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June 3, 2006 / Brooklyn news / Development / Around Brooklyn

Grand Army Plaza: Park or thruway?

Local groups hope to restore designers’ original vision

The Brooklyn Paper
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Grand Army Plaza is grand in name only.

But the clogged heart of Brooklyn, relegated to serving as little more than a good-looking traffic circle for decades, is on the verge of a multi-pronged effort to restore its original grandeur.

This week, Transportation Alternatives hired a renowned Danish traffic consultant to figure out how to untangle the mess of roads, walkways and ill-timed lights that have separated the plaza from what could be an adoring public.

The Prospect Park Alliance, which spent $2 million restoring a fountain in the plaza’s center that no one can get to, has joined the campaign, along with a new group called the Grand Army Plaza Coalition.

“Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s vision for Grand Army Plaza was for the plaza to overwhelm Flatbush Avenue, but instead, the avenue is overwhelming the plaza,” said Aaron Naparstek, who is leading the citizen brigade.

“They wanted it to be a great civic space, a great meeting ground for events and celebrations and even just sitting around. It is definitely not that. It’s a traffic rotary.”

Roughly the size of Paris’s Place de l’Etoile (which has its own famous arch in the middle), Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza was conceived as an entryway into the Prospect Park, not as a traffic circle cut off from it by the intersection of Union Street, Eastern Parkway, Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Park West.

Olmsted and Vaux created the large plaza to compensate for the harshly angled, somewhat ungrand northern entrance to the park itself.

But it wasn’t long before that vision was overtaken by the horseless carriage.

In the 1920s, the traffic was so wild that the “Safety Council of Brooklyn” put up a Death-O-Meter to chronicle the increasing number of vehicular deaths in the plaza. By 1955, one New York newspaper called the area “the only concrete and asphalt roulette wheel in the world.”

In the mid-1980s, the city came up with a revolutionary scheme to narrow the surrounding roadways and expand pedestrian access to the center of the plaza, but somewhere between bureaucratic inertia and the crash of 1987, the city never allocated the $30 million to get it done.

Times (and finances) change. Yesterday’s urban decay is today’s gentrification.

“Unlike in the 1980s, there is a much broader constituency to get this done,” said Tupper Thomas, head of the Prospect Park Alliance. “Now the Park Slope Civic Council, groups in Prospect Heights and along Eastern Parkway, the Prospect Park Alliance, and cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum are committed to getting this done.”

But for now, even the advocates are thinking small.

“Everyone agrees it should be more accessible,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “The trick is to find the option that has the greatest benefit and the lowest cost.”

The Municipal Art Society (457 Madison Ave. at E. 51st Street in Manhattan) will open an exhibit of historic photos of Grand Army Plaza on Wednesday, June 7. The exhibit will run through July 31 and is free. The society is also offering a “Twilight Tour of Grand Army Plaza” on Thursday, June 29, at 6:30. The tour costs $12 for non-members. Call Tamara Coombs at (212) 935-3960 for information.

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