After Hurricane Sandy, NYC puts new buffer on sidewalks

If you’ve gotten on a sidewalk in recent years, odds are you’ve noticed the huge blue dot that marks the end of a block of sidewalks right where a pedestrian would need it most: outside a pharmacy, a hotel, a post office or in a neighborhood grocery store.

It’s a new law in New York City. This year, the city went from allowing a sidewalk for 500 feet to a maximum of 1,250 feet in front of some government facilities and businesses that employ 70% or more people.

There’s a catch.

During a typical day, only about .4% of the average 4 million visitors to the city walk on sidewalks in front of government facilities, such as city hall, police and fire stations, airports, train stations and prisons.

“I noticed people stopping on the ground because they’re not supposed to,” said Jonathan Abrams, who often walks from his apartment near the corner of Austin Street and Greenwich Avenue to his job at an art gallery on Worth Street.

While the change may seem trivial to some, the effect is chilling.

About one in five New Yorkers use the sidewalk in front of their government entities. Many walk to greet their mother or father outside their child’s daycare center or to catch a bus in front of their workplace.

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“The price that’s being paid is a loss of the ability to walk down the street,” says Peter Van Valkenburgh, the city’s deputy chief of the Office of Strategic Planning. “We’re definitely talking about people that have a very direct, unmet need. It’s the ultimate inconvenience when you’ve got to go back through a main artery to get to your house, or work, and it’s causing an uproar.”

A deadly storm may have created the problem in recent years. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, debris overwhelmed sanitation workers who made sure that streets could be wide enough for vehicles. For a while, the sidewalk wasn’t big enough, and a big gap opened between the curb and the street.

Now the city is cracking down.

“The vast majority of the workers are those who are in the midst of a really busy, part of the city,” said Sheila C. Oliver, the council speaker. “We’re letting those workers know that if they have an issue, they should have a clear lane.”

See the exit signs on the sidewalk

Ahmed Musa, who works in front of his office building near Lafayette Street and Allen Avenue, is thankful for the new sidewalk law. Musa lost his job at a nearby bank and moved to New York in hopes of finding work. He walks to his new office everyday, but has struggled to find a parking spot and an open sidewalk, because he might have to walk into the office.

The new sidewalk statute has cost some stores jobs. Hudson Coffee and Deli has laid off workers as it tries to figure out how to hire more workers.

“I don’t see any coffee shop in the neighborhood wanting to hire people,” says Esther Wong, who has lived in New York for 25 years. She and her husband, who works in a hardware store on Mulberry Street, use the sidewalk for errands.

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