One hopes that the planners who are working on the 125th Street River-to-River Study will consider Hancock Place, a one block street that connects the oblique portion of West 125th Street with diagonal lower St. Nicholas Avenue. Maps dating back to the 1800s show that this street has always been this wide, and that what is now the western end of 125th Street was once called Manhattan Street. In the horse and buggy days, traffic must have flowed two directions from the Hudson River to Central Park along one continuous diagonal boulevard that pre-dated Manhattan’s grid. Today, traffic now flows southeast, in waves. Transportation planners have filled in pieces of the street to the east and west, leaving this block as wide as a north-south avenue, but with a tiny fraction of the traffic. When a wave of traffic is coming through it progresses through a normally sized lane before suddenly coming upon this wide, wide street. It is then funneled onto normal sized 124th Street. The sudden extra width of the block encourage speeding livery cabs and others to try to cut one another off before being channeled back into the more narrow space, creating a bottle neck where one need not be. In between the waves, one finds a desolate, underused stretch that is hard for a pedestrian to cross and gives the sense of vacancy and quasi-abandonment despite the recent investment in the area.
Above and at right is a new BP gas station that takes up an entire tiny city block that anywhere but New York City would be a minor traffic island. At left is “The Flatiron of 125th Street,” a $30 million health care facility built in 2003 to serve members of the New York Hotel Trades Council and Hotel Association. The union should have sought to extend that block southward into the street, filling in the unused leftovers of the 1800s thoroughfare. They would have gotten a lot more space for their building and improved the streetscape. That opportunity was missed, but another one remains.
The red lane in the center of the aerial photo above shows the extent of the block that is actually needed for traffic. The blue triangles at the south represent two relatively pleasant plazas that were created where Hancock Place formerly had gone. The yellow area shows the part of the street that the union health care facility should have taken over. The New York City Department of Transportation should change the parallel parking along the north side of the street into perpendicular parking. Besides doubling the number of parking spaces, this would narrow the travel lane, slow the traffic on this block and making it easier for pedestrians to cross. Or this area could be made into a plaza similar to the one to the south. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to widen the sidewalk a little bit and create perpendicular parking. As seen at right, CrashStat.org indicates that from 1995 to 2001 there were nine pedestrians or cyclists injured at the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 124th Street, where the traffic comes speeding around this corner, and one injury at the gas station’s little island. Slowing the traffic and increasing sidewalk space would help to decrease these injuries.