Fourth Avenue has changed dramatically since the turn of the last century, when it was a large, tree-lined boulevard, and has been evolving ever since. However, the past two years have probably seen an unprecedented number of activities related to Fourth Avenue planning improvements — and the Park Slope Civic Council has been in the forefront of contributing to those activities. Here’s a timeline of those efforts.
Former Civic News editor Ezra Goldstein muses on the state of Fourth Avenue, noting that “bluntly put [Fourth Avenue] was sacrificed when Park Slope was rezoned in 2003 and South Park Slope in 2005” (from “A Thoroughfare of Uncertain Direction: What Route Next for Fourth Avenue?”). Despite some small signs of continued vibrancy, both longtime residents and new arrivals decried many other changes — the demolition of structures such as P.S. 133 — more than 100 years old, and Historic Registry-worthy (“The Little School That Anchored a Village.” June 2009 Civic News) and the bulldozing of the adjacent community garden, the construction of new 12-story apartments that created blank street walls, the relentless traffic (threatening to worsen with the rise of Atlantic Yards), and lack of a “sense of place” along many stretches of Fourth. Many people wondered if anything could be done to improve the avenue.
The Civic Council hosts a well-received public forum on “The Future of Fourth Avenue.” A visionary group of panelists and a large attentive audience work on defining key problems on Fourth and creating an outline of what a would make it a more livable street.
The March 2010 Civic News explored the final report on comments from that meeting (“What a Lovable Street it Could Be: A Report from the Forum on the Future of Fourth Avenue”). “Fourth Avenue gets no love. Its new construction is the subject of ridicule and dismay. Pedestrians avoid its sidewalks and dread its crosswalks. Its few trees look more like the last survivors of an encroaching desert than emissaries from nature”. Yet there was a sense of hope in the room and attendees are recruited for Forth on Fourth Avenue (FOFA,) a new subcommittee of the Livable Streets Committee, which was intended to keep the discussion going.
(At the same time, a group of students from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service are creating a visioning project for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office — some of the students attended the forum — which would subsequently provide the basis for the boroughwide Fourth Avenue Task Force, an initiative of the Borough President focused on the whole length of Fourth Avenue.)
The borough president releases “Vision for the Fourth Avenue Corridor.” The collaborative effort with urban planning students from NYU Wagner began the process for a community-driven transformation of Fourth Avenue into “Brooklyn Boulevard,” a signature street worthy of the great communities that surround it. The vision plan proposes an active street for residents, economic opportunities for local businesses, and exhibit spaces for the artist community. These goals will be achieved through traffic-calming measures; streetscaping, placemaking, and wayfinding improvements; and community partnerships.”
The borough president announces creation of a Fourth Avenue Task Force, which becomes operational in the autumn. The task force is charged to “oversee and facilitate a community driven transformation of Fourth Avenue.”
As a follow-up to the Future of Fourth Avenue Forum, the Civic Council conducts a walking tour of Fourth Avenue, which culminates in a 19-page report: “Moving Forward on Fourth: A Report to the Community,” released in the next month. In addition to providing information on known plans for development along Fourth (e.g., improvements at the J.J. Byrne Park, a planned garden at the Department of Environmental Protection site at Sackett Street and Fourth), the report notes: “People who joined in the tour were very concerned about recent residential developments along the thoroughfare, particularly the lack of street-level retail, permissible building heights, parking, and pedestrian-friendly design. Group members discussed planting trees along the avenue, which would be an excellent way to slow traffic, beautify the street, and improve air quality all at the same time.”
Civic Council President Michael Cairl draws on the experience of the Walking Tour and the earlier Forum, and calls on City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden to revise the department’s current zoning along the thoroughfare to better serve the community (“Council Calls for Rezoning and Participating on Fourth Avenue,” February 2011 Civic News).
The Department of City Planning (DCP) unveils a proposal for a Special Fourth Avenue Enhanced Commercial District, an effort to remedy community grievances with previous rezoning and development efforts on the busy thoroughfare. The plan was created in collaboration with local elected officials and community groups, including the Civic Council. FOFA is well represented at the Community Board 6 hearing on the proposal, urging acceptance and the inclusion of language specific to supporting affordable housing (“A Step Forward on Fourth,” Summer 2011 Civic News).
During the summer and early fall of 2011, FOFA continues to meet as a subcommittee of the Livable Streets Committee.
A group of FOFA members visit Hoboken and tour with the director of the Hoboken Department of Transportation and Parking, who shares experiences related to of car sharing, policies that promote pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and the tricky issue of residential parking permits. The trip, which takes place on one of the few snowy days that winter, provides insight on the potentials (and pitfalls) of public safety planning (“Hoboken: Lessons for Park Slope,” November 2011 Civic News).
Following discussions with the Civic Council’s Livable Streets Committee, a group of FOFA members meet to revise the FOFA mission statement and petition the Civic Council to become a full committee. The change in status is approved at the February Trustees Meeting and reflects the increased FOFA focus on the Park Slope-specific area of Fourth Avenue (from Flatbush Avenue to the Prospect Expressway), as well as a desire to expand on ways to give residents a voice in boroughwide discussions about Fourth Avenue’s future (“Forth on Fourth Becomes Newest Civic Council Committee,” February 2012 Civic News).
At the same time, FOFA increases efforts to create a cross-neighborhood collaboration, recognizing that
- Fourth Avenue should be considered as a shared space among neighborhoods
- Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Gowanus all have an interest in Fourth Avenue
- the residents and business on streets intersecting Fourth likewise have a vested interest in making the avenue more livable.
The success potential of this strategy crystallized when reviewing a program proposal developed by the president of the Saint Mark’s Block Association. The project, originally covering Fourth Avenue from Bergen to Degraw Streets, focused on bringing together local organizations and merchants in a six-block “greening” effort that would include tree care and the installation of window boxes.
Taking this basic idea, FOFA members reach out to block associations and organizations on both sides of Fourth to create a broader base of support. The “Pilot Project”, as it came to be known, is subsequently endorsed by the Borough President’s Task Force (Beautification and Medians Committee).
FOFA members continue to attend the committee meetings of the larger Borough President’s Task Force, which offers an opportunity to see the “big picture” for Fourth Avenue and for discussions with public officials involved in Fourth Avenue planning, allows an exchange of ideas with Fourth Avenue-focused activists from other neighborhoods, and aids in anticipating issues that will be raised at future task force-sponsored community forums in our neighborhood.
Following the February Meeting, a graduate student expresses her interest in developing a public workshop (as part of a class project) that will explore reimagining public space, and bring design resources and local residents together to help in that process. The focus is on the Pilot Project area. FOFA supports the proposal. The March 26 workshop does not result in specific design recommendations, but it succeeds in engaging new people in discussions about Fourth Avenue improvements; more than 25 people attend and three people, new to the Civic Council, join FOFA.
During the same time, the developer of the “Pilot Project” contacts local residents who have expertise in subirrigation planters (SIPs), which minimize the amount of water necessary to support a planter. FOFA recognizes that attractive, relatively low-maintenance planters would be an incentive for businesses and organizations to sponsor such planters.
FOFA begins planning for Fourth Avenue-specific events during the Spring Civic Sweep in April, including a new postcard about FOFA. Committee members also begin exploring options for DIY tree guards that would be inexpensive, easy to assemble, and help protect tree beds.
After the March meeting, FOFA learns about a mini-grant through MillionTreesNYC, and develops a proposal based on the “Pilot Project.” The final proposal asks for funding of 36 trees/tree beds (from Bergen to Carroll Streets), and involves direct outreach by FOFA members to get tree “adopters” and helping with first plantings at various sites. Also included in the pitch are funding for educational seminars and for a brochure on the economic, aesthetic, and environmental advantages of trees and proper tree care (The proposal is submitted in April)
FOFA’s effort to bring the Spring Civic Sweep to Fourth Avenue is a huge success. Work on the Pilot Project, the proposal to MillionTreesNYC, and the Civic Sweep foster collaborations (read about these great partner organizations in the spring 2012 Civic News.
FOFA meets with one of the city Department of Transportation representatives who is helping to implement of the Borough Presidents Task Force recommendations to discuss neighborhood meetings that will be held in early 2012, and to draw attention to traffic issues stemming from the new P.S. 133 building and the planned construction of a drive-thru McDonalds between St. Marks Place and Warren Street.
The committee also discusses supporting development of a SIP-based planter by Brooklyn Woods (which could be tested on sidewalks and perhaps used on Fourth Avenue medians); a subcommittee is formed to create a “white paper” outlining specific requirements related to installation.
Because of the increasing amount of projects and possible collaborations, the committee agrees to hold a strategic planning session in June.