It’s Time for DOT to Think Big at Grand Army Plaza

union_st.jpgThe view of Grand Army Plaza from Union Street. DOT has proposed converting parking on Union to another moving lane.

Union Street in Brooklyn has a problem: The queue of cars waiting to drive through the intersection at Grand Army Plaza sometimes stretches as far as the eye can see. The bottleneck, which causes a lot of horn-honking, crosswalk-blocking, and other hazards, is intimately connected to another problem: Grand Army Plaza is a spinning vortex of traffic draining the life from what should be Brooklyn’s premier public space.

At a CB6 committee meeting last month, DOT’s Ryan Russo presented plans to alleviate the Union Street tie-up by converting the parking lane between Eighth Avenue and Grand Army Plaza into a moving lane. For advocates of a lively, welcoming, and safe Grand Army Plaza, the proposal encapsulated the shortcomings of DOT’s approach to the area: By trying to solve the traffic problem on Union Street, the agency would do nothing to address the public space problems at the plaza, and may end up exacerbating them.

The city has recently made some headway improving Grand Army Plaza for pedestrians and cyclists. New pedestrian islands and a short, separated bikeway connecting the Prospect Park loop to Plaza Street have enhanced safety. More is on the way. A two-way protected bike path is slated for Prospect Park West, and a long-awaited median expansion on Eastern Parkway leading straight to the plaza should, someday soon, improve walking and biking from Crown Heights.

Adding another lane of moving vehicles on Union doesn’t seem to fit with these incremental improvements, especially when an alternative that would simplify traffic patterns — converting the westbound travel lane to a second eastbound lane — has already surfaced at public meetings. "There are so many better solutions," said Robert Witherwax of the Grand Army Plaza Coalition.

In three years, Witherwax and GAPCo have built a broad base of support for the idea that Grand Army Plaza can and should function as a much better public space — one that feels like an extension of Prospect Park rather than a few green islands surrounded by streams of traffic. The Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Public Library, Community Boards 6 and 8, and the North Flatbush BID are among the coalition.

All the tweaks to the plaza, so far, have been consistent with the planning principles GAPCo and its partners have promoted. The problem, says Witherwax, is the city’s piecemeal approach, which the Union Street proposal has cast into sharp relief. "DOT has been an excellent partner," he said. "It’s not so much that what they have done, or are proposing, is bad — it’s that they aren’t going far enough."

Witherwax is calling for a "buildable master plan" — a blueprint that would help guide planning and transportation decisions throughout the plaza area according to consistent goals. "Once you have that structure in place, you can say what happens if you do X, Y, and Z over here,"
he said. But to date, he added, DOT has resisted the idea of a comprehensive plan.

The reinvention of Grand Army Plaza as a great public space could be a signature achievement on par with DOT’s transformation of Times Square and Broadway. It’s a complex project, to be sure. But with a second stimulus or a front-loaded transportation bill gaining steam in Congress, the opportunity to move forward could present itself soon. Shovel-readiness is key. Will New York be prepared with a plan to breathe some life into the heart of Brooklyn, or will we be caught flat-footed?

  • Geck

    As I have suggested to GAPCo, a bold approach would be to run Flatbush Ave with 2-way traffic on the North and East Side of the Plaza with controlled intersections at Eastern Parkway and Vanderbilt (the park drive entrance/exit if required could be opposite Eastern Parkway). The West and South Part of the Plaza would be closed to all traffic and tied in to the Park. Union Street would no longer be a through street and its problems would be solved. Cars traveling to Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Ave South would divert to Flatbush Ave at Eighth Ave or earlier. PPW would be reached by Plaza Street.

  • With DOT willing to pedestrianize Times Square and other sections of Manhattan streets, would it really be that radical to eliminate the traffic circle around Grand Army Plaza? No.

    As a variant on what Geck proposes, Flatbush and Vanderbilt/Prospect Park West could intersect at the northeast end of the Plaza, with Flatbush Avenue traffic running along the north and east sides of the Arch. There’s room for at least two lanes in either direction. Eastern Parkway would enter Flatbush at the eastern end of the Plaza. PPW — and 8th Avenue — could be converted to two-way flow. And best of all, the Arch and Bailey Fountain could be connected to Prospect Park on a traffic-free peninsula, making these attractions accessible to more than just daredevils and enhancing and expanding the Green Market.

    C’mon, DOT — why does Manhattan get all the love?!! Let’s think a little bit outside the box.

  • Alfred A. Chiodo

    While a relative newcomer to Brooklyn, having moved to Park Slope in 1992 and now living in Crown Heights South (with stays in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene in between), as well as being an avid commuter cyclist, I have given much thought to the evolution of Grand Army Plaza, its current situation, and what might be best for the future.

    Rob Witherwax and GAPCo have been leading the way to a more human public space, and I believe that the solution to the “freeway” feeling is certainly a reduction in the number of lanes for motorized vehicles. Reducing the lanes will limit queuing space (the addtion of which is being proposed as a solution to Union Street back-ups) and queuing space is one of DOT’s great concerns.

    I am not convinced that elimination of the roadway on one side of the Plaza is the best solution. It may be good for Park Slope residents, and not so good for the residents of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.

    We certainly need the Master Plan that Rob Witherwax advocates, and I still hope that we will arrive at the best solution in the near future. But the Plan will need to be comprehensive, recognize the role of vehicle circulation in the life of this public space, and fairly address the needs of all user groups.

  • Erik Engquist

    DOT surely knows that there is already a parking restriction on Union Street eastbound between 8th Ave and Plaza Street. It’s not 24-7, but the point is, even when the restriction is in place, traffic still backs up from the light at the top of the block all the way down to 8th Ave, causing gridlock. So eliminating the parking restriction won’t solve the problem. The short-term solution is to do some restriping so cars drive in the parking lane when parking is restricted there (after 7 a.m.). Currently, they use just one lane even when two are available, resulting in a backup. Some eastbound drivers escape by turning left on 8th Ave, crossing the double yellow into the opposite lane to do it. This risks a collision with oncoming traffic or, more likely, with a pedestrian.

    The long-term solution is to reduce the number of cars traveling up Union Street, but not by sending more cars down 8th Avenue to Flatbush (i.e., past my apartment). Maybe making PPW 2-way would help. It would slow traffic on PPW and provide an alternative route to get to GAP. But the bike-lane project on PPW might have already ruled out that possibility.

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