Borough President Antonio Reynoso wants to make the popular Vanderbilt Avenue open street into a permanent public plaza, and hopes that such a model for converting space for automobiles into space for people would be adopted all across Brooklyn.
Reynoso made the comments in an April conversation with Open Plans, a nonprofit advocating safe, livable streets free of cars, sitting around a table on the thoroughfare as many Brooklynites do on a warm afternoon. The beep, who has long been allied with the safe streets movement, said that the end goal should not be a temporary open street only closed to automobile traffic on weekends during the summer months, but instead as a permanent, pedestrianized plaza that serves as a model for the rest of the borough.
“I would just say the goal here is to eventually have Vanderbilt become a public plaza,” Reynoso said. “And once people see that model, there’ll be people from other parts of Brooklyn, from central Brooklyn and East New York, they’ll come to Vanderbilt one day and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ But the first thing they’ll say is: ‘Why is this not in my neighborhood?'”
Vanderbilt Avenue joined the burgeoning Open Streets program back in 2020, when the city closed off sections of roadway across the five boroughs to provide some public outdoor space as the coronavirus rampaged through New York. The program has since been made permanent, and Vanderbilt remains one of the most popular, drawing locals and tourists alike to its colorful street murals and ample outdoor dining. The open street, stretching from Atlantic Avenue to Park Place, is organized and maintained by the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council.
DOT is proposing five new Open Streets be added to the program in North Brooklyn, Councilmember Lincoln Restler announced Thursday, including Smith Street in Boerum Hill, Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights, North 7th Street in Williamsburg, and Greenpoint and Bedford avenues in Greenpoint. The most significant is the one on Smith Street, which will stretch seven blocks along the crowded commercial thoroughfare from Union to Wyckoff streets.
New Open Streets planned in District 33! @NYC_DOT notified us of 5 more open streets in our district. We are working to ensure that they are safe & enjoyable public spaces. Community feedback and input is vital. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions / concerns. pic.twitter.com/lJ1NMWYRdR
— Lincoln Restler (@LincolnRestler) June 9, 2022
There is precedent in the city for pedestrianizing streets that were formerly the domain of the automobile. Perhaps the most well-known is the pedestrianization of Broadway in Times Square under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Back in 2019, the Department of Transportation redesigned parts of Pearl and Willoughby streets in Downtown Brooklyn to become “shared streets,” with pedestrian infrastructure and ultra-low speed limits; the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership has proposed doing the same with much of the neighborhood’s remaining automotive streetscape.
Jackson Chabot, who represented Open Plans in the roundtable with Reynoso, told Brooklyn Paper that having the beep’s support for converting open streets to plazas was a major boon for the cause, given his borough-wide bully pulpit.
“I think it’s huge,” Chabot said “We’ve seen the city continue to develop open streets, which is great. But we need to take it to the next level. For Reynoso to say that is a huge step forward.”
Even with all that in mind, and a new mayor seen as more bike-friendly than his predecessor, Reynoso and the pro-open streets faction face massive opposition from members of local civic groups and community boards who prefer to keep streets the domain of car traffic and parking, and who often have the ear of the local councilmember.
In Brooklyn the drama has unfolded most prominently on the Willoughby Avenue Open Street in Fort Greene: after being abruptly taken out of commission and then reinstalled in the span of a day, local Councilmember Crystal Hudson and DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez hosted a community forum for locals to voice their opinions, which turned into a screaming match as Open Street opponents repeatedly interrupted speakers.
Last month, Hudson told a local civic group that the Willoughby Open Street should be “reassessed” owing to many community members’ opposition, arguing that the process had been plagued by poor implementation and communication, though stressing that she herself was still a supporter of the program.
A spokesperson for DOT said the city is working on a proposal to improve the Vanderbilt and Underhill open streets. While they didn’t spill the beans on any potential plans for a plaza on Vanderbilt, the rep, Vin Barone, did note that at least one open street, Quisqueya Plaza along Dyckman Street in Inwood, Manhattan, has been turned into a public plaza.
“We appreciate the support for this beloved Open Street,” Barone said in a statement. “We are currently working on a proposal for both Vanderbilt and Underhill Avenue Open Streets to enhance each location and will have more information to share soon.”
This story has been updated to clarify new open streets in North Brooklyn are proposals, not a done deal, and with comment from a DOT spokesperson.