Plan to revitalize once crime-ridden Myrtle Avenue

Fri, Nov 26, 2010

Myrtle Avenue, the center of the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project.  The project aims to make the avenue more attractive to residents and visitors. (Caitlin Kasunich/The Brooklyn Ink)

Myrtle Avenue, the center of the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project. The project aims to make the avenue more attractive to residents and visitors. (Caitlin Kasunich/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Caitlin Kasunich

When Clinton Hill resident Ellie Balk first moved to the neighborhood eight years ago, Myrtle Avenue was very different from what it is today.

“Murder Avenue,” she called it, was not a place where residents could walk around and shop, as they do now. Crime was high. Trash was a problem. There were few light posts, benches or trees in the area. People simply didn’t cross over from Clinton Hill to Myrtle Avenue, she said.

But in 1999, with crime rates dropping, the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP) was established to make the avenue more attractive to residents and visitors. Now, Myrtle Avenue is one of the main commercial spots in Brooklyn with boutiques, restaurants and close access to the Pratt Institute.

The next step in the revitalization effort is to develop a pedestrian plaza that will stretch from Grand Avenue to Emerson Place, said Sarah Farwell, program manager of MARP’s Preservation and Streetscape Initiatives. The plaza, targeted for completion in 2012, will be part of a four-block, $6 million street renovation that will stretch from Hall Street to Emerson Place.

Once it’s finished, Farwell said the plaza will likely have a performance area, space for temporary art installations for revolving art shows, bicycle parking, bus shelter and more newly planted trees.

To Balk, the plaza will put the finishing touches on Myrtle Avenue’s development and make its violent past only a dim memory.

“It’s like when you only notice your apartment’s dirty when you look at the corners, but otherwise it looks OK,” she said. “When you start cleaning up all the corners, you take care of things that maybe you wouldn’t notice unless it got out of hand. It just has a nice feel to it.”

The entire process of planning the plaza began four years ago. From May 2006 to June 2007, MARP launched the work on the plaza with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization that helps people to plan and design public spaces in their communities. A major first step was the study that identified the best place to locate the plaza on the avenue.

Once that was done, Farwell said that MARP raised $3.5 million for the project, and $2 million also came from the Federal Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality Fund. Additionally, Council Member Letitia James and Borough President Marty Markowitz both contributed city money to the project – $1 million from James and $500,000 from Markowitz.

In September 2008, the Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program also notified MARP that it would participate with the development.

With the Department of Transportation on-board, MARP held a three-month Call for Ideas from local residents who submitted design proposals and programming ideas. During the first two weeks of February this year, the results from this workshop were displayed at a week-long “pop-up exhibition and workshop space” at a vacant storefront at 352 Myrtle Avenue where residents could view the proposals and offer feedback, said Farwell.

On Oct. 13, AECOM, the plaza’s design team, held a community meeting at a local high school, which MARP attended, to outline even more specific aspects of the project. Some of these aspects included the placement of bus stops, dangerous intersections in the plaza space and other potential problems that residents brought up.

“People are definitely really excited about it,” said Farwell. “Who wouldn’t be excited about a new place to walk with your kids and play or just stop after you get your groceries and linger? It will be great for Pratt students, too, and I think business owners are excited about it.”

One such business owner is Hamdy Mahmoud, a 22-year resident of Vanderbilt Street – a side street off Myrtle Avenue – who has operated his Liberty Pizza shop for as long as he has lived in the neighborhood. His shop rests on the future plaza site at 482 Myrtle Avenue.

“I would like to plaza to be built, because it’s going to bring more feet, and it will make the neighborhood look really nice,” said Mahmoud, who attended the most recent community meeting regarding the plaza. “The neighborhood is changing for the better.”

In the upcoming months, Farwell said that MARP plans to meet with the New York City Department of Design and Construction, Department of Transportation and AECOM to review the work and move forward with the plan. The organization will also have another community workshop once they have produced work that is ready for review.

Farwell said that it is too early to tell exactly when the construction will start, but she hopes that it will be underway within a year.

“Myrtle Avenue has a really vibrant history, and right now it’s just a very dynamic neighborhood,” she said. “It’s always important to have public spaces where people can experience that and enjoy that. Even if it’s just sitting outside to have your coffee, we need to make sure that people have access to that space.”

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