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UH, THANKS: City Will Turn a Dead-End Block into a Plaza … But Only When Placarded Teachers Go on Recess

Teachers parked illegally on Fourth Street in Park Slope. The hand-made sign refers to a former “Play Street” sign that the city removed. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

A nearly decade-long push to transform a de facto play space for kids into a fully reimagined pedestrian plaza in Park Slope is finally one step — albeit a very small step — closer to a reality.

The cul-de-sac block of Fourth Street west of Fifth Avenue, sandwiched between MS 51 and Washington Park, has for years been used as an extension of both the kids’ school yard and playground — as well as a parking lot for placard-toting teachers. But starting on July 8 and continuing daily through Labor Day weekend, the dead-end street will be closed to cars — and advocates hope (against the reality of placard entitlement) that it can become a permanent pedestrian plaza.

“It’s going be a plaza. It’ll be closed off and won’t have parking spaces,” said Council Member Shahana Hanif, who represents Park Slope. "And it will be redesigned through community engagement."

Hanif added that she hopes the resulting open street will mimic the successful Avenue C plaza in Kensington, which is also in her district. “I ran on a commitment to explore opportunities for more open streets, plazas, and programming curated by neighbors.”

The 4th Street open street. Photo: Julianne Cuba
The Fourth Street open street, not so much an open street. Photo: Julianne Cuba

Banning traffic on the block is no-brainer, and has been for years, according to the executive director of the Old Stone House, a historic museum that also borders the street.

“Everybody loves the idea. Nothing controversial about it at all,” said Kim Maier, who added that she wants to use the space to hold events. "There’s always issues with parking, but we’re not here to serve parking, here to serve public space."

The 415-foot stretch of pavement became part of the city’s beleaguered open-streets program last year, and is now closed to traffic only on Saturdays. On Sundays, there’s a farmer’s market, and during the rest of the week, teachers use the cul-de-sac as their private parking lot.

Skid marks left by drivers doing donuts on 4th Street in Park Slope last week. Photo: Julianne Cuba
Skid marks left by drivers doing donuts on 4th Street in Park Slope last week. Photo: Julianne Cuba

"There’s been placard abuse on this cul-de-sac forever, why is this OK? It just divides and eats into the park complex, making it less safe,” said Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn Organizer Kathy Park Price, who has been fighting to reclaim Fourth Street from cars for years.

The problem is not limited to New York's car-using educators. Other drivers treat the cul-de-sac as their very own test track — evident by the circular skid marks left on the pavement.

“Another argument for closing off Fourth Street to cars completely is that someone has been doing donuts on the dead end," said the Instagram account parkslopeplaystreet in a post last week. "The cul de sac will be safer for all and will not invite reckless driving."

Attempts to liberate this one small block from cars and give it back to kids date back even further — and it's not even a through-street. The city originally made Fourth Street a so-called “play street” in 2011, even hanging up "No parking” signs indicating a ban on cars weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

https://twitter.com/BrooklynSpoke/status/1535066123137609728

But three years later, that designation was rescinded on the grounds that it was never meant to be permanent, but merely a temporary amenity during construction inside the park, according to previous reports by Brooklyn Paper and Streetsblog. And then a few years after that — due to incompetence, according to Brooklyn Paper — those signs were taken down just before the pandemic started in 2020. And like clockwork, the play street was quickly re-commandeered by teachers.

Streetsblog reported that a Department of Education spokesperson said at the time that staff at MS 51 would no longer park on the cul-de-sac, which is now marked as “No standing school days.”

Nonetheless, the parking continued, and the DOE gave Streetsblog a lesson in obfuscation by refusing to answer any questions about the street, or why the city's some-odd 50,000 school employees with a parking placard, thanks to former Mayor de Blasio, are not assigned to schools based on any geographic consideration. The DOE declined to comment and members of the school community at MS 51, including the principal, did not respond to requests for comment.

Now, nearly two years later — after the pandemic brought to light the desperate need for more, safe open space — the city is stepping up to do the bare minimum, and closing the street to cars once again, but only after teachers pack up for the summer.

“It should be a permanent, pedestrian plaza, to expand the footprint of the park and make it safer, a great space for the school community," said Park Price.

In order to become a permanent plaza after Labor Day, local groups and organizations willing to maintain and manage the space must submit an application to the Department of Transportation. Applications, which must include at least eight letters of support, are due on June 30, according to DOT.

The Park Slope Fifth Avenue BID is also on board with a car-free Fourth Street, and plans to submit a formal application with the Old Stone House to DOT within the next two weeks.

“We want seven days a week,” said Joanna Tallantire, the executive director of the BID. "A number of years ago they were closing Fourth street to cars and making it an area for public space and programming. Then the pandemic hit and everything was on hold — it really showed people the need for the extra space and using it for all sorts of things. We’ve been talking about it for years, but there have problems with how to manage it and everything. People really want to have extra space.”

The Department of Transportation would not comment on specific plans for a permanent pedestrian plaza, but said it looks forward to “working with the local BID and community stakeholders to further develop this space.”

And this is certainly not the first time it's taken a Herculean effort to close just one small block — not even a through-street — to cars. A similar saga played out over a single block between a school and a park in Jackson Heights over the course of a decade as a single block of 78th Street between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard was finally turned into a permanent plaza.

But in the end, the city didn't even make good on its full-block plan, but capitulated to Koeppel Mazda, allowing the politically connected dealership to use a portion of the roadway to move cars around.

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