Tuesday, February 02, 2016

As plans for Times Plaza public space emerge, stakeholders say upgrade must be coupled with safety measures

Times Plaza, featuring a landmarked transit structure and a pedestrian pavement extended by the demapping of one street segment, is a small but important island flanked by three major roads: Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, and Fourth Avenue.

Improvements to some 4,530 square feet on the west side of the plaza, including planters, portable tables and chairs, and new benches, are on tap, thanks to a state-required contribution by the developers of the adjacent Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project. No budget or timing has been announced announced.

Nearby residents and stakeholders, however appreciative of the upcoming improvements, registered distinct unease at a public meeting last Wednesday night, held at the YWCA at Atlantic and Third avenues.

They said that such changes had to come in tandem with long-delayed safety changes at the intersection, where pedestrians and bicyclists feel threatened by vehicles moving aggressively. Neck-downs extending the sidewalk or more perpendicular crosswalks were suggested.

Planned addition of benches, planters, tables and chairs, lights, and more
Keith Bray, the Department of Transportation’s Brooklyn Borough Commissioner, pledged that such changes (such as an extended median on Flatbush) were, indeed, under consideration. Bray acknowledged the possibility of adding neckdowns but said DOT did not envision closing any lanes to traffic.

Plans are due by spring, he said, pledging to update those interested, as well as Community Board 2. The eastern portion of the plaza, controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and guarded by bollards, is not part of the plan.

But the history of delays, as well as general uncertainty about plans, left some skeptical. “I don't know how to evaluate this project without thinking about safety,” one resident said. After all, as shown in the slide below, there's a lot of traffic nearby on the avenues, and it's not always easy to cross the street.



The history

Times Plaza, named for the nearby offices of the Brooklyn Daily Times newspaper, features a terra cotta-clad Control House built in 1908 as an entrance to the subway, later used for retail purposes, and restored in 2005.

The former Control House and adjacent space guarded by bollards, owned by the MTA, will not be part of the plaza upgrade. But an approximately equal adjacent space, 4500 square feet (1/10 of an acre) will get the upgrade.

That space was augmented by the demapping of northbound Fourt Avenue between Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, a procedure driven by the Atlantic Yards environmental review, which diverted some traffic from the Barclays Center. As shown in the slide below, that added a significant amount of pedestrian space.

The plan

Mike Russell of Stantec, which is working for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park developer Greenland Forest City Partners, described a relatively simple plan, given the constraints of space and the inability to dig under the sidewalk and disturb utilities: benches seating some 40 people coupled with six planters serving as a “vegetative buffer,” and place tables with a capacity for 20 people. There also will be bike racks, recycling and trash bins, and space for a mobile concession such as a food cart.


(The presentation is on the DOT web site, and at bottom.)

I asked if this would impede pedestrian movement. Russell said “the width of the space where pedestrians could go [is] comparable to what's there now,” which strikes me as worth further examination.

After all, when the plaza is “programmed” for visitors and passersby to linger, that could impede the sometimes significant pedestrian through-traffic.

The upgrade is being paid for by Greenland Forest City, though Bray, when queried, could not identify a budget or a maximum budget.

Oddly enough, the formal reason for the upgrade, disclosed in 2014 in the court-ordered Atlantic Yards Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, is to mitigate a deficit of public space for workers in the area. While workers surely will use the space, no one at the meeting mentioned that formal justification—clearly, the stakeholders are more diverse.




Russell cited a “dynamic scoring pattern” for the sidewalk that’s already been approved for the Brooklyn Cultural District, where the pattern changes to highlight particular aspects of the plaza. The poured concrete will contain an additive to make it sparkle. In-ground light fixtures will be similar to those at the Barclays Center plaza and the Brooklyn Cultural District.

The plaza will be managed by the MetroTech Business Improvement District, which last year got approval to extend its boundaries southeast to encompass the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls.

Times Plaza is at very bottom of extended MetroTech BID
I wonder if this new linkage to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park—though the plaza is indeed public—nudges forward the potential to extend the MetroTech BID to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, thus further privatizing control of the property.

The questions

Asked if the Control House could be augmented, perhaps with light, or the public space could be extended past the bollards (or the bollards moved), Bray said said discussions with the MTA would be needed. (No MTA rep was present.)

Jim Vogel, an aide to state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, pointed to a letter sent last year to DOT about safety at the intersection.

“The answer we got was that we'd be hearing very shortly,” by last fall, about the results of the DOT study, he said.

“We are a little delayed in that timeline,” Bray acknowledged. “We are going to be addressing that.”

Asked about planned programming, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s (DBP) Ryan Grew said it was still under consideration. He said they’d look at other spaces where people pass through quickly. He cited lunchtime concerts at Willoughby Plaza in Downtown. Later, Josef Szende of the Atlantic Avenue BID proposed instead visual art, given the cacophony at the intersection.

The tables and chairs, Grew said, would be either locked up at night on the site, or put in DBP storage. Given the difficulty in getting water to the site, concessions—which help offset maintenance costs—“would have to be lighter weight.”

Joanna Oltman Smith, of the 78th Precinct Community Council and Community Board 6, said she understood “the desire to expedite the project by using design elements already approve,” but suggested safety concerns should lead to “harder infrastructure... low planters with ornamental grasses is not going to do the trick.”

Will there be advertising on bollards, asked resident (and Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park monitor) Wayne Bailey, mindful of the advertising that appeared on the bollards on the arena plaza. Bray said there were no plans for such advertising but acknowledged he didn’t know if they’re permitted.

A photo taken last Wednesday night, after the meeting
Pacific Street resident Mae Taliaferrow noted continued problems with public urination from arenagoers in Times Plaza as well as nearby at the Brooklyn Bear’s Garden and the exterior of the adjacent Modell’s store. Grew and a DOT official pledged enforcement and clean-up.

Summing up, S.J. Avery of the Park Slope Civic Council’s Forth on Fourth Campaign, which aims to improve Fourth Avenue, observed, “While people are interested in something here, many of us are concerned about approving this, absent a better sense of the safety plan... and why the MTA is not involved.”

Bray said he recognized the importance of integrating all the elements, and drew some applause at that recognition. Representatives of local elected officials, including Council Member Brad Lander and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, also pledged to help. with the MTA.

A couple of flashbacks

This plaza has gotten some interesting attention over the years. From a 10/16/15 New York Times account, Aldo Tambellini’s ‘Atlantic in Brooklyn’ Chronicles a Grittier Time:
This area was far different when Aldo Tambellini made “Atlantic in Brooklyn” in 1971. Using what was then new portable video camera equipment, Mr. Tambellini recorded the parade of humanity passing on the streets below his studio at Flatbush and Atlantic. The edited footage was first shown in 1972 on three monitors at the Kitchen, and is on view here in six giant video projections, on three walls, that run for one hour.
And yes, there were efforts a decade ago from people who hoped to spruce up the plaza--though tat that time, the space was controlled only/mainly by the MTA and likely not as flexible. Not that officials were into it. From a New Yorker profile of then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, 4/25/05
When Markowitz met some Boerum Hill residents who suggesting planters and greenery that might go near a restored subway kiosk near Atlantic Terminal, one proposed that Forest City Ratner—a major donor to Markowitz’s concerts—might supply some funds. “Does Ratner want to prove he cares?” another resident asked. “I haven’t asked him,” Markowitz replied testily.

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