Speak Up to Keep the Willoughby Street Pedestrian Plaza

Before being transformed into a public plaza, Willoughby Street was filled with illegally parked cars.

Tomorrow evening there will be an important public meeting at St. Francis College, Room 7402, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, 5:00 to 6:00 pm, to help determine the fate of the new Willoughby Street Pedestrian Plaza in Downtown Brooklyn. If you are someone who wants to see more and better public spaces in New York City, this a real opportunity to make a meaningful impact. I urge you to come to this meeting and speak up in support of making Willoughby Plaza permanent. Briefly, here’s the story:

willoughby_ped_plaza2.jpgIn March 2006, the Department of Transportation announced plans to create a new pedestrian-only plaza on Willoughby Street between Adams and Pearl Streets and along the Adams Street Service Road leading up to the Marriott Hotel in Downtown Brooklyn. These streets carried only 130 cars per hour during peak compared to 2,600 pedestrians. The two block streetch was mainly used as an illegal parking lot for police and court officers’ cars. Bustling Downtown Brooklyn has little usable public space on the east side of Adams Street and it seemed to make a lot of sense to turn the area into a nice Plaza with tables, chairs and greenery.

Nevertheless, at a March 21 public meeting, Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee nearly voted against DOT and the Metrotech Business Improvement District’s plan to create the plaza. Some community people thought the new public space would attract vagrants and generate rubbish, others were unhappy that DOT hadn’t solicited community input earlier, and a vocal groups seemed angry about the up-zoning of Downtown Brooklyn and, simply, weren’t in the mood to approve any idea put forward by a city agency.  

Despite the opposition, advocates came and spoke up at the meeting and approval for the pedestrian plaza passed by a slim margin. Within weeks the tables, chairs and planters were installed and Downtown Brooklyn office workers were enjoying the space. By law, all street closures lasting longer than 180 days are subject to an assessment and a public forum prior. Now it is time for the public to assess whether the Plaza was a success. Last Spring DOT said that if the Plaza were deemed successful then the city would build it out permanently and make the first two floors of a beautiful, city-owned building on Willoughby Street available to new vendors. Tomorrow’s meeting is the opportunity for members of the public to tell the city what they thought of the Plaza.

willoughby_ped_plaza3.jpgI visited a couple of times this summer and interviewed a few men and women-on-the-street, including one very happy hot dog vendor (at left) who said the new public space had really helped her business. People genuinely seemed to enjoy the Plaza. No one I spoke with had any complaints.

Ethan Kent of Project for Public Spaces shows you what the Plaza looked like this summer and sums up the issues pretty nicely in this Streetfilms interview with Clarence Eckerson. "The great thing is that DOT just went ahead and did this," Kent says. "They just said, ‘Hey, let’s try it. Let’s experiment. Let’s see what’s possible.’" 

If you want to support New York City’s Department of Transportation in doing this sort of experimentation and you want to see these streets built out as a permanent plaza space, then now is the time to act. Show up to the meeting in Downtown Brooklyn tomorrow at 5 pm — meeting details are here — and make your voice heard. You can be sure the opponents will make sure their opinions are registered.