The Problem With Designing a Public Space in a Sea of Traffic

Forest City Ratner and DOT plan to turn Times Plaza by the Barclays Center into an attractive public space. Photo: Google Maps
The asphalt sidewalk leaves a lot to be desired, but can Times Plaza ever be an attractive public space as long as Flatbush and Atlantic are overrun by traffic? Photo: Google Maps

Designing a successful public space surrounded by wide streets and a sea of traffic may sound like an exercise in futility, but that is what Forest City Ratner and DOT are trying to pull off at Brooklyn’s Times Plaza.

Forest City unveiled its design for Times Plaza — the triangle formed by Fourth Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, and Flatbush Avenue — at a DOT-sponsored public meeting last night. The western side of the triangle was expanded as part of the traffic mitigation for the nearby Barclays Center, but it’s still not a welcoming place to walk to.

Without some assurances that pedestrian conditions around the triangle will improve, local residents and business leaders in attendance questioned the rationale for holding the meeting in the first place.

DOT billed last night as a “public design workshop,” which usually means attendees brainstorm ideas in small groups. Instead, Forest City’s design firm, Stantec, presented its proposal and DOT Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Keith Bray took questions from people — many of whom were concerned about pedestrian safety in and around the plaza.

A rendering of Stantec's proposed design for the new plaza. Image: DOT
Stantec’s proposed design for the new plaza. Image: DOT

“Everything seems segmented, and we need to look at it as one big intersection and we’ve never been able to have that comprehensive discussion about it,” the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association’s Sandy Balboza told Bray. “I guess the focus tonight was supposed to be on the design, but people want to hear about the safety because the design, really, is secondary to if people are going to use it, and right now it’s very dangerous.”

Stantec’s design includes benches attached to planters and five circular tables with three or four seats each. It would certainly be a step up from the slap-dash asphalt sidewalk that’s there now, but will those benches be more than window dressing as long as crossing Flatbush and Atlantic is so perilous?

Tellingly, the historic structure in the center of the island was the original entrance to the Atlantic Avenue subway station, but it was sealed off and other entrances were created as traffic became overwhelming. As one local resident, Brandon Chamberlin, pointed out, the defunct subway entrance is now surrounded by heavy bollards. “If the MTA thinks they need bollards to protect a stone building, I think I’m a little more fragile than that building,” Chamberlin said.

Chamberlin and others also expressed concerns about the lack of bike infrastructure. Neither Atlantic, Flatbush, nor Fourth have bike lanes, but people do bike there. (The southbound Navy Street-Ashland Place bike route ends across Flatbush at the intersection with Hanson Place.) Just last summer, an SUV driver struck and killed a cyclist at the intersection.

Bray told attendees that DOT and Forest City Ratner would likely hold another forum to review an updated design before bringing the final proposal to Community Board 2.

It would take a major overhaul of the streets that converge at Times Plaza, repurposing entire lanes, to make it a pedestrian-friendly place. That doesn’t seem to be in the works, but some smaller improvements may be on the way.

DOT previewed some pedestrian improvements for Atlantic between Flatbush and Sixth Avenue on Tuesday at Council Member Laurie Cumbo’s Vision Zero Town Hall [PDF]. The plan calls for shorter crossing distances through curb extensions and a midblock crosswalk.

On Tuesday, DOT previewed its plans for pedestrian safety improvements along Flatbush Avenue. Image: DOT
On Tuesday, DOT previewed its plans for pedestrian safety improvements along Atlantic Avenue. Image: DOT

Sean Quinn, DOT’s acting co-director of pedestrian improvement projects, said at Tuesday’s town hall that safety improvements are being developed for the Flatbush-Atlantic intersection at the eastern end of Times Plaza and the intersection of Flatbush and Third Avenue. Specifics aren’t available yet but should be public in the spring, said Bray.

  • WalkingNPR

    Coming soon to #PlacesIDontWantToSit….

  • Mike

    Forest City and the entire Barclays Center project (including the new buildings going up) have been a nightmare for street life. Blocked streets. Endless double parking at events. Entire sidewalks taken over for construction purposes for years at a time. People directed out of the arena into traffic. The list goes on. The changes on Atlantic are a step in the right direction, but far more needs to be done to mitigate the effects of the World’s Least Attractive Arena.

  • BridgeTroll

    It is so loud on that island that you can’t even have a conversation. Brought some out-of-town friends and they kept looking over their shoulders, convinced someone would run us over in the plaza. Can’t say they were wrong to think so.

  • J

    Tangentially related, but did anyone notice this project?! Two-way protected bike lane on Clinton Street, between Flushing and Atlantic Ave. If DOT does this, I will take back so many negative things I’ve said about Vision Zero not caring about cyclists.

  • r

    This is great, but take a look at the wide parking lanes on Gold Street in the same report.

  • Bernard Finucane

    These triangle intersections always have the same solution: shut down one leg of the triangle. I would recommend returning this piece of land to car traffic and shutting down Flatbush between Atlantic and 4th instead. Traffic along Flatbush would be routed through 4th.

    Also cars coming in on Atlantic from the SE should stop in front of the bike station. There should be a crosswalk there, instead of the diagonal crosswalk.

    The yellow stripes on 4th to the Southwest should be converted to a left turn lane, and the sidewalk should be bulbed out on the east side of the street instead. That would mean a 15-20 ft wide bulbout in front of PC Richard & Son. The sidewalk also needs a bulbout at the end of the parking lane on 4th, in front of Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins.

  • Bernard Finucane

    A short term solution is a row large planters containing bamboo next to the curb.

  • BBnet3000

    Clinton only runs for about a mile and doesn’t cross Atlantic. It would be fucking stupid to build a protected bike lane there instead of on Vanderbilt.

    If Clinton is low enough traffic for them to be considering a generally dangerous 2-way bike path there, a better treatment would be to eliminate through-traffic and make it a bike boulevard instead. Of course, it would still be a road to nowhere which is exactly the opposite of what a bike boulevard should be.

  • BBnet3000

    What report is this?

  • Joe R.

    “Road to nowhere” pretty much describes NYC’s piecemeal bike infrastructure. That’s probably why DOT is considering this project. It’ll fit right in. 1 more mile of bike lane for de Blasio to brag about. Since it’ll be next to useless for most real trips, it won’t be used much. That’ll make the bike haters happy—”Hey look, we built this nice bike lane which nobody uses. Let’s stop wasting money on these useless bike projects.” Everyone wins, except of course the people who actually get on a bike.

  • ahwr
  • BBnet3000

    Why are bulbouts only on certain corners? Should I avoid crossing at S. Portland after this project is done?

  • William Farrell

    I was at this meeting and was thinking very hard about how to humanize this intersection and actually make this a great public space. For better or for worse, I’m not sure that it can be done without removing that leg of 4th Ave, thus bringing the plaza all the way to the building face on the West side of 4th Ave, leaving only the oblique intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic. Not only would this double the size of the plaza and eliminate four conflict points (the double right turn right from Flatbush to 4th and left/through/right movements from 4th to Atlantic), but reducing the right-turn queuing on Flatbush would allow the reclamation of a lane of Flatbush to (somewhat) calm that highway and shorten that crossing. This in turn would allow people space to walk between those misplaced MTA bollards and the traveled way on Flatbush. It’s one of those things where the benefits keep on building upon one another.

    As great as this would be for the safety and design of the plaza, and as much as we should push for it, I find it very unlikely that the DOT will concede this, since 4th Ave is the first right turn off of the Manhattan Bridge/Flatbush Ave that allows motorists to get into Southern Brooklyn. To open this leg of 4th to pedestrians would be a real shot across the bow to motorists, and the DOT knows this. Considering that it’s a fairly high volume route and truck route, it would seriously force Southern Brooklyn-bound motorists to consider alternate routes, like going directly onto the BQE from the Manhattan bridge. And even this is problematic for pedestrians and cyclists, as it will push drivers onto Jay St, right by the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge bike and ped entrances. Basically it’s a really tough nut to crack, even with the vision of improving the lives of people who walk and bike through that area.

    The best I can come up with would be to raise that leg of 4th Ave to curb-grade with a drop curb at either end, but separate it from the rest of the plaza with some bollards. On top of this, retractable bollards could be installed at the Northern crosswalk to only allow right turns onto this leg during certain peak times. This could create a continuity within the plaza, especially for the majority of the day when turns could be restricted, while also alleviating traffic concerns for the few parts of the day when they occur. Even this would be a radical solution for the DOT to implement but perhaps it could be a more workable compromise than pedestrianizing that leg outright.

  • ohnonononono

    There is too much fast moving traffic there, but to be fair, the traffic has always been congested there, and I don’t think increasing traffic was the reason the headhouse was sealed and new subway entrances added on surrounding corners.

    When the subway station was originally built, Atlantic Ave was the terminus of the IRT. From there, everybody would transfer to the LIRR or, more likely, the elevated BRT “Fifth Avenue Line” to travel further into Brooklyn, or the trolleys that all stopped there. The elevated line ran over Flatbush, and you didn’t have to cross any streets to make the transfer. You’d be exiting at that headhouse to ascend the stairs to the el, which were right there.

    But of course the el was torn down, the IRT subway was extended, other subway lines were built, and the important transfer from below- to above-ground was gone, replaced by more important underground transfers. The “plaza” became a much less important place, and the added subway exits on surrounding corners were likely seen as much more convenient by just about everyone.

    Wikipedia has a nice photo of the plaza when it was that important transfer point from the IRT subway to the elevated: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/NYCS_IRT_EasternPkwy_AtlanticAve.jpg

    This book also has a good shot of the plaza in 1938 on pg 81 when it was surrounded by newsstands and had a huge awning so you could transfer to the el without getting rained on. Also shows how 4th Avenue curved away from Atlantic with the curve of the trolley tracks: https://books.google.com/books?id=IduHf5I6KLsC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Looks like a much more pleasant place! But the plaza’s very existence was largely the function of transit that no longer exists at that place anymore. Even the buses that run through the area, which are the modern predecessors of those trolleys, no longer stop at the plaza. Does the MTA want to open up the headhouse as a subway exit again? Get rid of the hideous ugly bollards? Is there a reason we’d want to make it a place to transfer to the bus again? (Maybe?) Everything that made it important has been moved to the surrounding streets away from the plaza.

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