Starting next April, Vanderbilt Avenue from Atlantic Avenue to Park Place will be closed off to traffic for most of each weekend through October as part of the city-wide Open Streets program.
While some Prospect Heights residents are excited to roam, eat and play freely on the street again, others say they are dreading the return of a program that closes the major road to cars, buses and parking to make way for outdoor activities.
The program is popular, according to a recent petition signed by more than 3,000 people who support the Open Streets in Prospect Heights, citing environmental, health and economic benefits. Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso has also enthusiastically endorsed the program, which was launched by the New York City Department of Transportation in response to the pandemic and made permanent in 2021.
“I feel like it's given New York City a more European feel, and a more community-based feel,” said Prospect Heights resident David Larson, who wants to keep the program around. “There's so many different groups of people that are able to mix with each other when they normally would just be walking by on the street.”
Ellen Fishman, owner of Amorina Cucina Rustica on Vanderbilt, called the program a “godsend” for her restaurant, as it allowed her to expand limited seating capacity and boosted her lagging summer sales.
“It kept my business alive and made a huge, dramatic difference,” she said, adding that despite this, she shares her neighbors' concerns about noise and accessibility.
Concerns about the program
Local resident Elicia Howard admitted the program provided a crucial boon to mental health for residents during the pandemic but that it no longer makes sense on such a busy street bordered by major arteries like Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue.
“Pinching traffic here is only making everyone else's life harder in greater New York,” she said, adding that closing Vanderbilt Avenue increases congestion on nearby streets like Washington Avenue.
This congestion impacts people commuting from areas with limited public transportation in eastern Brooklyn and Queens and those who work in person, said Prospect Heights resident Paige Kendrick. Many office jobs, like hers, have moved to remote or hybrid formats and do not necessitate car ownership, she said.
“Open Streets theoretically is an amazing idea,” she said. “But we have to contend with the impact to traffic, and how that traffic impacts the quality of life. We can’t only design it for people like me; we can’t only design it for people who drive. It has to be for everyone.”
Kendrick said that instead of closing busy streets, the city should convert vacant lots into new parks instead.
Car owners within Prospect Heights have had challenges driving and parking in their own neighborhood on weekends, said Mike Jones, president of the St. John’s Place Block Association. Elderly and disabled individuals must walk several blocks to access cabs and rerouted buses, he said.
“I just feel like it should be negotiated,” said Jones. “It needs to be good for everybody.”
“There is a real sense among many of the generational, born-and-raised residents here that these programs are for the benefit of the younger, able-bodied, more wealthy, mostly white, people moving here in large numbers gentrifying Central BK,” said Lynda Balsama, founding member of the United Neighbors of Prospect and Crown Heights. She added that she thinks the program is excessive, given the neighborhood's proximity to parks.
Frank Widdi, co-owner of Foodtown on Vanderbilt, said that the program has disrupted delivery service to his store and cut off parking for customers and staff. However, he said it is not the “disaster” he had originally anticipated, given the increased foot traffic into his store it has provided.
“It's just a major inconvenience for us,” he said. “It might be good for restaurants. but it's bad for every other business.”
Many sources BK Reader spoke to said there needs to be an open dialogue between residents and other stakeholders for this program to be a success for all.
“We forget that we're a community,” Kendrick said. “We have to work together as a community if we really want this to be an enjoyable space for all of us.”
Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, the organization that runs the Vanderbilt Avenue Open Streets program, declined to comment.
Vanderbilt Avenue Open Streets will run from 5:00pm-10:00pm on Fridays, and from 12:00pm-10:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays April-October. The exact dates for the 2024 season have not been released yet.