You Can Finally Walk to Grand Army Plaza Without Fear

A few months ago, motorists could drive across the asphalt here. Today it's a pedestrian zone linking the public space at the center of Grand Army Plaza to the Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch. Photos: Ben Fried

Gathering at the new public space beneath the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch at Grand Army Plaza this morning, city officials and community leaders celebrated the reclamation of asphalt for people at the crossroads of Brooklyn. One of the borough’s iconic places is finally a destination that people can get to comfortably, thanks to a slate of pedestrian and bike improvements NYC DOT completed this summer.

“For too long, Grand Army Plaza has been an 11-acre vicious circle of traffic,” said DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The improvements include enormous new pedestrian islands at the north side of GAP, swaths of asphalt re-purposed as public space and resurfaced with sand-colored gravel, and new crosswalks and bike connections. Sadik-Khan said it added up to more than a football field of new public space, which will “unlock the gateway to Prospect Park.”

DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Behind her, left to right, are Council Member Tish James, Council Member Steve Levin, Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries, Prospect Park Alliance director Emily Lloyd, and State Senator Eric Adams.

Community leaders and civic groups began mobilizing for a safer, livelier, and more accessible Grand Army Plaza in 2006, with the formation of the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, or GAPCo. A series of site visits and public workshops followed, defining the problems with GAP and outlining principles to fix it. GAPCo had a receptive audience at DOT, which began to phase in safety improvements in 2008 and revealed a more comprehensive plan in 2010, the fruits of which were on display today.

Grand Army Plaza is “Olmsted and Vaux’s brilliant solution for integrating Flatbush Avenue with Prospect Park,” said GAPCo’s Rob Witherwax. “Over the last 150 years, the balance tipped from park to street. We tried to tip it back.”

Council Member Tish James was an early supporter of GAPCo’s efforts and praised DOT’s implementation this morning. “I grew up in Park Slope, and Prospect Heights was my backyard,” she said. “It was always difficult to navigate these streets. You took your life in your hands. Today it was easy. Today it was calming.”

No one knows about all the organizing, ideas, and coordination that went into this project better than Witherwax, who ticked off the groups that came together to improve GAP: The Prospect Park Alliance, the cultural institutions who collaborate under the banner of the Heart of Brooklyn, three local community boards, the Park Slope Civic Council, and others. “DOT could just as easily have said, ‘Thank you, we’ll get back to you later,’ but they didn’t,” Witherwax said. “They made our vision happen.”

Before: The intersection of Flatbush and Vanderbilt.

After.

Before: There was no way to walk across the vortex at the northwest segment of GAP.

After.

The south side of Grand Army Plaza is seeing a lot more walking and biking since the most recent round of DOT improvements.

The substantial changes celebrated today probably won’t be the last public space improvements to GAP. Michael Cairl of the Park Slope Civic Council pointed out several underutilized areas that could serve as functional, active public spaces with a few simple design touches.

Then there’s the question of the Plaza Street bike lane, originally envisioned as a two-way, protected route functioning as a hub for safe cycling, branching out to other spokes in the bike network. Plans for the Plaza Street lane are currently in limbo after DOT’s initial unveiling in 2010.

GAPCo will also be working with the cultural institutions near GAP, the Greenmarket, and the Prospect Park Alliance on programming the newly-accessible public spaces. “We’ve made spaces where things can happen, which we didn’t have before. Now the question is, ‘What’s going to happen here?’” said Witherwax. “The table is open for suggestions.”

What would you do with this space?