Aubrey Lees, chair of Community Board 2, which includes Greenwich Village. "Our number one concern is the impact this will have on a historic neighborhood, these landmarked houses, and congestion that will make the crowding on Christopher Street even more problematic," added Lees, a lesbian. 

After Sept. 11, the PATH station at the World Trade Center was rendered inoperable, displacing commuters to other stations. With construction of the World Trade Center PATH station not to be completed until early 2004, and growing commuter traffic posing a safety risk, the Port Authority announced plans to build additional entrances on Christopher Street. 

Despite growing community concern, workers have begun boring test holes to determine suitability for building. The Port Authority is not subject to any oversight with the exception of that of New York Gov. George E. Pataki and New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey. 

The Port Authority was formed to identify and meet transportation infrastructure needs of the bi-state region. The governors of New York and New Jersey each appoint six members to the Board of Commissioners (who serve as unpaid public officials for overlapping six-year terms), and retain the right to veto the actions of commissioners from their own states. Under its charter, the Port Authority is exempt from many local laws, regulations, and review processes. 

Lesbian City Councilmember Christine Quinn, of District 3, voiced concerns over her discovery of the Port Authority's plans. "They in no way communicated this in a direct manner; I had to wheedle it
out of them," Quinn recalled. "They are using September 11 to justify this, but it won't be done significantly earlier than the WTC station, and if it's
about security, why not work with the community to allay concerns?" 
Concerns abound around proposal's possible impact on area known for its gay history 

Greenwich Village residents, including gay activists, have offered a host of reasons why the proposed plan is unsuitable, including that the area is a historic landmark district and an epicenter of gay history. It was in this neighborhood in June 1969 that the gay community took a stand against increasing harassment by the New York Police Department in the Stonewall riots, launching the gay civil rights movement. 

But, said Port Authority spokesperson Steven Coleman, "Every effort has
been taken to be as least intrusive as possible. The entrance will only be 4 feet wide, and we need to do this for safety. Now it could take as much as 19 minutes to evacuate the station in an emergency. There is only one way out with one turnstile, and what we are trying to propose is to put another entrance/exit so people can get out, which we would use on regular basis, but whose main purpose is for safety reasons." 

Arty Strickler, district manager of Community Board 2, said that the board has already had two hearings with the Port Authority, and has banded together into a task force to oppose the plan. "We recognize the fact that there is a safety issue, but we have made various suggestions, like putting emergency exits with gratings like the New York subway has, or putting the staircases in other places," said Strickler. "This puts another ugly structure in the community, and narrows a very heavily used route. This is a through street for traffic, and this will just add to clutter and congestion." 

Other concerns include the increase in displaced traffic the building could create, the negative effect it could have on local businesses, and the potential
damage it might wreak on turn-of-the-century buildings erected on weak foundations. "This area is a New York City and national historic district," said Ron Kopnicki, president of the Society for the Architecture of the City. "There are many old buildings from the early 19th century, and Port Authority's plan just doesn't fill us with confidence on how these buildings might fare. They are built on sand and silt, and are not the most stable things, so there is a real risk of something happening here to damage these historic structures." 

"It was a lucky coincidence that Greenwich Village was declared a historic district right after Stonewall, and has been unchanged until now," said David Carter, gay author of the soon to be published book, "Stonewall," scheduled for release in fall 2003 by St. Martin's Press. "But if we upset the structure of these buildings, they could become condemned. The riots here were very< much about gay space. The second night of the Stonewall riots people crowded into the streets to make the point that this is our territory, the space you pushed us into, and we'll be damned if we're going to have you push us around this ghetto. Christopher Street is our heritage." 

Other local residents have pointed to the residual problems that the
construction could create.  "I live on Charles Street, where the bus will be rerouted," said gay activist and longtime Village resident Bob Kohler. "I suppose it has to go down someone's street, but this is one of the nicest old tree-lined streets. This will have a big impact besides just noise; it is going to destroy trees which took years to grow." 

"We will try to be the least intrusive to the neighborhood as possible," countered the Port Authority's Coleman. "We are meeting with all business owners … to make sure that their concerns are addressed. Once we open the station it will only be 4 feet wide. It will take away part of the parking spaces in that one corner, but it should not impact the sidewalk or anything." 
Concerned citizens have suggested alternative plans, including building an intermediate platform to shift exits to another area, creating only emergency
exits, and even waiting until the World Trade Center PATH station is rebuilt. "A lot of people are talking about a lot of different locations, but that wouldn't get people out to street level in an expeditious manner," said Coleman. "They would still be in a tunnel underground. The way we've proposed is the shortest, quickest way." 

As community opposition to the project mounts, the Port Authority has responded by hiring independent consulting firm Higgins & Quasebarth to evaluate alternate entrances. Yet it continues to drill test holes, and plans to begin construction in early July. "This raises questions. We want to know the criteria upon which this evaluation is being made. We are also concerned because they are moving forward with work even while this evaluation is going on," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. 

Berman, who is gay, said while the Port Authority has offered no formal indication of its next move, his group will hold the Port Authority's feet to the fire regarding the criteria under which these consultants will make their evaluation. 

"Any consultant hired by a millionaire finds results that are generally what their client wants to hear," said Strickler. "My experience is that they do the
research, then say the hell with everyone, and do what they want. There are only two things to stop this: the governor or a lawsuit. We are not dealing with a city or state agency, but an authority. Agencies have rules; authorities do not." 

"We are very offended by their agenda," said Quinn. "We asked them to stop
the clock and make the time for the Task Force to meet with the Fire
Department and EMS to review emergency only exits, but they said they
would not do that. They said they would set up meetings, but not stop their
clocks. They will keep meeting with us about exits, but start their work. That's
absurd! They are trying to appease people in a way that is so pathetic it only
makes you madder." 

"Port Authority has a full-page ad in the 'Pride Guide,'" said Carter. "They are
using your tax dollars to put an advertisement in a publication for a
community where they are citing an egregious project. What do they think
Heritage of Pride stands for? It was created to honor Stonewall, and they are
trying to destroy that. The hand in front is saluting us, just as the hand in the
back is desecrating that very thing. If they think the gay community is going
to give up our heritage for that, I hope we prove them wrong." 

Gay state Sen. Tom Duane, a Manhattan Democrat, noted that it is an
election year. "And the gay vote is up for grabs," he said, adding, "The case
can be made to the governor that this is a historic preservation issue, which
he is very good on." 

The offices of Gov. Pataki and Gov. McGreevey did not respond to requests for comment by Blade deadline.  A protest, meanwhile, is slated for June 14 on
Christopher Street. "I think this protest is going to make [them] stop and reconsider. This is not the time for the Port Authority to ignore the community," said Melissa Sklarz, chairperson of the LGBT committee for Community Board 2. "They are trying to make it safer for PATH riders, and we respect that. But how they are going about it is a bad choice." 

Said the Port Authority's Coleman: "We will work with the community closely,
but at the same time we believe this is needed to be done to improve the
safety of the PATH train." 

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