WILLOUGHOBAD? Progressive Council Member Has Problems with Popular Open Street

People love the Willoughby Avenue open street, but Council Member Crystal Hudson is having second thoughts.
People love the Willoughby Avenue open street, but Council Member Crystal Hudson is having second thoughts.

The Department of Transportation hastily scrubbed its presentation to a Fort Greene community board at which officials were going to discuss the permanent open street on Willoughby Avenue after the neighborhood’s Council member suddenly — and secretively — raised questions about the agency’s plans.

Council Member Crystal Hudson has previously been outspoken on the need for more open space, bike lanes and pedestrian safety in her Fort Greene/Clinton Hill neighborhood, but she had been vague in her public positions on the open street, which has been in place since the middle of 2020 and is hugely popular according to surveys. But on May 16, two days before the DOT was set to present its “next steps” for a permanent design of the open street, Hudson sent a letter to an ad-hoc neighborhood group, Willoughby Avenue Neighbors United, expressing her support for the group’s revanchist, anti-open street effort.

“While I am personally a supporter of open space and Open Streets, it is clear that the implementation — especially the ‘Limited Local Access’ model — and communication (or lack thereof) around the designation of the Willoughby Avenue Open Street has been flawed,” Hudson, who succeeded anti-street safety Council Member Laurie Cumbo in January, wrote in the letter, which was not publicly released by her office. “As such, I support your calls for a reassessment of the Open Street to make it more accommodating to the needs of all members of the community.”

In her letter, Hudson used the term “it is clear” twice, but in neither instance did she provide evidence — beyond saying only that “residents have told me about concerns” — or facts to bolster the anti-open street position.

DOT officials declined to comment on the letter. The agency was not expected to present a full design for a permanent open street, as it did last month for 34th Avenue in Queens, but was expected to promote open streets with a survey showing how popular and safe they are. That presentation will likely happen next month, a DOT spokesperson said.

One area resident was stunned by Hudson’s letter.

“Get the heck outta here!” former candidate Renee Collymore screamed when told of the letter. After reading it, she said Hudson has the right to object to anything in the district, but thought this was the wrong battle.

“I really like the Willoughby open street. It is popular,” said Collymore, who ran against Hudson in last year’s primary.

Collymore was surprised that Hudson would stake out such a position now, more than five months into her term, after saying nothing negative about the open street at a community meeting back in March.

“Crystal did not take that stance at that meeting. I was in the front row!” Collymore said. “What happened in between that meeting and now? That’s what I’d like to know.”

Hudson told Streetsblog that nothing “changed” after the meeting, but simply that she wants to be the kind of Council member who “makes sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

“It is my duty that decisions are being made that reflect the needs and opinions of everyone regardless of my personal preference,” she said. “There is a significant portion of the community that feels like it hasn’t been heard and was not engaged whenever the original decision was made.”

She claims that she strongly supports the open street, but just wants some changes, such as making the “Do Not Enter” signs more welcoming to local drivers because area drivers feel discriminated against.

“I’m just been going by what I’ve heard,” Hudson said. “Every voice, including dissenting voices, must be heard. But what happens now is that DOT should make an assessment as to whether or not there are going to be changes to the open street. In the end, after everyone is heard, I defer to the experts at DOT.”

Supporters of the open street point out that there is very little opposition.

“This has all become politicized,” said one supporter who lives in the neighborhood. “Why is she listening to a small group of people and deciding to rehash this all again? There have been two surveys since the open street was started. The DOT has done its outreach, so it’s not clear why opponents feel their voice hasn’t been heard.”

There has been intrigue over the fate of the Willoughby Avenue open street since Hudson took office. Despite being a supporter, generally, of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, she hadn’t publicly weighed in either way on the specifics of Willoughby Avenue.

But on Feb. 10, the open street — its signage, barricades and planters — disappeared for about six hours, only to be restored amid protests. Mayor Adams said he did not give the order to kill the open street, but Hudson was vague. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment, then tweeted that her office would hold a community meeting to gather feedback on the open street and to “ensure all voices and perspectives are heard.”

That community meeting was on March 8. Hudson did not say much at that meeting to suggest she wanted the roadway “reassessed,” but she certainly heard two ears full of complaints from car owners about where they can find free public space to leave their cars.

The complaints about parking were a key part of a letter from Willoughby Avenue Neighbors United, which made specious claims about diminished FDNY response times and that drivers are being burglarized as they move barricades to access the roadway.

The FDNY has said previously that response times are not diminished as a result of the open street. And the NYPD did not respond when Streetsblog asked for statistics about crimes against drivers in the neighborhood.

The letter also argued that residents want “Willoughby Avenue restored to its tranquility, beauty and safety,” but statistics show that the roadway is far safer, and has experienced fewer crashes, since the open street was installed in mid-2020.

In 2019, before the open street was created, there were four crashes between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.. In 2021, after the open street was in operation for a full year, there was one, according to city statistics. (The safety numbers from the much-longer 34th Avenue open street in Queens are even more impressive and scientific because of larger numbers.)

Urban planner Mike Lydon, who lives in the neighborhood, was part of a survey team that found that non-car users of the open street outnumber car drivers 99 to 1 (there are some cars, of course, because open streets are only off limits for thru-traffic, to allow for locals to access their homes or garages).

Willoughby Avenue often had three barricades per intersection to really keep out cars during Lydon’s study period. On two typical days in June, volunteers counted 768 cyclists, 3,352 pedestrians, 431 joggers, 318 people using assisted devices, 515 dogs being walked … and just 12 cars. (According to census figures, 67 percent of the households within a half-mile of the Willoughby Avenue open street are car free and 65 percent of workers commute by public transit, making the open street an issue of basic equity.)

“This is why our open street is so great,” said Lydon. “The fewer cars, the more people use it. … If car drivers start creeping in, walkers don’t feel comfortable and the numbers drop.”

Unlike Willoughby Avenue Neighbors United, Lydon has been pushing for barricades to “not become so permissive to drivers that the open street is no longer viewed to be safe.”

“If we reach that threshold of cars, the program loses its effectiveness,” he added.

For the record, Hudson did not agree with Willoughby Avenue Neighbors United that the roadway is less tranquil, less beautiful and more dangerous than it was previously.

“I understand the perspective that some people believe there is increased traffic on the side streets, but any open, safe and designated area for pedestrians and cyclists is ultimately a safer street,” she said.

DOT is expected to reschedule the presentation, Hudson added.

Hudson’s letter may seem an odd move for a council member who has pitched herself as a progressive on livable streets issues and, indeed, active transportation. She will be biking to the Council on Thursday as part of “Bike to Work” week, even.

Just after he election last, Streetsblog asked her what her first priority in office would be, and she said:

“It’s clear our current approach [on Vision Zero] isn’t working, and we need to act now and dramatically ramp up our investment in road safety, especially in Black and brown neighborhoods that have suffered historic disinvestment,” she said. “This means strengthening the Open Streets program and identifying streets that can be fully closed off for cars and for pedestrian use only. Above all, this means we must fundamentally shift our city’s relationship with our streets by reducing our reliance on cars and incentivizing New Yorkers — who have the ability — to use bikes and mass transit by creating hundreds of more miles of protected bike lanes, expanding bike parking, making our public transit system fully ADA-compliant, and ensuring Fair Fares is fully funded and expanded to cover all New Yorkers who need it.”

We followed up for specifics, and Hudson spoke off needing to “create a network of interconnected bike lanes throughout our city that feed into a high quality network of safe streets.”

But there have long been tea leaves that Hudson is a different kind of progressive on street safety. Even when touting the need for massive investment in safe streets, Hudson added, “This cannot happen, however, without engaging the residents of the 35th District, urban planning experts, and other stakeholders to ensure that any plans to create additional miles of bike lanes best meet the needs of our community.”

And here’s a telling passage from a pre-election story we did with all the candidates for the 35th district:

Hudson described herself as a bike rider. And she supports more protected infrastructure. But her foremost concern is making sure everyone in the community is on board with changes. For example, whenever Streetsblog pressed her about whether she would challenge drivers to give up their space so that transit users and cyclists can be better served, she consistently said she would “go back to the community” for a broad discussion.

“You have to meet those people where they are,” she said. “The city makes decisions too often without community input. … I’m a pedestrian, I’m a cyclist, I’m a straphanger, and I’m a driver, so I can take into account each perspective. We have to have conversations that are not combative or coming from negativity. I always talk about bike lanes by talking about the delivery workers. They are trying to make a living. If we can’t design smart, safe infrastructure to make it easier for people like that to do their jobs, we have a problem. Car drivers can understand that.”

Do they?

“The conversations are always combative; it’s always, ‘The bikers against the drivers,’” she said. “But we don’t have to come to it with that anger or resentment. Who is on the roads? Who needs them to be safest? We should be prioritizing the people who are most vulnerable: pedestrians.”

And just before the March 8 community meeting, Hudson appeared in an Instagram video posted by open street supporters and suggested that she would bend to the will of whatever majority makes itself best heard:

“I hope everyone in support of open street comes out. I want to make sure that everyone who is in support comes back out and expresses and shows their full support for open streets,” she said. “We have to hear everyone’s perspective including the people who aren’t the biggest fans of open streets. I am confident we can find a way to make it work for everybody. I would encourage everyone to keep using it to show how supported it is in the community.”

Here is Hudson’s letter in full: