From Street to Plaza: Building Public Space in NYC

The New Lots Triangle after its opening ceremony last fall. Photo: Noah Kazis

The Number Three subway line ends on an elevated track at New Lots Avenue, in Brooklyn’s East New York. For decades, weary passengers descended the stairs, only to face one more hurdle before safely arriving home: Their exit disgorged them directly onto the street into a lattice of buses, livery cabs, and other traffic vying for fares and rights-of-way.

Today, however, that danger zone has been transformed, thanks to public stewardship and city support. Instead of a traffic triangle, there’s a wedge of vehicle-free space dotted with tables, chairs, and planters. This small oasis, bounded by New Lots Avenue on one side and Livonia on the other, is just one of more than 50 public plaza projects that New York City’s Department of Transportation is building in partnership with local groups. Part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC—a citywide effort to enhance New Yorkers’ quality of life—these plazas add up to more than 21 acres of new public space in the city. That’s no small number, considering that 25 percent of the city consists of street, which in turn represents 80 percent of the metropolis’s public land. As more people flock to the city, “neighborhoods need to become more livable,” said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, New York City’s assistant commissioner for public space, on a site visit to New Lots this past Friday. More open space and greener streets will help achieve that goal, he said. (For tips on how to make daily NYC living greener, click here.) 

A group of concerned East New Yorkers helped make the New Lots triangle a reality. Three years ago, they formed a nonprofit called the New Lots Avenue Merchant Triangle, with an overall mission to beautify the neighborhood. They applied to the DOT’s City Plaza Partnership program and were accepted (this year’s applications are due July 13). After a smooth process, “this dream became a realization,” said New Lots Avenue Merchant Triangle member Eddie Di Benedetto, an Italian who moved to the area more than four decades ago and owns a pizza parlor right by the subway exit. His group has committed to managing the area—that’s part of the deal with the DOT—and Di Benedetto volunteers his own restaurant each night to store the plaza’s tables and chairs. 

His East New York community has made good use of the space. At Christmas time, residents festively decorated the area. This summer, Arts East New York plans to stage events. The organization’s founder and executive director, Catherine Green, hopes that the crowds attending such events will also support local businesses and the area’s farmers’ market, which occurs about twice a week nearby on New Lots Avenue and offers wares grown on two local farms. And this is just the first phase—the triangle will get a more permanent facelift in ensuing months.

Aside from New Lots, other anticipated DOT projects include a bike share (coming soon) similar to what one might see in Paris, whereby the public rents bicycles in one location with the luxury of dropping them off in another.

Perhaps one of the DOT’s more ambitious projects entails revitalizing Times Square. Visitors can already see some of the changes—three years ago, portions of these “crossroads of the world” were blocked off and ornamented with tables, chairs, and more planters. But there’s much more in the works, including built-in benches (for more, read, “Countdown to a New Times Square.”) 

New York has long been known as a “walking city,” DOT commissioner and Audubon Women in Conservation 2012 honoree Janette Sadik-Khan pointed out on the site visit. But it’s never been an easy place to take load off. “That’s actually part of a civic democracy,” she said—to simply sit down, absorb the surroundings, and maybe enjoy a slice of pizza.

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