Pedestrian-Friendly Changes for Grand Army Plaza

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More public space for Grand Army Plaza: DOT says that it would give the street space highlighted in green to the Parks Department for use during public events and car-free hours in Prospect Park.

Since the beginning of 2005 I have been helping to organize a group called the Grand Army Plaza Coalition. The group is focused on improving the pedestrian experience around the Plaza and re-envisioning it as the great public space that it was originally designed to be. 

In May GAPco conducted a site visit of the Plaza led by Chris Hrones, a professional urban planner who lives in Prospect Heights. During the visit we filmed video and generated a big list of ideas for things that we thought could be improved. Afterwards, GAPco produced a detailed, 22-page report recording the group’s photos and observations and suggesting possible solutions. Additionally, Transportation Alternatives invited Danish urban designer Jan Gehl to begin to take a look at the Plaza and he produced this report (PDF file)

GAPco’s study is a nice piece of work and, like the community-driven initiative underway in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, another example of how local groups can be a valuable resource to city government in creating more livable streets for New York City. In June we boiled down the report to a list of fourteen specific, inexpensive, short-term ideas for improvements and sent them off to DOT’s Brooklyn Borough Commissioner, Joe Palmieri.

In a strange twist of fate, the report and set of suggestions that Chris Hrones was so instrumental in helping to put together landed on his very own desk just a couple of months later. In September Hrones was hired by DOT to replace Ryan Russo as the new Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Coordinator. 

While Hrones says that he hasn’t yet been involved with Grand Army Plaza in his new position, it looks like GAPco’s grassroots initiative is beginning to produce some results. Last week I received this e-mail from Rob Witherwax of Prospect Heights, another GAPco organizer:

Momentous news, people: this morning I crossed the entire width of Flatbush Avenue, from the Library to the Park, in one movement — without waiting on the island, without running across, and without disobeying traffic laws. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it happened. The crosswalk signs, from the library to the island and from the island to the Park, turned ‘walk’ at the same time. I was astounded, and the woman alongside of me audibly gasped. 

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If you have ever tried to walk across Flatbush Avenue in front of the Brooklyn Public Library then you are surely familiar with the malevolently timed pedestrian signal that Rob refers to. Prior to the fixes that DOT made last week, the "little walk man" beckoned pedestrians into the middle of Flatbush Avenue only to trap them on the tip of a narrow concrete island smack in the middle of rushing traffic (pictured above). On sunny, greenmarket Saturday’s you would see scores of pedestrians trapped on the traffic island or scampering across the street to avoid being trapped.

Community people had been pushing DOT to change the timing of those pedestrians signals for years and had been told repeatedly by traffic engineers that it was simply impossible — that changing the timing of the pedestrian signal at that one spot would disrupt the intricate flow of traffic through one of the city’s most complicated intersections. Well, the changes now appear to be in place and traffic continues to flow — something to keep in mind if a traffic engineer has ever told you that a pedestrian or public space improvement in your neighborhood can’t possibly be done.

GAP_ppw_crossing.jpgWitherwax and others also noticed that southbound traffic from the Plaza onto Prospect Park West was being held longer at a red light thus giving pedestrians more "walk" time between Union Street and the Park (pictured right). Talk about self sacrifice — by adding 20 seconds or so to this pedestrian crossing, DOT Commissioner Weinshall, who lives on Prospect Park West, added more time to her evening commute.

DOT has not yet officially responded to GAPco’s list of fourteen suggestions but the agency said that it has already made or is planning to make the following changes around the Plaza:

1. Provide more pedestrian crossing time across Prospect Park West by holding southbound traffic entering Prospect Park West during northbound Flatbush Avenue phase. – Implemented 10/16/06

2. New crosswalk and raised islands to enable direct pedestrian crossing from Flatbush Avenue north of Grand Army Plaza to Baily Fountain – To be implemented in 2007.

3. New crosswalk and raised island to enable pedestrians to directly cross from Library and east side of Prospect Park entrance to Arch area – To be implemented in 2007.

4. During auto-free park hours, we would at the request of Parks be willing to temporarily close the short northbound roadway directly east of Arch. This area would then be available for pedestrians and public events. Traffic from Union Street or Plaza Street West wishing to travel north on Flatbush Avenue or Vanderbilt Avenue would be required to make a slower speed left turn at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue/Eastern Parkway – Can be put into effect after Improvement #3 above is implemented. (Pictured at top)

5. Missing pedestrian ramps on existing pedestrian crossings – NYCDOT is installing missing ramps throughout the City and is scheduled to be completed by 2010. If possible, we will try to get ramps at GAP done next year as well, but due to the nature of the contracts already initiated, specific locations cannot simply be prioritized based upon request.

It’s a good start. So, why all the fuss about Grand Army Plaza anyhow? It’s just a gigantic traffic rotary, right? Take a closer look… 

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The closer you look, the more you realize that it must have taken quite a concerted effort to ruin it…

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