Knickerbocker Plaza at Myrtle and Greene Avenues. The pedestrian area will expand up to the elevated subway pillar in the middle of Knickerbocker and include vendor stalls, benches, and public art. — Photo by Diego Cupolo

A bustling Bushwick intersection ruled by cars will be tamed in an initiative by the city’s streets agency to give more of it over to pedestrians. The meeting of Knickerbocker and Myrtle Avenues is a commercial and transportation node with a concrete plaza home to street vendors, milling shoppers, crawling car traffic, and commuters heading to and from the elevated M subway line.

Soon this plaza’s size will almost double when it’s renovated under the NYC Plaza Program, a PlaNYC-initiative that works with neighborhood organizations, landscape architects, and artists to redesign underutilized street space into plazas for citizens on foot. The Plaza Program cites the ideas of urban economist Jane Jacobs and notes Willoughby Plaza in DUMBO as an early success, even before its renovation was officially complete.

 
Rough outline of Knickerbocker Plaza.

Nine locations citywide, including four in Brooklyn, will get the plaza treatment this year: Knickerbocker Plaza in Bushwick, Humboldt Plaza next to the Moore Street Market in East Williamsburg, Marcy Avenue plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Myrtle Avenue plaza in Clinton Hill. The Bushwick location meets all the program’s criteria, including heavy pedestrian presence, proximity to transit and shopping, and gets higher preference for being in a low-to-moderate income neighborhood.

Knickerbocker Plaza was proposed by Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), the neighborhood’s largest nonprofit, which will be responsible for maintaining the plaza and its fixtures.

The plan will expand the pedestrian area by incorporating into the current plaza another 2,000 square feet of space taken from what is now a left-turn lane from Myrtle onto Knickerbocker. The design includes a few benches, some planters, and permanent stalls for street vendors. In accordance with the city’s Percent for Art program, one percent of the project’s budget, or $100,000, will be set aside for a public art installation. The Department of Transportation, which will be doing the renovations, is currently reviewing the proposals from local artists, and once the submissions are whittled down to four finalists, RBSCC officials will work with the DOT to pick the final designs.

The new site will be designed by landscape architecture firm Abel Bainsson Butz, which has completed many transportation and public-space projects around the city. An architect there declined to comment for this story, but sources familiar with the project noted that the design is a challenge due to the heavy use of the site. Pedestrian safety will remain paramount, as will community input; several charrettes, or public design workshops, are in the works for the upcoming year.

Support for the project has been mostly positive. The community board has been enthusiastic about the plan since it was introduced and area merchants are supportive of the stalls, which they hope will formalize and help regulate the neighborhood’s street vendors. While the vendors will be accommodated, commercial advertising will be banned.

According to Community Board Four District Manager Nadine Whitted, the plaza fits into community leaders’ long-term goal of making Bushwick intersections friendlier to pedestrians.

“One of the things they are looking to do is encourage people to walk more, and they need to add resting locations” like plazas, said Whitted, who noted intersections like the Knickerbocker one, where several streets meet, can be the most dangerous for walkers.

The current 2,500-square-foot plaza was created some time in the early ’80s by removing the part of Greene Avenue between Knickerbocker and Myrtle. Former Community Board 4 manager John Dereszewski speculates this was done either when Knickerbocker was changed to a one-way thoroughfare, or Myrtle was reconstructed, and likely for safety reasons related to a subway platform support pole’s location in the center of the roadway. Several city agencies could not give an exact date or reason, or would not return calls to verify.

The project had been “fast-tracked”  along with Humboldt Plaza, but there have been some delays in the planning process — sources noted that the MTA would have to be consulted regarding the designs, as the Knickerbocker M station’s stairway feeds directly into the plaza. Design work is expected to begin in April.

Additional research and reporting by Jeremy Sapienza