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Third Avenue Shuffle

The biggest change last announced last week as part of the traffic plan developed by Sam Schwartz was the re-engineering of the intersection of Fourth, Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, which seeks to untangle the knot of traffic that regularly forms when three of Brooklyn’s busiest traffic arteries converge.  Sam Schwartz’s plan removes the northbound lanes of Fourth Avenue between Atlantic and Flatbush, the shortest side of the triangle. Cars going north down Fourth to Flatbush will now get diverted west on to Atlantic and will then turn right on to Third Avenue in order to reach Flatbush - to get to Lafayette.   The changes are intended to keep cars moving, prevent them from getting stuck in the intersections and increase pedestrian safety.  But in the estimation of many living on or around Third Avenue in Boerum Hill, the plan solves one set of problems by creating another.

Residents in the area believe that a significant number of cars will try to cut over to Third Avenue south of Atlantic, driving through smaller, residential streets along the way and increasing already dangerous conditions for pedestrians.  They have reason to be concerned.  Third Avenue just south of Atlantic already has high traffic volumes, a history of speeding and has been the scene of several pedestrian and bicycle fatalities over the last several years. (Three of the children fatally struck are depicted with ghost-like transparency on a two-story mural that looms over Third Avenue and Butler Place.) According to the 2006 FEIS, there were 610 vehicles in the single northbound lane during morning rush hour. By comparison, there were 1217 vehicles in three lanes of northbound traffic on Fourth Avenue (FEIS, Figures C1-a and b).  One resident of the neighborhood described the area as a “ring of fire,” where turning cars and cars stuck in intersections make crossing the street a frightening experience for pedestrians.

The response from Sam Schwartz about spillover traffic was less than satisfactory - acknowledging a problem already exists, but barely acknowledging that the problem will get worse as a result of his plan. Norman Oder recorded Schwartz’s response to questions about impacts to Third Avenue:

"Right now a lot of that is happening. Fourth Avenue is only handling 6 or 700 cars between Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue because savvy drivers already know not to take Fourth Avenue all the way to Flatbush Avenue. Savvy drivers for 50 years now are making turns at other locations or using other avenues to get to Flatbush Avenue, and they will continue to do so… Those 6 or 700 vehicles--some of them will remain on Fourth Avenue and some of them will be using other avenues, and deciding on other routes, including not hopping off the Gowanus to take Fourth Avenue.”

For years, community groups around the project having been asking the city to develop more comprehensive plans for traffic mitigations around Atlantic Yards.  BrooklynSpeaks (whose members include the Atlantic Yards Watch sponsors) called on the city to provide a study of current traffic conditions,  a complete parking plan from FCRC, input on mitigations from Community Boards and other local stakeholders, and action on residential permit parking.  The current plan developed by Sam Schwartz was presented to elected officials and community boards only after it had been completed.  No opportunity for public input existed.  However, last year, after the street closures were implemented for the project, community groups asked to have input into the scope of a traffic study on those impacts and FCR agreed to it.  As a result, the intersection of Dean Street and Vanderbilt Avenue and the intersection of Bergen and Flatbush, both originally omitted from the traffic closing study, were included. Unfortunately, the intersections of Atlantic at Flatbush and Atlantic at Vanderbilt were still left out. 

The Third Avenue shuffle represents more than a plan for traffic engineering – it’s also an attempt on the part of the City and the developer to shuffle responsibility. The City hands over responsibility to manage one of Brooklyn’s most congested areas to a private developer. The developer, in turn, has a limited scope of responsibility defined by the obligations set forth in the Memo of Environmental Commitments. That document requires Forest City Ratner to implement changes to the intersection at Fourth, Flatbush and Atlantic, and a few other changes immediately around the arena, but not to deal with the ripple effects on local streets. Traffic generated by the arena may get pushed out of the bounds of the developer’s scope of responsibility, but it’s still there.

If there’s a glimmer of hope for the residents around Third Avenue, it’s that a blueprint for change does exist in the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project (DBTCP), developed in 2004.  That plan envisioned improvements to the pedestrian environment on Third Avenue in Boerum Hill by installing neck downs, leading pedestrian intervals, and raised crosswalks in order to slow cars, improve visibility and discourage cut-through traffic. It remains to be seen whether that vision can be implemented before the arena is operational, or if DOT will hold back on traffic calming requested by the community until after the arena is operational and a follow-up study is conducted. Or worse: if that vision is even compatible with Forest City Ratner’s plan to move thousands of cars through the neighborhood in time the start of games. Unlike the most recent study by Sam Schwartz, the scope of the follow-up study should include impacts to Third Avenue and other local streets as suggested by community stakeholders.  But for now it’s unclear whether the local community will have a role. As ESDC planner Rachel Shatz said, “The development of the scope for the monitoring plan for monitoring how effective these traffic changes are…is a tomorrow project.”  

For residents in the neighborhoods around the arena, it’s a worry today.