Brooklyn Community Board 2 voted ‘no’ on a new pedestrians-only plaza on Gates Avenue in August 2022.
But, according to the City Charter, the New York City Department of Transportation doesn’t need community board approval. And so, despite the disfavor of some local residents, the city is moving ahead with its plan.
The new plaza, on Gates Avenue between Vanderbilt Avenue and Fulton Street, is right in front of where Daryl Rock has owned his condo since 1989. So when he woke up on Sunday, Nov. 13, to find a group painting a mural on the pavement outside his condo on Gates Avenue, he felt his and his neighbor’s concerns had been totally disregarded.
However, the arrival of the new plaza is far from arbitrary and is a response to an unfortunate crash that happened at the very location. In September 2021, a driver, whose license was suspended, sped down Gates Avenue in the wrong direction, crashing into a car, killing a 3-month-old baby named Apolline Mong-Guillemin and injuring the infant’s mother and one other pedestrian.
In fact, according to Crash Mapper, from January 2020, to Nov. 16, 2022, there have been 21 crashes and 28 injuries, in the three blocks surrounding the street where Apolline was killed.
In response, the Vanderbilt Avenue Block Association launched a petition that gathered more than 1,800 signatures in late 2021, to turn the area into a pedestrian plaza, in Apolline’s honor.
“My son goes to school at Discovery PitStop, and I want him to live. I want everyone to be safe walking around,” said Mike Lydon, a Clinton Hill local and the founder of Street Plans. Nearly a year’s worth of planning and back-and-forth between the City and stakeholders went into the plaza, according to a spokesperson at the DOT and BKCB2 records.
Lydon designed the Discovery PitStop-backed initial proposal created with the DOT Toolkit and was hired by the city to complete the job. And it was Lydon with a handful of volunteers who was out on Sunday, Nov. 13, priming the street.
“Cars make more noise than people do. I can understand being sensitive to this being in front of your house, but, this plaza’s seating area will be put away every night,” Lydon said.
Vin Barone, a spokesperson from the DOT, said the plan for the plaza went through a few different iterations based on feedback from neighbors, BKCB2 and other stakeholders before its approval.
“DOT conducted robust public outreach and worked closely with elected officials before implementation, and we look forward to delivering these improvements for Fort Greene residents,” Barone said.
As part of the planning, the DOT hosted eight meetings with the community and reached out to residents of 15 Gates Ave. More than 500 people responded to its online survey about the plaza, according to the DOT.
The DOT adjusted its plans due to community feedback, and the current plaza is the scaled-back version of the plan. The original plan would have made the next block of Gates Avenue a one-way street and taken away more parking than the current plan does.
“The people who are living here, their bedroom windows are right here, are totally disregarded. It doesn’t make any sense,” Ernest Augustus, a BKCB2 member and Clinton Hill resident, said.
Augustus spoke as an individual, and not on behalf of BKCB2, which did not respond to a request for comment.
“The new Gates Plaza received grassroots community support to honor Baby Apolline through the creation of new public space and safer streets for the community,” Barone said.
However, what worried Rock the most was the DOT’s response to Gates Avenue residents’ concerns.
“The issue is how they’re treating the people that live here,” Rock said.
“When I first moved here, everybody was people of color. The new people that are coming in, they’re going to decide what happens to the neighborhood now, and there’s just resentment.”
Kathy Park Price, an organizer of Transportation Alternatives in Brooklyn, said support for the project was substantial, which is why the DOT pushed the project through.
In addition to the petition, FAB Fulton, the cohort of small businesses and building owners along Fulton Avenue, and local preschool Discovery Pitstop were announced as partners in a Dec. 16, 2021, meeting between BKCB2 and DOT Director of Public Space Emily Weidenhof.
“The campaign came about because of the tragedy and the desire to improve safety here in this particular location. I was excited about the DOT’s immediate response to the broad overwhelming support for it,” Park Price said.
However, Grace Pyun, the Fort Greene Partnership Homes president, said the residents felt blindsided and ignored.
“[The DOT] said it was just a proposal, and they were just listening for input and feedback from the community on the plaza,” Pyun said.
“We felt ignored, because we are the ones most affected by the proposal. We live right above it. It just sounded like it had all been arranged behind our backs.”
Pyun said FGPH met with Council Member Crystal Hudson, who represents parts of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and the council member supports the plaza plan. Hudson did not respond to a request for comment.
Next year, the DOT will return to the location to add curb extensions and bike corrals to further calm traffic and increase pedestrian safety, Barone said.