Tunnel Vision

New Yorkers Are Skeptically Optimistic About the L Train Non-Shutdown

It seems... good? But maybe also catastrophically bad?

by John Surico
Jan 14 2019, 7:40pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

The week and a half since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s startling decision to suddenly halt the L train shutdown four months out—a transit crisis that was three years in the making—has been a grabbag of emotions for New Yorkers.

It has set off a frenzy of concerns that the new plan, which would only require partial closures at nights and on weekends, is untested and half-baked. It has redrawn actual battle lines in communities over alternate plans that have long been underway. It has left a lot of New Yorkers feeling like they really got screwed by the governor’s last-minute decision to call up a couple of outside engineers, and single-handedly silence all other voices in the room. It has also been received with a huge sigh of relief.

Let’s start with the positive.

In the last week, as VICE reached back out to a number of the subjects interviewed for this project, the overwhelming sentiment we heard was that the non-shutdown is, in fact, a good thing in the end.

Jennifer Webber, whose daughter, Tula, was profiled for VICE’s story on affected students, said that her family “thinks it is great news generally.” Tula, she said, did have alternatives to get to school, “but they would just take longer;” this fall, Saturday and Sunday closures to prepare for the now-cancelled shutdown were particularly difficult for her to reach a weekend class. “She felt some serious pain in that commute.”

“I have not heard from anyone who laments the sudden announcement by the governor,” said David Rosen, the owner of The Woods, a club in North Brooklyn and the co-founder of the L Train Coalition advocacy group. On the contrary, he said, the hype was likely of benefit to many: “Honestly, some folks may have made out well by negotiating lower rents.”

For residents, the real estate has indeed been one huge silver lining of this whole saga. According to one estimate, North Brooklyn residents saved at least $6.4 million due to the disruption through decreased rents and landlord concessions. “With [the] news that the L-train shutdown no longer appears necessary, renters who have managed to negotiate deals in recent months have struck gold,” said Grant Long, an economist at StreetEasy. And in the past few days, apartments in the area are apparently selling like gangbusters—the number of weekend appointments reportedly doubled at one complex within days.

Now, let’s shift to the less sunny.

The many unknowns at the heart of this decision—how the hell did Cuomo find a plan that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) did not have? And why wasn’t it announced a year ago?—has embroiled New York’s transit politics of late, pitting the governor against the rank-and-file of the massive bureaucracy that he effectively oversees. And it has left a gaping hole in public confidence: in nearly every interview conducted for this story, even residents who are supportive of the decision are still notably skeptical of the plan’s implementation.

“I suppose I'll believe it all when whatever happens, happens,” said Megan Fenstermaker, whose family was also profiled for the student story. “It seems politically motivated, which makes me distrust it all.”

Critics say that Cuomo undermined the MTA’s credibility by circumventing them, and news that the engineers who he convened have little experience underground hasn’t helped his case. A former New York City Transit president wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that the new design could prove unsafe, and his successor, Andy Byford, promised an independent review of it. “It will take as long as it takes,” Byford said, according to Gothamist . “I will not be steamrolled.” (Meanwhile, Cuomo told reporters earlier this week that he’d like to “blow up the MTA” after what happened here.)

The city’s transit authority isn’t the only thing to come out of this shitshow with lingering doubt. Another major question left unanswered by Gov. Cuomo’s decision is the leftover work; as VICE detailed last month, the city was ramping up for a full-scale mitigation effort, which would have included bike lanes, temporary ferries, a HOV3+ lane over a major bridge, a busway on a crucial crosstown thoroughfare, and other street-scale changes. Now, their future hangs in the crosshairs between transit advocates who say the changes should continue unfettered, and the same residents who previously sued the MTA over the shutdown, citing environment costs.

Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents parts of north Brooklyn, said in a statement that the efforts are still needed for the congested area, regardless if the L train went offline or not. “Many of the strategies proposed in the mitigation plan, particularly those that facilitate the use of alternative and public modes of transportation, have applications beyond the L train shutdown, and still warrant implementation,” he said.

The 14th Street Coalition, a local advocacy group, has recently called on the city to dismantle the protected bike lanes that have already been built, and abandon the “busway” that was set to debut on the busy 14th Street come April. “With the closure hopefully in the past, the 14th Street Coalition does not want their neighborhoods to be guinea pigs with extremely disruptive changes to their safety,” a statement read. (Per a Twitter tipster: on Thursday, one resident went so far as to put up signs declaring that the bike lanes were “cancelled” and apparently spread glass on the pathway. It’s unclear who the individual was.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who commended the shutdown news but seems as weary as everyone else, has not made clear whether the street-level changes will stay in place. “Once we know for sure we’re dealing with a very different reality in the L train, then we’re absolutely going to look at those measures and see if they might be the kind of thing we want to do going forward,” he said in a radio interview.

Rideshare companies that were looking to scoop up some stranded riders have also had to go back to the drawing board—or ditch it all together. Jaime Getto, who started The New L, a luxury shuttle service for residents during the shutdown, sent out an email to subscribers saying that the Sprinter vans stacked with breakfast bars were “no longer the best way to serve the residents of NYC,” and that the service would cease operations unless plans change. A spokesperson for Lyft, which created a ‘Lyft plan’ catered to the shutdown, said in an email that the company “will continue to work with local, city and state leaders as their plans develop to ensure all riders are able to get where they need to while the necessary repairs are made.”

While that all gets sorted out, there are still a number of residents who felt particularly burned by the news last week. In interviews, several subjects told VICE that they incurred serious burdens as a result of shuffling up their life plans. One person said they didn’t take a job because of the shutdown, and another, Myka Fox, moved out due to the fears, landing themselves in Long Island City, unwittingly before it was announced that the western Queens neighborhood would soon be home to Amazon’s HQ2. “Living in New York City is just a long game of Donkey Kong, and eventually we will all die from faulty scaffolding,” she said online.

Another resident, who didn’t want to give his name, said he paid an expensive brokers fee and moving costs to decamp to Park Slope, in central Brooklyn, where he and his girlfriend left behind friends and a shorter commute, after nearly a decade of living up north. “It’s extremely frustrating,” the resident told VICE. “It changed the calculus that otherwise wouldn’t have changed.”

For chef Joaquin Baca, who goes by the nickname “Quino,” the L train shutdown was “just one more deciding factor” in last year’s closure of Brooklyn Star, a popular Williamsburg spot that had been around for nine years. “A good portion of our regulars were from the L train, the Manhattan crowd,” he said in an interview. “We were weighing every single factor. It was an emotional closure for us.”

But, Baca added, he is not entirely down on his luck: he has since opened a new eatery, Teo, in Bushwick, which feels “more insulated” from any transit disruptions. “It’s a smaller restaurant compared to Star, so we can have a quiet Tuesday night and that’s OK,” he said. And, he said, he cannot say for sure that he would’ve stayed open had the shutdown been averted then.

That was the overwhelming sense I got in a lot of interviews: that those who felt burned by the shutdown were still fine—just incredibly annoyed. That the rug had been pulled from underneath them way later than it should have. And although they’ve landed on their feet, why did they have to fall in the first place?

“It’s such a large, impacting decision. To say at the last minute, ‘Eh, not really. Let’s do something else...’” said Baca, reflecting on his thoughts when he first heard the news. He laughed. “It just felt like a kick in the shorts.”

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