Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflections on Rethinking Jay Street and Tides of Cars and Ugly Buildings from Robert Moses to Bruce Ratner.

Building along Jay Street and Tillary.
Between Robert Moses’ design for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and Bruce Ratner’s Metrotech center, downtown Brooklyn has been forced to contend with years of poor plans.  Waves of cars, rezoned streets, office towers, bland buildings, and unused public space, the corridors down Jay Street are some of the city’s least friendly or inviting of spaces.   The  mismanagement of the space is years in the making.  Six decades ago, Robert Moses helped put the kibosh on plans to build a baseball stadium at Atlantic and Flatbush as he laid the plans for more cars to pour through the area; sixty years later Bruce Ratner used the same eminent domain Moses was famous for to build Atlantic yards in the same space. Today, the biggest tide here is traffic and double parked cars, blockng access to bus and bike lanes.  

Police car parked in bike lane on Jay Street. November 5th. 

Yet, over the last year countless players have started a conversation about ways to rethink this space.  We held a session about this question at City Tech on 300 Jay Street on October 8th. The result was Rethinking JayStreet.

On the way to the Rethinking Jay Street session, long term cycling advocate Barbara Ross found herself blocked by a police car parked along a bike lane on Jay Street. Of course, this is the crux of problem on Jay Street and throughout New York. There is little to no enforcement of the traffic laws prohibiting cars from double parking in bike lanes.  The result is lines of double parked cars with other bikes and cars making their way around them, between cars taking u turns, and police sitting n their cars texting. Some day, someone is going to get killed here, as happens every couple of days in  different neighborhoods in New York. Yet, we'd like to solve the problem before then.  This was why we were holding the event Rethinking Jay Street.
"Jay Street bike lane was blocked by #‎nypd on my way to the Rethinking Jay Street Symposium." Photo and caption by Barbara Ross.

Amy Cohen, whose son Sammy was killed by a car last year, and Frances, whose son Matthew was killed by an automobile turning backward to make its way onto the bridge entrance at Sands off the Manhattan Bridge, just off Jay Street.    Both took part in the Right of Way Ride of Remembrance the week after Rethinking Jay Street. 
Jay Street is a critical connector to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, but it lacks the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure needed to protect New Yorkers from dangerous traffic. Drivers regularly make illegal U-turns and double-park on the street, blocking the bike lane and imperiling the thousands of bicyclists that use the popular commuting corridor every day. The T.A. Brooklyn Activist Committee, in partnership with Council Member Stephen Levin, Community Board 2, The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, DUMBO BID and Forest City Ratner held a community planning session – called Re-Imagine Jay Street – in the spring of 2014. More than 100 Brooklyn residents attended and weighed in with ideas to add protected bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, bike corrals and other traffic calming measures to reduce dangerous speeding and double parking while encouraging healthy transportation choices for more New Yorkers.

Now the committee is working with partner organizations and political leaders to submit a formal request for theseimprovements to the Department of Transportation. 

The hub of a rapidly transforming downtown, Jay Street is worth examining. After all, everyone seems to agree that Jay Streets is a mess. By the spring of 2014, architects were designing plans, transportation advocates assessing the state of the problem, holding meetings, planning, and remapping the space.  Few felt satisfied with the sprawling office complex of the Metrotech Center stretching from Tillary to Fulton, with Jay and Flatbush running through them, especially after the 2004 rezoning.   But not enough of these groups seemed to be talking with each other.

So, Jason Montgomery, a City Tech architect, and Eric McClure, an organizer with Park Slope Neighbors who helped defend the Prospect Park West Bike Lane and spearhead the campaign to reinvent Jay Street, started putting together plans to expand the conversation Transportation Alternatives started last spring.  People First on Jay Street; make Jay Street friendly for people declared Transportation Alternatives (TA).  TA argued:

Rethinking Jay Street was designed to get more people talking and involved in the plans.

Still Jay Street, like our global borough, is in flux, like many cities. Across the globe, the very nature of urban centers is evolving, with great emphasis on sustainability and energy conservation, knowledge production, health and welfare, economic development, social vitality and civic involvement.

I introduced our panel with speakers including Mike Lydon, The Street Plans Collaborative; Jessica Dailey, Curbed NY; Ryan Grew,Downtown Brooklyn Partnership; Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternatives; and Jason Montgomery, City Tech, with opening remarks from Council member Stephen Levin.

If you look at Jay Street, you see a street in transition, with universities, economic development, experiments in sustainability and double parked cars.  And there is little to no enforcement of the traffic laws. The only vision zero on Jay Street is vision zero enforcement, explained one friend. 
At the Rethinking Jay Street symposium, urban planners, policy makers, and community members bring their insights to this discussion to help define a new vision for Downtown Brooklyn.  They will consider topics such as the qualities of 21st century cities, remaking streets, urban accessibility, sustainable modes of transportation, place-making, social vitality, and civic involvement.
Finishing the introductions, I asked everyone to take some time to dream about what they would like to see here. 

Councilman Stephen Levin offerred some preliminary remarks suggesting we all have to push the city to help fix many of the obvious problems with traffic flow along Jay Street.   Jo Anne Simon concurred.

We began with short presentations on the current state affairs and possibilities for Jay Street, thinking about whats right, wrong, and could be of jay street as the hub of our rapidly transforming global borough.

Ryan Grew, the Deputy Director of Operations for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, laid out some of his research on the Brooklyn from Fulton to York Street along Jay, nothing that there was so much to do to better utilize the public spaces along the street, connecting people with the oddly designed, car centric spaces from the Manhattan Bridge Plaza to the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade and Cadmen Plaza and their cumbersome entrances and exits.

Caroline Samponaro, the director of bicycle advocacy for Transportation Alternatives, spoke about Jay Street from the vantage point of cycling as well as efforts to make streets all over New York, including Brooklyn safer.  Her point is that cycling infrastructure makes cities better.   From this vantage point, she described the Transportation Alternatives Plan to re imagine Jay Street, connecting multiple stakeholders with plans to revitalize the space, expanding pedestrian spaces.  Transportation Alternatives sent teams of advocates out looking at the street, conducting surveys, and identifying problems, such as illegal u turns along Jay Street, noting problems and alternatives.  “For as long as I’ve been here, Jay Street has been a mess,” she explained.  “But there are things we can do.  Today, we passed legislation reducing the speed limit in New York.  It came through a lot of mobilization.  this came from the grassroots.  This is a grassroots problem and opportunity to do better."

Mike Lydon, a Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, concurred, describing a study he is drafting on the need to redesign Jay Street to make u turns impossible.   “Lets do better,” he concluded. “The sense of place is missing.”

Jessica Daley, a senior editor at Curbed NY, pointed out some of the structural problems. “The 2004 rezoning did not  include support for infrastructure, including transportation.” She argued the neighborhood would need a new rezoning, as well as better connection between Jay Street with Dumbo.

Jason Montgomery, an architect at City Tech, followed with a tour of the different eras of development of the era from 1792-to the 20th century redesign of Cadman Plaza.   He laid out a few of his questions for the space.

Real Estate:
The real estate market is bringing thousands of new apartments and hotel
rooms to Downtown Brooklyn rather than the offices that zoning encouraged.
This development is occurring regardless of the hostile streets (heavy
traffic, pollution, dangerous crossings,) lack of community and commercial
services, and a disconnected street grid that inhibits easy movement. How
can the real estate market be leveraged to address these issues? 
Is it in the developers' best interest?
How is the availability of new office space impacting business growth? How
is the residential focus of new development projects impacting the goals
for the Brooklyn Tech Triangle? If new space for business use is developed
in Downtown Brooklyn, what should it be like to meet the demand?
Downtown Brooklyn is designated as a special purpose district, with special
attention to certain streets (Fulton Mall, Atlantic Ave, Flatbush Ave). Is
the current zoning strategy likely to give us a vibrant urban community in
Downtown Brooklyn? Do we need to broaden the boundary of the special
purpose district?  Do we need an alternative planning strategy that goes
beyond the limits of use based zoning for this particular part of the city?
Jay Street is well positioned to be a Main Street of Downtown Brooklyn, the
north south spine tying into the east west spines of Atlantic and Fulton
(counting the continuation of Jay Street and Smith Street together).
Jay Street's design could well play a central role in defining the future
of Downtown Brooklyn. What should be fundamental to any vision of remaking
Jay Street so that it can serve this critical role?
Public Space:
There are significant areas of unbuilt/open space in parts of Downtown
Brooklyn, but much of this unbuilt area is not accessible or usable (i.e.
parking lots, semi public green areas, areas around the BQE and Bridge
ramps) What types of public space do we need to better serve the growing
population? How can we better use the open spaces we already have
(including the Brooklyn Strand)?
If Jay Street should be typologically considered a Main Street, what should
the transportation design be for the street? How much space should be
dedicated to pedestrian use to address the growing population density along
the street?Would a special mode of public transit (bus rapid transit, street car, or
light rail) make sense to help connect the neighborhoods within the
Brooklyn Tech Triangle?
College Town:
Do the colleges along Jay Street require a greater dedication of pedestrian
open space than a typical NYC Street? How can the student use of Jay Street
be part of the solution for Jay Street?
The Strand:
Is there a connection between the Jay Street Corridor and the Brooklyn
Strand? Are their fates tied together? Should the Mayor's initiative for
the Strand be broadened to address the larger structural issues of the

Throughout the session we talked about what everyone would you like to see along Jay Street and what is getting in the way.  How do we make this a more people friendly place where people come and students stay after classes?  Barriers identified include access, cars in bike lanes, and a gap between users and the space’s design.  More people need to participate in the planning and redesign of the space. 

“There should be more required of developers,” noted Jessica Daley. 
Whats the role of bikes in the design of downtown Brooklyn?  Whats riding like down here?  How can it be improved?  Some suggested placing an elevated bike lane down the middle of Jay Street, preventing cars from taking u turns.  Others called for removing cars entirely.  

The best public spaces are well used public spaces, I noted, paraphrasing William H Whyte.  How do we connect streets with the public spaces of Jay Street and Metro Tech so more people want to stay and feel a sense of place here?

“Connect the streets to public space,” noted Caroline Samponaro. “Design can lead to that outcome.”  Make this a more open plaza like space.  80% of the public space in the city is streets and sidewalks,” she explained.  “Its where we connect.  We need to do more.”  

Put the public space where the students are rather than vice versa, noted Mike Lydon.

Several of the students observing the panel suggested that there was more that had to be done to cope with the secondary harmful effects of development, including gentrification and displacement.  What are the social impacts?  How do we keep Brooklyn diverse and inclusive asked others begging the bigger question about what Brooklyn is going to become.
Get involved Caroline Samponaro responded. We have to do more to get more people involved in the planning process.  If done right, we can have better, more inclusive public spaces which counter patterns of displacement.  “It is bs that public space means more people have to leave, have to move. I’ve been to cities around the world where this is not the case.  If Brooklyn is to develop, we need to look at ways to have more people stay instead of getting pushed out. Others in the audience were more frank about the need to remove the cars from the space. 

After the session, Steve Levin tweeted:

Now is the time to reimagine Jay Street. Joining @transalt @DowntownBklyn to discuss how to make it safer for all.

“The presence of curbside parking on Jay Street between Willoughby and Tillary is the root cause of 80% of the dysfunction there," noted transportation advocate Eric McClure, of Park Slope Neighbors. "Eliminating curbside parking and relocating it to leased spaces inside the Marriott garage, where there’s routinely excess capacity, would free up space for dedicated bus lanes and a physically protected cycle track.  This possible solution just makes to much sense not to explore.”

"At the Rethinking Jay Street Symposium, the consensus emerged that Downtown Brooklyn needs a new round of study and planning," noted Jason Montgomery. "The planning that is needed is not merely an updated zoning document, but a streetscape and place making design that ties together and connects the disparate parts of the district into a cohesive whole and transforms Downtown Brooklyn into a destination rather than a traffic corridor. This process needs to consider ALL forms of movement and accessibility through the district and reduce the overwhelmingly dominating and intimidating presence of private vehicular traffic on Downtown Brooklyn's streets."

After all it is time to rethink Jay Street. 

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