The Squared Circle: Planners aim to untangle Grand Army Plaza knot

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Grand Army Plaza could be transformed from an intimidating, speeder-friendly highway in the center of Brooklyn to a calmer traffic circle under a revolutionary plan that continues to gain speed of its own.

At a meeting last week at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch, a citizens group presented its most fully drawn plan to reconfigure the plaza and reconnect the landmark Soldiers’ and Sailors’ arch with the entrance to Prospect Park, creating a safe, car-free walkway (see map).

Currently, the circle is a mess of misleading crosswalks and dangerous traffic islands that separate park users from the recently restored Bailey Fountain and Arc de Triomphe-inspired Civil War monument in the center of Grand Army Plaza.

“I’ve lived here for the past 45 years,” said Rhoda Marshall of Prospect Heights. “And there has never been a good way to across. You just have to run.”

The group, a collection of several local organizations that has taken the name “Grand Army Plaza Coalition,” has already received approval from the Department of Transportation to begin the smaller parts of the project, which will improve safety and visual aesthetics, and cut down on speeding.

Working with GAPCO, the DOT has approved three new islands in empty spaces between roads, and the Parks Department has committed will maintain plants. The islands are expected to slow down traffic and will be built within the year, said GAPCO Coordinator Robert Witherwax.

That was the easy part. The larger project to completely reimagine Grand Army Plaza faces a major bump in the road: commuters. Because the plan calls for reconfiguring the traffic flow and eliminating some roads — including critical roads that carry rush-hour traffic through Prospect Park — commuters may reject it.

“What about the thousands of commuters that need those roads to get to work?” asked one audience member at the June 21 meeting. “There aren’t a lot of other options.”

The Coalition admits that its goal is not to cater to drivers. After all, the GAPCO slogan is, “If you plan for traffic you will get traffic; if you plan for people you will get people.”

That pedestrian-first attitude had many adherents in the audience.

“This is not an issue for drivers,” said Faye Anderson, a resident of the area. “They can hop on the subway. This is about unsafe conditions for pedestrians.”

But the plan is not entirely averse to the horseless carriage. To aid car flow, GAPCO calls for making north-south roadways within the circle two-way instead of one-way.

“By changing the surrounding streets to two-ways, we can increase flow and slow down traffic,” said Witherwax.

“I want to stress that there is nothing ‘final’ about this plan,” Witherwax added. “We are collection information in concentric circles starting from the plaza.”

But Witherwax also cautioned against forgetting GAPCO’s mission: creating a truly grand Grand Army Plaza — the way it was originally meant to be.

“The arch was intended to be an entrance to the park,” said Witherwax.

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