PARK SLOPE — A set of safety upgrades designed to transform Fourth Avenue from a deadly speedway into a safer, more livable street finally won Community Board 6 approval on Wednesday night, after the Department of Transportation tweaked the plan in response to criticism.
At a marathon meeting with two hours of discussion and testimony from the public, Community Board 6 voted to approve DOT's traffic-calming proposal, an effort that's been in the works since 2009 and has already been launched in Sunset Park, where preliminary data show that pedestrian injuries have dropped 24 percent as a result.
Work on the upgrades, which will span from 15th Street to Atlantic Avenue, should start by about August, a DOT spokesman said.
The push to improve safety in the Park Slope section of Fourth avenue — where 53 people were either severely injured or killed between 2007 and 2011 — won vigorous support from neighborhood groups like the Park Slope Civic Council, Park Slope Neighbors, the several schools that line the avenue, and City Council members Brad Lander and Stephen Levin.
But in a surprise vote in June, Community Board 6 rejected the safety proposal, in part because some board members thought it banned too many left turns. The move prompted intense criticism of the normally low-profile board, with some online commenters blasting board members by name as "fools."
On Wednesday night DOT came back to the board with a slightly revised safety plan.
The new proposal will ban six left turns instead of eight — Degraw and Butler streets were eliminated. "We understand that maybe eight was too many," said DOT project manager Jesse Mintz-Roth. "Traffic calming" on the avenue — changing it from three lanes to two wider lanes — will start at Carroll Street instead of Union Street.
And in a response to a request from the principal of M.S. 51, two speed humps and a painted curb extension to shorten crossing distances will be added to Fifth Street.
DOT has said the safety plan is crucial to slowing rampant speeding on the avenue and making the busy street, which is heavily used by 18-wheelers, easier to cross for pedestrians, who often find themselves dodging vehicles. Mintz-Roth noted that some assume the plan is aimed only at improving pedestrian safety, but he contended that the changes will also make driving a safer, "more comfortable experience."
Public speakers at Wednesday's meeting were mostly in favor of the safety upgrades, and several mentioned the proposal's potential impacts on children at P.S. 124, P.S. 133 and the new P.S. 118, all of which are on Fourth Avenue. One man had his 12-year-old daughter stand at the front of the hearing room and describe a moment when she got stuck on the median on her way to school at M.S. 51 and was forced to wait on the narrow strip while cars whizzed past her inches away.
But the safety plan still had its detractors, especially those who live on side streets near left turn bans. They argued that traffic will be dumped onto their quiet blocks. Marjorie Rothenberg, a resident of 10th Street, said children and families on her block would be endangered by cars and trucks making left turns on her street after the turn at Ninth Street is banned. "Our concerns are not NIMBY, our concerns stem from common sense," she said.
DOT's Mintz-Roth argued that left turn bans don't force noticeable amounts of new traffic onto the street nearest the ban — usually the turns are dispersed among several alternate streets, he said.
One passionate supporter of the safety upgrades was Gene Aronowitz, a 75-year-old Sunset Park resident who said he'd experienced firsthand the results of DOT safety upgrades that have already been made on his neighborhood's stretch of Fourth Avenue.
"It's unbelievably different," said Aronowitz, who has arthritis in both knees. "I feel so calm now compared to what I felt before on that speedway…Trying to cross Fourth Avenue was unbelievably scary...I'm not a traffic engineer, I can't explain the change in technical terms, but I can explain in emotional terms and visceral terms: I'm no longer as afraid as I was before."