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

3:54 PM EST on January 28, 2016

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
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
A rendering of 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
On Tuesday, DOT previewed its plans for pedestrian safety improvements along Flatbush 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.

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