It’s Time for DOT to Think Big at Grand Army Plaza

union_st.jpgThe view of Grand Army Plaza from Union Street. DOT has proposed converting parking on Union to another moving lane.

Union Street in Brooklyn has a problem: The queue of cars waiting to drive through the intersection at Grand Army Plaza sometimes stretches as far as the eye can see. The bottleneck, which causes a lot of horn-honking, crosswalk-blocking, and other hazards, is intimately connected to another problem: Grand Army Plaza is a spinning vortex of traffic draining the life from what should be Brooklyn’s premier public space.

At a CB6 committee meeting last month, DOT’s Ryan Russo presented plans to alleviate the Union Street tie-up by converting the parking lane between Eighth Avenue and Grand Army Plaza into a moving lane. For advocates of a lively, welcoming, and safe Grand Army Plaza, the proposal encapsulated the shortcomings of DOT’s approach to the area: By trying to solve the traffic problem on Union Street, the agency would do nothing to address the public space problems at the plaza, and may end up exacerbating them.

The city has recently made some headway improving Grand Army Plaza for pedestrians and cyclists. New pedestrian islands and a short, separated bikeway connecting the Prospect Park loop to Plaza Street have enhanced safety. More is on the way. A two-way protected bike path is slated for Prospect Park West, and a long-awaited median expansion on Eastern Parkway leading straight to the plaza should, someday soon, improve walking and biking from Crown Heights.

Adding another lane of moving vehicles on Union doesn’t seem to fit with these incremental improvements, especially when an alternative that would simplify traffic patterns — converting the westbound travel lane to a second eastbound lane — has already surfaced at public meetings. "There are so many better solutions," said Robert Witherwax of the Grand Army Plaza Coalition.

In three years, Witherwax and GAPCo have built a broad base of support for the idea that Grand Army Plaza can and should function as a much better public space — one that feels like an extension of Prospect Park rather than a few green islands surrounded by streams of traffic. The Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Public Library, Community Boards 6 and 8, and the North Flatbush BID are among the coalition.

All the tweaks to the plaza, so far, have been consistent with the planning principles GAPCo and its partners have promoted. The problem, says Witherwax, is the city’s piecemeal approach, which the Union Street proposal has cast into sharp relief. "DOT has been an excellent partner," he said. "It’s not so much that what they have done, or are proposing, is bad — it’s that they aren’t going far enough."

Witherwax is calling for a "buildable master plan" — a blueprint that would help guide planning and transportation decisions throughout the plaza area according to consistent goals. "Once you have that structure in place, you can say what happens if you do X, Y, and Z over here,"
he said. But to date, he added, DOT has resisted the idea of a comprehensive plan.

The reinvention of Grand Army Plaza as a great public space could be a signature achievement on par with DOT’s transformation of Times Square and Broadway. It’s a complex project, to be sure. But with a second stimulus or a front-loaded transportation bill gaining steam in Congress, the opportunity to move forward could present itself soon. Shovel-readiness is key. Will New York be prepared with a plan to breathe some life into the heart of Brooklyn, or will we be caught flat-footed?