By JEFFERY C. MAYS
When Barbara Askins started the 125th Street Business Improvement District 24 years ago, a river of trash flowed down Harlem’s busiest commercial corridor at the end of most days.
“It was total chaos,” Ms. Askins said. “The trash was blowing everywhere. It would hit you in the face while walking down the street.”
After hiring a team to sweep litter and empty trash cans, Ms. Askins felt like things were under control — until 125th Street started to boom again in the last few years. A resurgence in street vendors, along with new businesses such as Whole Foods and malls filled with national retailers, has added to the almost 160,000 pedestrians who cross 125th Street each week and created more trash.
“With our growth, the trash issues have returned. It’s not clean,” Ms. Askins said.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A study released on Tuesday by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs found that the 125th Street Business Improvement District, which stretches from Morningside Avenue to Fifth Avenue, could be a laboratory for dealing with the sanitation challenges of a city expected to grow to 9 million residents from 8.5 million by 2040.
The study’s suggestions include monetizing the collection of recyclable items, including some forms of loose paper, glass and metal trash, that do not already have a deposit attached to them.. It also recommended deputizing visitors to 125th Street to report problems more consistently to 311, New York City’s hotline, and to the improvement district to help the city develop better strategies for tackling problems such as illegal dumping.
“One-Twenty-Fifth Street is hot. There are all these investments, and tourists are coming. Now you need new policies to keep up with demand and change behaviors,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University who was a co-author of the study.
Spurred by a 2008 rezoning that allowed taller buildings on 125th Street, 10 projects valued between $14 million and $95 million have been completed since 2011. Another 10 projects, some with budgets of $100 million or more, are under construction.
On a rainy Monday afternoon, members of the business improvement district collected four bags of trash and placed them at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, showing the volume of trash even on a day with fewer pedestrians. Then someone dumped a plastic chair beside the trash, a violation of the sanitation code.
Ms. Askins said the business improvement district would call the sanitation department to collect the chair, but it could be there until Wednesday’s regular pickup, which might invite more dumping.
Regular visitors to 125th Street, like Sabine Nicoleau, an administrator for City Health Works whose office is in the area, have noticed the increased garbage.
“You go to Midtown or the Upper West Side and it’s cleaner,” Ms. Nicoleau said.
The trash problems on 125th Street were not what most people expected to find in the area visited by 8.5 million pedestrians last year, the study said. But it said the district’s “clean teams” do a good job of picking up litter on the ground, which was mostly left by homeless people and loiterers.
And the study found that businesses on 125th Street do not follow the guidelines for commercial pickup, placing trash on the street for pickup at unauthorized times. Some smaller businesses, which are supposed to hire private carters, also illegally place their trash in cans meant for pedestrians, the study said. Unlicensed street vendors also use trash receptacles, the study found.
The study suggested that the 125th Street Business Improvement District begin a recycling program for paper or metal.
“There are all kinds of glass and plastic bottles that don’t have a deposit on them. There is a secondary market for the big metal items that get thrown away, and also for wood and paper,” Ms. Fuchs said.
Kathryn Garcia, the city’s sanitation commissioner, said the department is already thinking widely and acting broadly on some of the issues.
“We think that cleanliness is very important for quality of life and economic growth across the city,” said Ms. Garcia.
The city already collects bulk paper and earns $35 per ton, which is up from $33 per ton just last year. The revenue goes back into the sanitation department’s budget.
The department is also conducting two studies of its own. One is looking at whether clustering commercial trash pickups would make them more efficient. The other, with the American Institute of Architects, is looking at the impact of development on sanitation policy.
“We want to insure we are part of the conversation when a developer is developing a building,” said Ms. Garcia.
Upper Manhattan already receives three trash pickups per week, which is more than other parts of the city, Ms. Garcia said. But she said she is also aware of the “challenges with a very large homeless population” on Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, which the city is trying to address with more resources.
“We really need the public to not litter and not throw things on the ground,” Ms. Garcia said.
To that end, four solar-powered trash cans were placed on Lenox Avenue on Tuesday. The cans, which hold up to 150 gallons and send a notification when full, were secured by the business improvement district and are wrapped in works by local artists, Ms. Askins said.
“If the streets are not clean, nothing makes sense,” said Ms. Askins.