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Officials see a 23rd solution

City will propose plan to rebuild street in sections of two to four blocks to minimize disruptions
by: L.E. BASKOW, A vocal opponent of an earlier plan to rebuild Northeast 23rd Avenue for up to 18 months, Escape from New York Pizza owner Phil Geffner says he can live with the scaled-down plan to confine construction to a two- to four-block section at a time.

The dispute over how to deal with potholed Northwest 23rd Avenue and the owners of its many upscale shops appears to be headed toward a resolution.

For more than a year, city officials have been stuck with a seemingly intractable problem - the need to shut down and rebuild 23rd, running up against the avenue's shop owners saying the project might put them out of business. But this week, city engineers said they may have found middle ground.

Twenty-Third Avenue has been slowly deteriorating for years, with old trolley tracks beneath the street causing potholes and fissures in the pavement nearly as quickly as city maintenance crews could fix them. The solution, according to engineers from the city's office of transportation, was a total reconstruction of the avenue, right down to the roadbed.

The more time engineers spent designing the project, the more problems they encountered, including 100-year-old sewer pipes they were certain would burst once the project began. So the project grew and grew, until it appeared it might take 18 months or longer to complete.

And some business owners said 18 months with traffic stalled or rerouted on parts of the busy shopping street was more than they could tolerate. They prevailed on city Commissioner Sam Adams, who oversees the Office of Transportation, to call off the project.

But city engineer Steve Townsen said this week that Office of Transportation engineers have come up with a new way of synchronizing the work that might allow them to reconstruct the street while keeping 23rd Avenue closures down to a total of six months.

Under the new plan, work will take place on each two- to four-block section of 23rd Avenue for no longer than two weeks. During those two weeks, there will be no through traffic on those sections of 23rd - cars will be detoured to side streets.

Originally, engineers had planned to keep one lane of 23rd open at all times, but that cost too much in overall construction time, Townsen said.

Townsen has presented the new plan with a series of options that could affect the timeline to Adams.

New plan called 'ingenious'

Shoshanah Oppenheim, Adams' liaison to the Office of Transportation, said that she will be taking the new plan and its options before the Northwest District Association and the Nob Hill Business Association over the next few weeks.

'We're pretty pleased, considering that the previous model included significant closures and not accommodating pedestrians,' Oppenheim said. 'This is a holistic approach and it is sensitive to the impact on the business community.'

Juliet Hyams, president of the neighborhood association, said the new plan sounded 'ingenious.' Hyams and other members of the neighborhood association previously had said they were not in favor of calling off the reconstruction project.

Phil Geffner, owner of Escape from New York Pizza on 23rd Avenue, said he wanted to review the new plans before weighing in, but that he could live with the street being closed in front of his shop for two weeks.

Geffner had been one of the most vocal shop owners against earlier versions of the project, believing the length of time the street would have been under construction might have substantially changed 23rd Avenue beyond the length of the project.

Geffner said that an 18-month or two-year construction schedule would have forced many owners of small shops out of business, but that stores that were part of national or regional chains would have been able to weather the slowdown in business.

'Once small businesses go out, you know what comes in,' Geffner said. 'Corporate stuff. And when corporate stuff comes in, the character of the neighborhood changes.'

Weather could be concern

The proposed new construction schedule still might encounter problems, Townsen said. To minimize the impact on businesses, the most intensive work on 23rd will take place from January through June, when retail business is slowest. But that is also the time when the weather is most likely to play havoc with construction schedules, Townsen said.

To further speed up work, the new plan might have crews working extended hours with the permission of a city noise variance - possibly from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he said.

But the most critical change, Townsen said, is a proposal to not repair sewer and water lines at the same time as the road is reconstructed.

Instead, the new plan would call for doing as much work as possible, including sewer, water and sidewalk work ahead of time, with short interruptions of traffic.

The initial design of the project, Townsen said, caused concerns that the water main underneath 23rd Avenue would crack from the pressure of the construction.

But he said a new design involving the slope of the street has engineers believing they can protect the water main and finish the project in less time.

An earlier design of the project estimated its cost at $3.2 million. No cost estimates have been released for the new design.

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