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July 7, 2008

The Corner of 4th Ave and 9th Street
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:31 AM * 16 comments

Promoted from Sidelights:

Call for Entries:
Your bright ideas are needed to redesign the intersection of 9th Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn

“Designing the 21st Century Street” is an open design competition sponsored by Transportation Alternatives. We are looking for new conceptual and physical approaches to the planning of public streets by asking participants to redesign the intersection of 9th Street and 4th Avenue. The street will be re-imagined as a healthy, safe, and sustainable 21st Century street.

The top four photos on this page show more views of the intersection: A Walk Down 9th Street

Here’s the intersection at Google Maps.

The tall building slightly to left of center in the photo on the design-contest page is the Willie (the Williamsburg Savings Bank building).

Yet more photos from (at or near) that intersection.

I find this interesting in light of my recent post about cholera; the book I read went into great flights about the design of cities past and future.

Comments on The Corner of 4th Ave and 9th Street:
#1 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:05 AM:

I've been at that intersection a million times. Well, maybe 672,192 times. Of all the intersections in this city, that would not have been at the top of my list for a 21st Century Redesign. I like the clunky elevated F/G train track thing, but then I am something of an Iron Man. I will be curious to see what people come up with, but I wonder why they picked that particular intersection.

Hmm... maybe I should click-thru to the link, duh. Maybe there's something said about the choice there... [click] [click back]...

Not really. Well, anyway. As somebody who works right next to the Brand New (recently scaled back) Transportation Hub downtown, I think the residents of that block should be careful what they ask for (assuming they asked for this at all).

#2 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:08 AM:

Huh. Not the shiniest of intersections, kinda dominated by the subway station. The two buildings on the west side of the corner are standard brick houses, the two on the east side are more interesting - the church and that brown building.

My #1 improvement - restore the windows on the subway station. Open them up to light and maybe air - it will benefit both the people on the platform, and the passers-by on the street.

#2 - repaint the church in its old color scheme, the way it was 15 years ago, or even go down to the brick and repoint it properly. It's a brick Gothic church with stone accents, it should be painted that way - red brick, white accents. Painting the brick white doesn't hide it from view, or magically turn it into limestone. It just looks like something pretending to be what it's not.

Also, I hope C-town remains a supermarket - my brother does most of his shopping there, particularly since Dagostino closed (he's on 6th St. between 8th Ave and the park, just across from the RC church).

#3 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:40 AM:

I'd need to find out who lives, walks, and drives there. Where are they going? What are they doing at that intersection? How does it fit into their day?

I'd need to go there. There's only so much I can tell from pictures.

#4 ::: JDC ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:52 AM:

The best thing about the bank is how it's really Brooklyn flipping the bird to Manhattan. Hard to do skyscrapers without Manhattan schist.

#5 ::: Sarah S ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 12:00 PM:

What's wrong with the intersection? Does it function badly?

Stuff like this makes me nervously run to get my Jane Jacobs off the shelf...

#6 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 12:22 PM:

The street will be re-imagined as a healthy, safe, and sustainable 21st Century street.

Clarification needed: Is ceding the territory to a Scandinavian country allowed by the rules?

#7 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 12:57 PM:

OK, so we clean up the subway station and unpaint the windows, maybe add a pedestrian bridge, maybe not. Maybe you could put some non-volunteer plants on the platform roofs. Sustainable would mean getting rid of all those, uh, whatdoyoucallthem, horseless carriages parked and driving everywhere, but that sure isn't going to happen by redesigning one intersection.

Oh, and insulate the damn buildings so they don't pour waste heat into the sky and streetscape, but that wouldn't be terribly design-ey either, would it?

#8 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 01:26 PM:

paul @7, I dunno, I think that'd be pretty good design. Function matters.

Sarah S @5, thank you for mentioning Jane Jacobs. I will now be checking out her books from the university library.

#9 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:26 PM:

What's wrong with the intersection? Does it function badly?

Dunno, since I don't live there. And probably, since most intersections function badly. Is it bad *enough* that it needs help? Dunno, see previous. TA does tend to be fairly sane, so if you live near the intersection, it might be a good idea to check it out on foot or on a bike.

Just from the photos, there are a couple clues that it works badly. One street is clearly 4 lanes, with on street parking. 4 lane streets are rarely *good* when you're on foot. And when you're on foot, on street parking almost always blocks your line of sight. Since right turn on red is legal by default in the US, it's likely to be a problem on this intersection.

I'm not sure if it's a 4 lane crossing a 4 lane or a 2 lane/4 lane intersection from the photos. The latter tends to function slightly better if there's a stoplight. The former tends to be rather bad when there's on street parking, and it gets worse if one of the streets has a practical speed limit of 40mph or more. Either option is just dreadful if there's just a stop sign. (speaking from the pov of a biker and pedestrian)

As a general rule, if an intersection allows right turn on red, it's horrifically unfriendly to pedestrians. And it hits those with mobility issues (wheelchairs, walkers) or height issues (children) the hardest. (right turn on red isn't much fun on a bike either) Even if you have a clear line of sight, drivers will edge as close as they think they can to squishing you. I've had drivers try to drive into me.

If there are pedestrian lights, check the timing. Often, they're timed so an able bodied adult who walks a lot can just barely cross in the time allowed. This is flat out stupid if the intersection is meant to serve anyone under the age of ten, over 70, who has an injury or has long term mobility issues. Since that covers rather a lot of people... it's not good design.

Often very small changes can make a huge improvement in an intersection's function.

#10 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:52 PM:

Emily (9): NYC does not allow right-on-red. Otherwise, your comments are spot-on.

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:53 PM:

The ambulance is probably headed to New York Methodist Hospital, three blocks up toward Prospect Park.

#12 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 03:30 PM:

On a more serious note, I've been really intrigued by the shared space approach to traffic management. From the Wikipedia overview:

Safety, congestion, economic vitality and community severance can be effectively tackled in streets and other public spaces if they are designed and managed to allow traffic to be fully integrated with other human activity, not separated from it. A major characteristic of a street designed to this philosophy is the absence of traditional road markings, signs, traffic signals and the distinction between "road" and "pavement". User behaviour becomes influenced and controlled by natural human interactions rather than by artificial regulation.

This idea really resonates with me as an architect of online systems where successful sites provide infrastructure and broad guidelines, but do not try to micro-regulate interactions.

#13 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 04:32 PM:

You're not going to eliminate the cars: 4th Avenue is one of the major north-south arteries, with subway underneath, dating all the way back to the Indians probably, and certainly to the oldest Colonial times. Look at old maps of Brooklyn: the roads that are always present became today's Flatbush Avenue, Fulton Street, Fourth Avenue, Kings Highway, and perhaps Bedford Avenue.

9th Street is one of the few bridges over the Gowanus Canal, the others being 3rd Street, Carroll and Union Streets, and thus the major route to the big-box stores coming up in Red Hook: Fairway, and now Ikea. Huh. I suppose those stores have made the intersection even more crowded than it was 15 years ago, when I used to go there pretty regularly to get the train (we lived at 360 Fourth St, just below 6th Ave, when we were first married).

It's not a terrible intersection, design-wise: 4th Av has left-turning lanes, because of the island in the middle which provides air-grates for the subway beneath, and the lights are generally long enough for at least a normally-abled person to get across.

7th Av and 32nd St in Manhattan does not allow an able person to get across. If you don't start crossing while the other direction is still green, you have no hope of getting across - the full cycle is 90 seconds:

60 sec. N/S green
3 sec. N/S yellow
3 sec. N/S red
10 sec. E/W white
10 sec. E/W blink-red
3 sec. E/W red

And the street is about 65' wide, curb to curb, so it takes some 26 normal steps to cross, or 13 sec. at a decent clip. There's not a lot of room for error, or a late start across. If you start at the beginning of white, you're already into blink-red by the time you get across.

#14 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 10:11 PM:

Jon -- that doesn't sound bad; blink-red is translated (at least around Boston) as "If you're not already crossing, don't start" rather than "You're about to be run over"; 13 seconds to cross lines up nicely with 13 seconds from the start of blink-red to the traffic green.

#15 ::: Jackmormon ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 07:29 PM:

There are a couple of different subway lines at this intersection. The elevated train is the F, and the M and R are underground. The people going to the M and R are able to enter on the north side of 4th ave; although there's a tunnel connection inside, a lot of people seem to take the transfer by walking across the street. A good design for this intersection will find a way to integrate this subway traffic.

One recent annoyance: people riding their bikes on the sidewalk down 4th during crowded rush hours. There evidently needs to be a bike lane, and with decent protections.

#16 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 08:12 PM:

I paced off the street, it was 34 steps across, or 85 feet. That's 7th Ave in front of Penn Station, which at rush hour gets huge crowds coming and going into the station. At 2 steps per sec. that's 17 sec.

#15: walking across the street, now that we have transfers via the MetroCard monthlies and weeklies, makes more sense because it gives a break in the middle of the 5-6 storey climb from the 4th Ave line to the F train.

To make it a more sensible connection, there should be elevators. That would involve digging more underground passageways south of the station to reach a point where an elevator could rise to platform level on the F train. Because of the low clearance under the bridge, though, there's no room to build a real concourse level under the station, so there would have to be four elevators: northbound to eastbound, northbound to westbound, southbound to eastbound, southbound to westbound. Which is a big expense, and big maintenance issue, so the IND planners may have just decided not to bother.

There's also a 5-6 storey climb from the Q train to the street at Atlantic Avenue, but there are elevators for each segment, and there are flat walks between the three segments (Q train to lower cross-passage, cross-passage to IRT/LIRR level, LIRR to street)

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