Brooklyn’s Chinatown takes traffic conversion protest to DOT chief’s home

Business owners and residents of Brooklyn’s Chinatown protested outside of the Transportation Commissioner’s condo in Dumbo on Aug. 25.
Photo by Jessica Parks

Residents of Brooklyn’s Chinatown rallied with local business owners on Aug. 25 outside of the city transportation commissioner’s new Dumbo condo — the latest in a series of protests against a pair of bike lanes planned for the heart of their neighborhood. 

“There is nothing else that we are able to do,” said Paul Mak, the head of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association. “This is going to change the rest of our lives, so we have to do whatever we can.” 

The rally aims to delay a Department of Transportation’s plan to convert a pair of two-way thoroughfares to one-ways, with Seventh Avenue running towards Bay Ridge, and Eighth Avenue running in the direction of Downtown Brooklyn between 39th and 65th streets. 

Both avenues would be reduced from a 22-feet to 11-feet, making way for an 11-foot bike lane and buffer.

Some members of the Sunset Park community argue that the traffic proposal is being forced on them without the agency seeking real input — so this time they caravanned to Dumbo’s Furman Street, where the recently-appointed Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman resides. 

Mak told Brooklyn Paper that residents and business owners had nominally supported the idea of turning both Seventh and Eighth avenues into one-way streets, but they ardently oppose the reduction of the total number of travel lanes for cars.

“At first I think the community had no concern about the one-way street because the traffic is really terrible,” Mak said. “However, as they introduced the project more, they introduced a couple of things that were really concerning to the community.”

The local community leader also worried that — with Seventh and Eighth avenues being so narrow already — people would “just stay away from Brooklyn’s Chinatown” if the congestion and lack-of-parking situations got even worse.

The plan, as it currently stands, will eliminate 200 parking spaces on Eighth Avenue, in the busiest area of their Chinatown between 51st and 60th streets to make way for an 11-foot expansion of the sidewalk on the road’s western side. 

“We really rely on people who used to live in Sunset Park and moved to Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and other areas,” Mak said. “By not being able to find parking spots, by having a 10-times worse congestion on Seventh and Eighth Avenues, people will just stay away from Brooklyn’s Chinatown.” 

These measures, in addition to the one-way conversions, would block traffic in the event of double-parking, which remains a regular occurrence in the neighborhood as delivery drivers are unable to find parking spaces, Mak said.

“Anytime there is double-parking, basically, I think the impact will be quite great for the whole, the backup especially,” Mak said. “Also the fact that there is so much double-parking because there is loading and unloading, and they just can’t find parking spots.” 

Local Assemblymember Peter Abbate suggested the agency construct a bike lane on Sixth Avenue instead, as it eventually hits the neighborhood’s namesake park, where bicyclists could ride through for a more scenic route. 

“Sixth Avenue at 45th Street, you hit the park — so it’s a nice respite, and then you can continue to 39th,” argued the pol.

Mak and Abbate were both named plaintiffs on a recent Article 78 lawsuit that was settled in court, with the agency agreeing to use July 9 as the date of first notification launching the mandated 90-day comment period. That makes Oct. 9 the date which the agency can move forward with the project. 

As part of the agreement, the agency is supposed to engage them in the required hearings laid out by New York City Administrative Code but Abbate claims there hasn’t been a peep from the agency. 

“They haven’t approached us,” Mak said. “I think they run out the clock and just do what they want to do — and that isn’t fair to the community.” 

The agency has two meetings planned before impacted community boards in September; the first being before Bay Ridge’s Community Board 10 on Sept. 9 and the second before Sunset Park’s Community Board 7 on Sept. 21. Another meeting before Community Board 12 will be scheduled at a later date. 

Abbate said he and his constituents will make the pilgrimage to Dumbo once or twice a week to ensure Gutman lives with the impacts he is thrusting on their neighborhood, instead of just ignoring them, even when he is no longer in office as the new administration comes in next January — with Mak threatening to bring sound equipment if they have to. 

“Even if he is out of office, we are planning to do this once or twice a week in front of his house, because they are going to suffer with it,” said Abbate. “And he thinks it’s over come January, and we will be here in January.”

The Brooklyn Chinese-American Association said they are hoping they can run the clock on the project until the next mayoral administration comes in, and, despite settling the lawsuit under the community’s terms, he suspects transportation honchos still won’t listen to them as evident by previous behavior.

“We are very concerned no matter how many people will be attending those meetings, they still aren’t going to listen,” Mak said. “We have no channel to really express our concerns, the last two public meetings were on Zoom, they just mute everybody and just tell you to put your questions in the Q&A box.” 

Abbate told Brooklyn Paper he suspects the project was pushed through by the mayor’s office as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to install several miles of bike lanes before leaving office, and that a new administration would look at the situation differently.

“I think this is coming from City Hall, and forgetting about the safety, I think he just wants his 30 miles of bike lanes,” Abbate said. “Which he can get, but just somewhere else.” 

The Sunset Park assemblymember told Brooklyn Paper that Borough President Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, does not support this project as of their conversation two weeks prior. 

“He’s opposed to the plan, he wants them to sit down and work something out,” Abbate said.

Though there is still some support for the project from whom the bike lanes would serve most, and the head of Bike South Brooklyn previously told Brooklyn Paper there has been plenty of outreach on the proposal. 

“I haven’t perceived a lack of outreach,” said Brian Hedden. “I have sat in on a couple of meetings and I know that they’ve had other meetings that I did not take part in. It does seem to me like the DOT has created a number of avenues where people can sit in on DOT presentations and have their feedback heard.”

A representative from the city Department of Transportation bashed the rally as inappropriate, as there have been multiple meetings for everyone to raise their concerns. He said their claims of lack of transparency “are misguided and untrue” as the agency has answered over 100 questions at their forums that were offered in four languages, and their Street Ambassadors have partnered with local groups to conduct 400 surveys on safety and mobility issues in Sunset Park last year. 

” There’s an appropriate time and place for policy disagreements, and we’ve held three comprehensive and open public meetings so far for everyone to make their voice heard,” said Scott Gastel. “That time and place is not outside a public servant’s home, when such discourse can occur much more productively elsewhere.”

He highlighted the need for this project by sharing the dire safety statistics on the two impacted corridors — which have seen 35 severe injuries including one fatality and 500 total injuries in a five-year period. Over half of both severe and total injuries were from pedestrians and cyclist injuries and the injury rate to children and the elderly is 40 percent above the borough average.

Update (Aug. 31, 1 pm): This story has been updated to include comment from the Department of Transportation.