The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Trouble's A-Brewin' Over Medgar Evers Greenspace Project

Many of you may never venture north of Empire Blvd. Brooklyn's funny that way, particular if you don't bike or own a car. If you live in Flatbush though, it's worth a journey to the north and east of the Botanic Garden. Technically, this is Crown Heights. It's home to some truly beautiful blocks, some hideously scarred post-industrial wasteland blocks, some beautifully scarred post-industrial blocks (check out the "Spice Factory" on Franklin) and a few humble retail corridors. The area is also home to Medgar Evers College, a community-based extension of the CUNY system that has grown quite a bit over the last decade. In recent year's, it built a new state-of-the-art Health and Science building which is quite striking, rising as it does above Bedford Avenue at Crown Street. Not long ago, this important bedrock institution of the neighborhood announced a nearly $20 million plan to create an actual campus where none existed. The plan involves closing Crown Street to traffic, and making a hangout-able landscaped greenspace that looks something like this:

Pretty cool, right? This 4-year college serves predominantly low-income "minority" students, is geared towards providing a leg-up to those wishing to reverse misfortune, was created without precedent BY community groups and leaders during the tumultuous '60s, and has thrived through the many crazy years since. The new space is intended to provide a campus-feel to its thousands of students for generations to come. No brainer! Win-Win! Hurray for our team!!!

But wait, there's more...and it ain't pretty.

Thursday night I had the good fortune to attend the latest meeting of Community Board 9, which for those who don't know covers much of the area east of Prospect Park and north from Clarkson. The way these meetings work: various issues come before the CB as agenda items, placed by the various committees of the Board. Sometimes, as was the case this night, public opinion is requested on a proposal that was made to the City's land use, or ULURP, division of the department of planning. Folks sign up to speak to the agenda. I had been told to brace for a fire-storm on the Crown Street closing idea, and sure enough the place became electric with anger in fairly short order.

It strikes this blogger that something MORE than just the proposed closing of Crown street is at play, judging from the near unanimous vitriol blasted at the project, mostly from longtime residents of Crown street one block to the east. If you haven't been down that block, you really should treat yourself! It's gorgeous, amazing terraced landscaping, beautifully maintained historic houses, olde fashioned lightposts, the whole nine. One would think, and one would be wrong, that residents of this street and other beauties near it, would welcome the addition of well-maintained public greenspace just to their west. One would also think that by closing down that street to traffic, fewer cars from outside would use Crown as a thoroughfare. If you look at a map, or if you drive or bike it yourself, you can see that residents might be inconvenienced by the closing, since they'll now have to take a right or left on Bedford to continue their trip from their homes, where before they could drive all the way through to Washington. However, residents don't see this as a mere inconvenience, and they apparently near-unanimously hate the plan. Most of the speakers said the street closure would cause severe hardship, even suggesting that the intense street-clogging would create toxic conditions for area youth. Although one might assume that street parking would be a concern to these nearby neighbors, one speaker made a point of saying that parking was not the issue at all, and that she and many neighbors had garages or driveways rendering street parking irrelevant. Others refuted the notion that the area needs "greenspace" at all, given the proximity to the Park and Garden. Though I don't think I need to point out that the Garden is not free, so that one's kinda apples to oranges.

What gives? Apparently, various local block associations came together over the summer for a forum to discuss the plan. It wasn't organized by the Community Board or the City or DOT or Medgar Evers - it was put together by some really smart, caring, and apparently pissed-off homeowners who wanted a place to vent their frustration over the plan. Elected officials were invited to witness the furor, and some - like Councilperson Tish James - vowed to block the plan at every opportunity, seemingly in the spirit of her valiant star-crossed vendetta against the Nets Arena. Many of the speakers at the CB meeting cited this earlier community meeting that was held at a local church, where there were (anecdotally) a couple hundred people, as proof that nobody wants a $17 million project that closes the street, and even mentioned that President Pollard of the College said that maybe he'd have to go back and revisit the idea of closing the street. Attendees felt they had scored a victory at that meeting, and were outraged that the Community Board would even be talking about it.

You know, they might be right about the traffic snarls; it could be Carmageddon in Crown Heights if they close that street, and it would be good to know that DOT has a plan to combat it. BUT...there was absolutely nothing wrong with talking about it, and the way these various civic leaders lashed out at District Manager Pearl Miles and the committee chair (who gave the report that led to the discussion), was incredibly disrespectful and unnecessarily angry. I can appreciate that people experience NIMBY outrage - god knows I have a time or two! But really...we're your neighbors, guys. We want to hear your opinion, not your shouting and vein-bulging. Save it for people who ACTUALLY want to do you harm, rather than people who are there to listen.

Tish James had a good procedural point though...apparently Medgar Evers withdrew this plan in order to conduct a more thorough study of the project's effect on traffic. So this whole conversation at the CB level was premature. However, if a Community Board is to have any role to play in advising matters of City planning, it must have informational discussion sessions like the one last Tuesday. All of the rhetoric about how "this conversation shouldn't even be happening" was ludicrous. How else are we going to find out how people feel? And I'm sorry, but people can meet and jabber in churches all they want, but that doesn't supplant actually convened meetings of the community board, which supposedly is representative of more than just a couple of blocks.

In my limited dealings with CB9's committees however, I agree with Jesse Hamilton, the Democratic District Leader, when he complains of poor organization. It's a problem generally, and I'm pretty sure had the committee meetings been better run and articulated, we wouldn't have had such a wild scene from the pulpit. All that said, democracy was generally well-served by all the venting, and free speech flowed freely. All for the good I think.

Please comment, for or against, or provide more info, in the comments. I'm trying to remain neutral, though I'll admit I find most of the car-centric concerns to be self-serving, ignoring the longterm benefits to students and the neighborhood at large. I live on a congested block myself, though, and I would hope that a good survey of the plan's effect on traffic will be properly used when the REAL decisions get made.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.


Anonymous said...

That's too bad. It's just cluelessness in how to conduct oneself. Between reality TV and partisan politics how many role models for intelligent, well reasoned, calm and respectful debate does this world have now? Not many.

Mike on Lefferts said...

I would hate to have more cars on my block. Still, I think you need to consider that its not everday that someone comes along and wants to spend that kind of money on cool new spaces around here. I'll bet the city can figure out how to minimize their concerns. and i think they will feel really bad 20 years from now if that block still looks like it does now, just so they could have an easier drive.

babs said...

In the past Pearl Miles has testified before the City Council in support of projects voted DOWN by the CB., effectively usurping the CB's power. Thankfully this project is in Tish's district, as she actually listens to her constituents, unlike Mathieu Eugene. Her retirement, and the defeat of Mathieu Eugene's 2013 re-election bid, cannot come soon enough.

babs said...

Also, is this block of Crown Street being closed to cars only, meaning pedestrians could still walk through the space and enjoy the greenery or is it to become useable only by Medgar Evers students and personnel? In other words, is the street which had been public being de-mapped and taken away from the taxpaying public by a taxpayer-supported institution? I admit I haven't followed the story as closely as I could have, because it isn't in PLG and because last I'd heard the original proposal had been withdrawn by Medgar Evers for further study (which, it appears, was everyone else's thought as well). And if the party that makes the proposal has said they were withdrawing it for further study, why does it need to come before the CB? Unless, of course, that party was not telling the truth and hoped just to slide it through the CB, thinking no-one ever goes to those meetings anyway. Oops!

babs said...

And by her of course up there I meant Pearl, not Tish, whom I would gladly support for Congress, State Senate, or Mayor, or basically anything else she wanted.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

It's meant to be public, Babs, and that's part of what they're trying to sell it with. I thought it was interesting that some of those against it said they don't need any more greenspace, what with the park and garden.

While I agree that it was bad form to bring it up for discussion while the plan was withdrawn for study, that doesn't preclude talking about it. This was discussion only, no votes. I know that Mike Cetera meant no disrespect by bringing it up now, but he should've waited.

babs said...

Thanks for that clarification. In terms of what Mike " Let me maximize your FAR" Cetera meant or didn't mean, I leave that to you. Has this proposal already passed his USURP (oops, sorry, I meant ULURP) committee?

Clarkson FlatBed said...

The short answer is that some version of this plan passed a long time ago, but given that next to no one ever shows up for those committee meetings, it's not representative of the whol community, and it's not binding til the full Board votes anyway. So if the committee votes yes, it's really just like someone making a motion - then there's debate and vote. If and when the full board has a chance to debate and vote on an actual proposal, after the traffic study, I suspect that the local residents around Medgar Evers, who are well represented on the Board, will hold sway. As we all know, however, just cuz a community says no (Ratner) doesn't mean (Ratner) that a big plan (Ratner) doesn't go forward (Ratner). And in fairness, I doubt that ANY big new construction idea would meet community approval these days. People seem to be into rehabilitating old structures, but not creating new public projects. Jane Jacobs is still the den mother of today's urban cub scouts.

babs said...

Actually, the whole problem with AY is that the community didn't get to say NO. Knowing that would be the response the Rat conspired with Bloomie and Markowitz to get the project moved to the State level - it never went before any NYC body, no ULURP, no City Council vote, nothing. Total corruption, at all levels. Just an idle question - has Mike Cetera's ULURP committee ever said no to anything?