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Times Plaza safety upgrades include new pedestrian islands at Atlantic/Flatbush; open space plan, not applauded, comes later

One huge, unmentioned irony hung over the presentation last Thursday by the New York City Department of Transportation about upcoming safety improvements to chaotic, perilous Times Plaza--notably new pedestrian islands and concrete neckdowns for those crossing Atlantic and Flatbush avenues--and the subsequent upgrading of the triangular public space.

The initial justification for the plan--first presented as a public space upgrade, then augmented with safety improvements after much public pushback--is to offset an open space deficit for workers in the area, as identified in the 2014 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. (That open space deficit is a moving target, if new office towers and thus workers arrive.)

And not only did members of Brooklyn Community Board 2's Transportation Committee and attendees look skeptically at the city's plan for that open space, Emily Weindenhof, Director of the DOT's Public Space Unit, acknowledged the obvious: "This is an incredibly small space, mainly for getting pedestrians safely through... This is much more of a pass-through space."

Ultimately, the board approved the DOT's plans, subject to conditions. The intersection work should begin this fall, with the open space improvements possibly starting next spring.

The city in charge

Interestingly, while Greenland Forest City Partners will pay for the public space upgrade, and had several staffers in attendance, they didn't do the presentation (but responded to some questions). "It's all one big project," the DOT's Sean Quinn, Senior Director, Office of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs, said of the safety improvements and public space upgrade.

Another issue: when Community Board 2's John Dew noted that much construction is planned for the area--I'd point to the giant Site 5 and 80 Flatbush projects, neither yet approved--and asked if DOT had assessed additional traffic.

No, Quinn said. "This would be the new existing condition, which any development would have to contend with." Expect more discussion of traffic once the Site 5 project is formally proposed and a public review by Empire State Development begins.

Upgrades coming

As shown in the graphic above, the completed project, in green, is a small pedestrian median in the southern crosswalk for Atlantic and Fourth avenues. The meeting concerned projects demarcated in blue, with those in yellow to be funded later, either by DOT resources or by developers.

As Merisa Gilman, Project Manager for the DOT's Pedestrian Projects Group noted, the long crosswalks, 130 feet in places, combine with turning conflicts, heavy curbside drop-off demand, and heavy right-turn demand from Fourth to Atlantic, lead to hazards for pedestrians.

Hence the refuge islands and  also concrete neckdowns at Fourth and Flatbush.

One attendee asked if re-striped crosswalks at different angles could shorten the walk. No, said Quinn, saying that the current configuration allows for "storage" of vehicles at intersections. The refuge islands, he noted, are meant for people crossing near the end of a signal, as they'd hold "just a couple of people."

Traffic pattern changes

DOT also plans to allow right turn from center lane on northbound Fourth Avenue to Atlantic Avenue, while expand the southeast crosswalk and pulling back the back curb line for future bike connections. A new painted pedestrian space would be added to the southeast corner once a maintenance partner is found.

As Streetsblog's David Meyer put it, the DOT plan "is hardly ambitious," given that, while it's taking away lanes at Flatbush and Atlantic that allow for double right-turns, it's adding that function on northbound Fourth Avenue.

 S.J. Avery, co-chair of the Forth on Fourth Avenue initiative, responded warily to the notion of a right-turn from a middle lane: "That's a wicked turn, it's really scary" to pedestrians.

Gilman said pedestrians shouldn't be crossing during that right turn; Avery said it's also an issue of enforcement.

The medians will actually eliminate travel lanes, but DOT officials said that shouldn't slow traffic, since, as Quinn put it, "we're just normalizing the lanes: Flatbush expands at the intersection, then contracts."

Even with cutting those lanes, and allowing 15 seconds more for traffic on westbound Atlantic Avenue, there should be fewer delays, DOT said.

What's the timetable?

Quinn said DOT aims to do the work to improve pedestrian access to the intersection after Greenland Forest City finishes its West Portal work--which currently affects traffic along Atlantic and at the Atlantic and Sixth avenue intersection--and before the Times Plaza upgrade.

"It's been a long time coming, I want to encourage expediency," said safety advocate Joanna Oltman Smith. She encouraged interagency cooperation with the New York Police Department and the Department of Sanitation.

Regina Cahill, a longtime Flatbush Avenue resident who also is president of North Flatbush Avenue Business Improvement District, noted that the sidewalk along Atlantic from Flatbush to Fourth is quite narrow. Can that be expanded, she asked, or can that request be memorialized so that when Site 5 is built, the project pulls back from the lot line?

"I think the developer is also aware of the issue," said Quinn, who noted that the sidewalk could not be extended because of drainage issues, so the space would have to come from a setback of a long-term capital project.

Committee Co-Chair Juliet Cullen-Cheung asked if a representative of the developer could speak.

From the audience, Forest City Ratner's Jane Marshall noted that the project must follow established Design Guidelines. (They can be modified, and have been.) "In any case, we don't have a proposed project," she said. "For sure, that will be considered." Cahill noted that that didn't mean a guarantee.

Marshall said she couldn't provide a timetable until they had drawings. "Once we get all the approvals, hopefully it's done in a few months," she said.

The new design for Times Plaza

Weindenhof presented the revised design for the Times Plaza open space, which will be maintained by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. "There are so many pedestrians crossing, it's less a site for gathering," she said, noting that the plethora of utilities makes for complicated construction.

As shown in the above map, the purple indicates space for a bike lane, and a neckdown to make for a shorter crossing of Flatbush. Heavy planters would be movable (with a forklift). Also movable would be tables and chairs. There's space for a kiosk, bike racks and trash cans.

Times Plaza Control House, via HDC
However, as the graphic indicates, the DOT can only work with the western half of the space, with the rest a Metropolitan Transportation Authority structure--a restored 1908 control house (not a city landmark, but on the National Register), now a building with a skylight--guarded by bollards.

Committee members seemed frustrated.  "If DOT can't get MTA to recognize it's a unitary space," said Bill Harris, the Community Board should pressure state officials to talk to the governor. (As noted by Streetsblog, both city and state legislators have asked the developer, city and state to work together, to no avail.)

DOT City Planner Abigail Ikner said they had reached out to the MTA and to Council Members (but didn't mention state elected officials). "Because it is a skylight, they don't want to remove the bollards," she said. "We've done our due diligence."

"To me, it seems kind of hodgepodge," Cullen-Cheung said. "Does DOT have other ideas?" Quinn said they were using their "standard toolkit" to upgrade spaces. Weindenhof added that it was "much more of a pass-through space."

As one committee member put it, "you cannot design a pass-through as if it's a destination." Despite dismay about the design, the committee--warned that a delayed approval might slow down the project--voted to approve it subject to DOT returning with improved esthetics and actual renderings of its plans.

The project, after expected approval June 14 by the full board, must later go through the Public Design Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection.


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