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In Downtown Brooklyn, public spaces are poised for major revamp

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WXY and BIG will collaborate on a new plan for the neighborhood’s public spaces

Max Touhey

Downtown Brooklyn, an area roughly bounded by Myrtle Avenue, Court Street, Ashland Place, and Atlantic Avenue, is a bustling neighborhood, but one without a clear identity. It’s the borough’s center of government, with Borough Hall at its western edge. It’s home to cultural institutions and institutions of higher learning. It’s a thriving commercial hub and dense with residential development.

“Downtown Brooklyn is kind of the ultimate mixed-use district,” says Claire Weisz, a founding partner at the multidisciplinary design firm WXY. “It’s actually a bunch of different places.”

While that’s been a boon in some ways—job growth in the area rose by 26 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to a recent report from the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP)—it’s led to a lack of cohesion or connectivity among those disparate districts. The neighborhood was rezoned in 2004 in an effort to encourage residential and commercial development, which led to a population surge, and has “placed tremendous demand on the limited open space,” as a Municipal Art Society study on the area’s rezoning put it.

In an effort to rectify that, the DBP has tasked WXY and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) with creating a new public realm action plan. The goal, according to the DBP, is to “create a unified vision for long-term improvements to Downtown Brooklyn’s plazas, streets, and public spaces”—one that keeps the purpose of each district in mind, while also making the neighborhood a more pleasant and accessible place for those who work and live there. Infrastructure and streetscape improvements (making sidewalks wider, or making transit stations more easily accessible) are top of mind for the collaborators, as is creating a more cohesive sense of place.

“What we’re trying to focus on here, and what the challenge is, is there’s this underlying tension about whether or not we’re one place or a unified downtown,” says Regina Myer, the president of DBP. “What is our image? What is our vision for the future? Is [Downtown Brooklyn] a collection of different places, is it a unified place?”

WXY and BIG, both of which were selected after a competition process, will attempt to answer that question. The two firms were natural choices for the undertaking: WXY has been at work for years on the Brooklyn Strand, a plan to connect the disconnected parkland in and around downtown, which Weisz says will “overlap” with the new public realm plan. BIG, meanwhile, recently moved its New York office to Dumbo, and has worked on similar urban space plans; in Copenhagen, the firm transformed a section of Nørrebro into a park known as Superkilen, which celebrates the diversity of that neighborhood.

Weisz says other European cities like Paris and Barcelona have influenced her thinking about what Downtown Brooklyn’s open space could look like, but there are also projects here in New York—including Snøhetta’s Times Square revamp, and WXY’s own improvements at Astor Place—that can provide a blueprint.

“ I think this plan really offers an opportunity to create a new model for [inclusive public spaces] in New York City,” she says.

The public realm plan may also fix some of the issues that arose after the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn—namely, the fact that an unprecedented amount of residential development was built (with comparatively little office space), but the streetscape hasn’t adapted in the same way. “Although great strides have been made in the past 15 years with the rebuilding of Flatbush Avenue, Fulton Street, Adam Street, and Tillary Street, many streets in our core of our downtown haven’t been looked at in, I’d say, half a century,” Myer notes.

She uses Schermerhorn Street as an example: Several enormous rental buildings (including Hub, with more than 750 apartments, and Hoyt & Horn, which has nearly 400 units) have sprouted on the thoroughfare, yet it’s still not particularly welcoming to pedestrians. There are bike lanes, but they require dodging in and out of traffic; parking garages spit vehicles out onto sidewalks with regularity, and construction sheds dot the landscape. In other words, it’s ripe for improvement.

The next steps in the process include forming a steering committee, which Myer says will include community members, business owners, neighborhood institutions, and city agencies; they’ll work with WXY and BIG as the two firms “analyze existing conditions, create a cohesive vision and urban design framework, and develop an action plan,” which will have both short- and long-term solutions.

“The opportunity [with] this plan is to look at these real streetscape improvements holistically, not just one crosswalk at a time,” Weisz says.