Mind the GAP

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Brooklyn’s grandest arch sits in an 11-acre plaza obstructed in the middle of the borough’s most confusing and dangerous intersections. What do you do with a problem like Grand Army Plaza?

By Sarah Portlock

In the heart of Brooklyn, amid the cacophonous honking, speeding vehicles, and vast pavement sits an oasis of calm. Its 11 acres are home to the borough’s salute to its Civil War soldier and sailor veterans, an ornate bronze fountain, and, every weekend, the city’s second-largest Greenmarket. And yet, to get to Grand Army Plaza takes patience, a prayer, and a pair of quick feet.

At its conception in 1870, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux imagined “Prospect Plaza” as a ceremonial space and approach to what is widely considered their masterpiece, Prospect Park. In 1892, architect John H. Duncan designed and constructed the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1926, the space was renamed Grand Army Plaza to commemorate the Union Army. And in 1932, architect Edgerton Swarthout completed the plaza’s third and final fountain — earlier versions were either inoperable or destroyed during subway construction — with looming figures of Neptune and Triton and named for Brooklyn financier and philanthropist Frank Bailey. In 2002, the fountain and its mechanical works underwent a $2-million restoration and today it stands as one of Brooklyn’s most popular wedding photograph destinations.

But such grandiosity sits beyond the roundabout intersections of the borough’s busiest streets: Flatbush Avenue, Vanderbilt Avenue, Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park West, and Union Street. Drivers can come from and get to virtually any point in Brooklyn from the traffic circle, and as a result come flying in and then spurting out from its spokes. Bicyclists shoot in and out and across the wide avenue lanes, sometimes obeying bike lanes and other times choosing a more direct route. Pedestrians are left to navigate short crosswalks across turning lanes and longer ones that span the avenues, often with what seems like little time on the red light.

Grand Army Plaza in its current incarnation. Photo: Portlock/Brooklyn Ink.

Perhaps it is no wonder the area is one of the borough’s largest sites of pedestrian accidents —there were 76 pedestrians struck and two fatalities between 1995 and 2005, the most recent data available, according to the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. To compare, there were 107 pedestrians struck and one fatality at the busy intersection of Flatbush, Atlantic, and Fourth avenues in the same time period.

“All of this design didn’t contemplate the automobile,” said Andrew Saunders, who lives nearby and chairs the Quality of Life committee at the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, a three-year-old community organization of area stakeholders dedicated to solving the Plaza’s riddle.

On a recent blustery day, Saunders and Rob Witherwax, a longtime Prospect Heights resident and GAPCo coordinator, wandered the plaza, reciting what most frequently goes wrong when, and where.

“Getting from Point A to Point B isn’t ever the case here, it’s always Point A to Point G and you have to go through B, C, D, E, and F to get there,” Witherwax said. “It’s always more complex than it needs to be or should be to navigate the space on foot or on car or on bike.”

Pedestrians navigating their way across the confusing crosswalks said much the same thing — there are no obvious solutions to get across the plaza.

“It is terrifying to cross here,” said Rebecca Pechefsky, who has lived along the plaza’s eastern border for 10 years, as she crossed in front of Brooklyn Public Library along a crosswalk. “It’s partly because of the way people drive, because people drive terribly anyway, but they’re also confused by this whole setup and it’s also because the lights are confusing.”

Gabriel Ewing, who lives in Carroll Gardens, was stretching after a run in Prospect Park and considering the best route back home.  “I’ve never gone through it, I usually just cross around it. The fastest path between two points is going around this, not straight through,” he said. “I think that’s the only way.”

He added, “There’s a lot of stuff going on — cars are going in all different directions so you have to be really aware when you cross, even if you have a walk signal. Somebody might be making a turn. I think it’s more daunting here because you have five intersections, and it looks like there’s eight lanes right off the bat.”

Grand Army Plaza is a problem. But there are lovers of open space and of Brooklyn who want to address that challenge — GAPCo included — and there are city agencies and elected officials willing to brainstorm and study solutions, too. What the ultimate answer will be is still unknown, but that’s not stopping anyone from trying. There are traffic flow puzzles to solve, pedestrian- and cyclist-interests to consider, and then there’s the new, popular urban planning topic: how to create more open green space and improve the quality of life around the plaza.

Last fall, GAPCo and the Design Trust for Public Space — a nonprofit organization that works with city agencies and neighborhoods on sustainable urban design projects — planned an international competition to create conceptual solutions about how to fix Grand Army Plaza. For a month, nearly 2,000 visitors descended to the middle of the plaza to scrutinize the 30 finalists’ ideas. The winning team proposed a scheme called “Canopy” that called for reconnecting the plaza to the park and freeing the plaza’s west side, burying Flatbush Avenue underneath a land bridge, and making pedestrians, not cars, the dominant users. The competition served to flush out quickly and effectively more than 200 ideas for how the plaza could be improved, said Design Trust Executive Director, Deborah Marton. It also proved that people do actually come to a public space — no matter how treacherous — if interesting materials await them there, judging by the high volume of visitors, Marton added. On Dec. 15, the Design Trust published a book that analyzes the finalists’ ideas and highlights next steps, and received funding from the public charity group Brooklyn Community Foundation, the city Department of Cultural Affairs, and Transportation Alternatives for Reinventing Grand Army Plaza: Visionary Designs for the Heart of Brooklyn.

“There’s lots of ways to improve Grand Army Plaza, so by doing the competition we basically framed the conversation,” she said. “It comes down to safer and better access for bicyclists and pedestrians, more efficient use of the plaza as an occupyable space and not just a passive space that people drive around because it’s not accessible.”

But before any high-concept ideas become reality, traffic engineers must first figure out what goes through drivers’ minds as they careen through.

Traffic reorganization

Part of the traffic problem is the confusion in the roads that lead into the traffic circle. This fall, a group of community organizations and city agencies — including GAPCo, Community Boards 6 and 8, the MTA, and the city’s traffic and parks departments — toured the area and watched the traffic move around and through. There are small, but potentially significant, solutions, such as eliminating traffic lanes in feeder roads and creating bike lanes. And then there is the sort of overarching traffic study that stakeholders have long hoped for — an opportunity that may knock in the next year. Recently, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who represents the district, requested $960,000 in funding from the current surface transportation authorization bill for a planning study for the reconfiguration of Grand Army Plaza. The study would investigate “everything that goes in and goes out of Grand Army Plaza and is on four wheels, or more,” Witherwax said. The information gleaned from it could provide the baseline data that’s needed to make bigger changes, he explained.

“Before everything else goes on, we need to understand that this is the major traffic distributor for Brooklyn and that it’s not going to go away and we don’t want it to go away,” Witherwax said. “We just want to manage it in a manner that’s beneficial for every user.”

Changes have been made so far, however minor. In 2007, for instance, the city replaced painted medians with elevated, planted areas that allow pedestrians a respite from the traffic, and also added crosswalks and relocated traffic with zebra-striped painted medians. But the thoroughfare pavement is still a wide swath of white lines and stoplights and crosswalks that often require the pedestrian to anticipate traffic roaring up the avenues from the other end of the plaza.

Other changes include a new bike lane last summer along Vanderbilt Avenue that eliminated a traffic lane, built a median, and slowed traffic. In January, construction will begin on a plan to eliminate a lane of traffic on Prospect Park West and add a separated two-way bike lane. And there is talk of eliminating a treacherous left turn loop and replacing it with a formalized traffic light with a left turn signal at the plaza’s north end.

The city transportation department presented its latest plan in November to Community Board 6: replacing two parking lanes along two-way Union Street with traffic lanes during rush hour, giving drivers more options to get to and from Park Slope and the rest of Brooklyn. The board’s transportation committee chair, Thomas Miskel, said his group was receptive to the idea but concerned about the loss of precious parking spots in a car-heavy neighborhood. But GAPCo has its own reservations, and Saunders called the solution a “fraught argument,” pointing to a parking garage on the south side of Union Street and the traffic congestion it could inevitably cause with more moving traffic lanes.

GAPCo instead envisions dedicated turning lanes and bus lanes, the elimination of “slip” turning lanes, and raised islands that can become miniature plazas for public use. Ultimately, the group wants to see the arch as a peninsula-like extension of the park, not an island.

“This stretch of road between the arch and Prospect Park — we’d love in a sense maybe not to get rid of that, but to make a connection a little more feasible between the arch and the park,” Witherwax said. “Closing the GAP, we call it.”

Saunders added, “So that the arch doesn’t become a standalone in and of itself, but is truly the entrance to the park — that’s the endgame.”

Quality of Life

But beyond the physical hurdles to get to the plaza is how can people live in and enjoy the space in the meantime. The Prospect Park Alliance, a public-private organization that cares for Prospect Park, recently raised money for dedicated plaza gardener, and this summer Marcia Wint began cleaning the area, freeing it of litter, pruning its bushes, and helping lost tourists find the area’s cultural hotspots three days a week.

“I take care of the whole kit and kaboodle, and I’m loving it,” Wint said.

The Alliance is also in the midst of a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to restore the arch. It once held performances — and was even home for puppet storage — at its apex indoors, but rickety staircases up its legs and a leaking roof prevent any current public activity there. In the last year, Borough President Marty Markowitz has allocated $1 million to the restoration from his capital budget, according to his spokesman Mark Zustovich, and Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district touches the eastern part of the plaza, has allocated $100,000 from the City Council capital budget, according to James’ budget director, Simone Hawkins. Engineers are studying the damage to come up with a final price tag, said Alliance spokesman Eugene Patron.

There is also the story of the open, but unplanned space, between the fountain and arch and at several medians and smaller plaza scattered along the edges. At the southern plaza, the city’s second-largest Greenmarket is “packed like some bustling medieval market,” Witherwax said, and GAPCo envisions it spreading northward to this unused roadway. A smaller plaza west could house tables and chairs for shoppers to enjoy lunch or the newspaper, Witherwax said. Already, musicians occasionally perform at the park’s northern end, and the Brooklyn Public Library this summer expanded its front plaza, overlooking Grand Army Plaza.

And then there is the question of what to do with the berms — the three overgrown ridges separating Flatbush Avenue’s north and southbound lanes from Plaza Streets east and west. Currently the areas are fenced in, but homeless people often sleep there and dog owners are known to let their pets run free there.

“It’s a silencing device, it’s a greening device, it’s visually pleasant,” Witherwax said.

On sunny, warm days, the benches are full, Saunders added, who also organizes a monthly Friends of the Berms cleaning event. “It really works, it achieves its purpose. What we want to do is incrementally enhance it further,” he said. He pointed to a darkened spot where a bench needs replacement. Another question: should the berms stay wild or should they be cut back to create recreation areas for people to congregate and relax?

Ultimately, whatever happens at the berms in some ways reflects whatever will happen with the plaza at large. Its many components concern the citizens living, working, and playing around it, and, as Witherwax said, at least the various stakeholders come together periodically to discuss what to do. “There’s a whole lot of agreement, which is nice,” he said.

“All of the stakeholders see the same major elements: that better pedestrian access serves everybody, that there’s too much resources given over to the automobile and to cars, and that greening the whole space and making more places that people can go to and use in the plaza benefits everybody.”

It is a possible goal, particularly for those who believe in the power of reclaiming urban space for pedestrians. As it is today, the axiom “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” does not exist in Grand Army Plaza — there is no short, straight way, there are no two points, and often the quickest way is the safest way: stop, listen, and look both ways before crossing the street, and hustle across as if the traffic were careening around the bend any moment. (In fact, it probably already is.) To make any or all parts quicker, straighter, or safer is an accomplishment to that goal, but it doesn’t have to be winner-take-all. It will be a compromise of Brooklyn’s greatest constituents —drivers, cyclists, pedestrians — and any step forward is a safer step in the right direction.

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