Times Square Comes to East New York: Pedestrian Plazas Aren’t Just for Midtown

Could this be Times Square? (Vaidila Kungys/NYC DOT)

It is a 50 minute ride on the 3-Train from Times Square to the end of the line in New Lots, Brooklyn.

The blaring lights, the towering canyons, the masses of tourists, all disappear as the subway leaves Manhattan far behind, rising above ground after Utica Avenue in Crown Heights. The steel and glass skyscrapers have been replaced by rowhouses of siding and stone and the occasional redbrick cluster of public housing.

Yet stepping off the stairs at the elevated station in East New York, Times Square and New Lots are not that different. The crowds are still there, darting across the busy streets to board buses and cabs that carry them beyond the reach of the subway tracks. Shops—Piggy’s, York Chan Chinese, Kicks & More, numerous bodegas—line the triangle formed by Livonia and New Lots avenues. It is a hive of activity in the heart of the neighborhood.

And starting a few weeks ago, just as in Times Square, travelers and locals have been greeted by a generous pedestrian plaza hugging the middle of that triangle.

“We wanted to create a space that was safe, we wanted to create a space that was inviting, we wanted to create a space for the neighborhood,” Eddie Di Benedetto, head of the local merchants association and a champion of the project, said on Friday, during a tour of the space.

On that crisp fall afternoon, the sun pouring down from a cloudless sky, most people were traversing the plaza to catch that next connection, but there were a few who would stop to enjoy the space. They leaned on refrigerator-sized bollards or paused to say hello to a neighbor. A woman and her grandson were enjoying a snack, seated at one of the folding cafe tables that have become a staple in Bryant Park and Times Square. Fine gravel crunched under their feet as the travelers passed between massive planters housing small evergreens.

This is one of some 50 pedestrian plazas constructed by the Department of Transportation under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan over the past few years, many of them outside of Manhattan. While the so-called Broadway Boulevard, stretching from Columbus Circle to Union Square, is the best known example, plazas dot former stretches of asphalt and cobble stone throughout the five boroughs. The idea is to reduce traffic, promote safety and create public space for communities to gather at a spot where a vehicle lane, a barren sidewalk or some excess parking once stood.

“Often times, the outer boroughs need these spaces even more because they do not have as many resources or as much open space as you might find in Manhattan,” Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability said, seated in one of those now-familiar metal folding chairs.

The tip of the triangle. (Vaidila Kungys/NYC DOT)

In New Lots, the department took an 800 square-foot traffic island and turned it into a 3,800-square-foot plaza. The jagged Ashford Avenue, which cut through the traffic triangle, was closed, reducing the number of signals and, it is hoped, accidents. There were 14 accidents at the intersection between 2006 and 2010, five of which involved pedestrians. They especially seem to be benefiting from the space.

“It used to be, you’d come off the subway, everybody would pile up on the curb, if you were lucky, you would catch the stop sign, if not, well, just hope there were no cars coming,” said Gregory Farmer Sr., pastor of the nearby New Life Baptist Church.

Essentially, the department took an A-shaped intersection and turn it into a V-shaped one. In addition to creating more space for pedestrians, buses are no longer jackknifing around Ashford Avenue, a particular impediment to traffic, according to Mr. Wiley-Schwartz. He said there was some slight opposition from drivers when the plaza was first proposed, but it has since abated after the plaza’s construction.

In a phone interview, Walter Campbell, district manager for the local community board, agreed that the project has been almost universally applauded.

“It’s really a beautiful, beautiful thing for the community,” he said. The only concerns came from Cleveland Street, where the buses had been rerouted to. Otherwise, the response has been so strong, board members from the northern section of the board are now applying for their own plaza, Mr. Campbell said.

Times Square Comes to East New York: Pedestrian Plazas Aren’t Just for Midtown