Berry’s Open Street Divide

Berry Street looking north from North 4th Street on 10 a.m. August 28. Photo credit: Lori Ann Doyon

Who could have conceived that Berry Street, with less hustle and more charm than Bedford Avenue, would become a hotbed of controversy?  Contention has grown between those who love and enjoy Berry Street as an open street and the residents of Berry Street who wish to #FreeBerry.

According to the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) website, the New York City (NYC) Open Streets program either limits or fully closes off vehicle access to certain streets in order to: “allow for a range of activities that promote economic development, support schools, and provide new ways for New Yorkers to enjoy cultural programming and build community.”

Photo credit: Lori Ann Doyon

Berry Open Street was first implemented in 2020 to ensure social distancing in the thick of COVID-19. At June 2022’s Community Board 1 (CB1) Transportation Meeting, DOT presented plans to make the Open Streets Program permanent and collaborate with the North Brooklyn Open Streets Community Coalition (NBK Open Streets) in redesigning Berry Street with street furniture and a bike travel corridor.

Berry Street Alliance (BSA), however, is less than happy with the DOT’s decision. BSA represents more than “fifty families, residents, businesses, houses of worship and non-profits,” stated Shannon Phipps, member of BSA and the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy. They formed in 2021 to address concerns during the pandemic that they claim have been caused by the Berry Open Street.

The BSA website states that they originally supported open streets, but that their perspectives changed as conditions appeared to worsen.

One of BSA’s main concerns is said to be environmental impacts. In their open letter on the Action Network, they claim that the influx of people brings partying, which results in excess trash and noise pollution. People have also reported problems with sanitation maintenance.

“Berry is closed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and that is in direct conflict with the sanitation schedule. One neighbor on Berry Street has even been issued citations for uncollected garbage,” said Phipps.

Other concerns the BSA’s open letter claims are: delayed emergency response times, limited access to businesses and transportation like Access-A-Ride, and the unsafe mixing of pedestrians with speeding bikes and motorized vehicles.

But this is where things get tricky: “Overall, we don’t have data, only anecdotal evidence,” Phipps said.

NYC DOT data on Berry Street’s weekday traffic taken in April 2022. Photo credit: NYC DOT

The DOT collected data from over 2,000 North Brooklyn residents where 77% of people said they visit open streets daily or several times a week. However, this survey concerned all North Brooklyn open streets, not solely Berry.

The presentation offered the statistic that 38% of respondents lived on: Berry Street, Driggs Avenue, Nassau Avenue, and Sharon Street.  This is an odd grouping of streets as Sharon Street is a very short street two miles away from the others.  If you gage by the dots on the survey map it follows that the percentage of respondents living on Berry Street likely made up less than a tenth of the responses.

At the CB1’s Transportation meeting on June 30, several residents of Berry Street shared their misgivings of the 12-hrs-a-day/7-days-a-week Berry Open Street experience. At this meeting, Phipps stated, “It’s a lot different for you to use a street and commute than it is to live here, and our voices should absolutely count, and we should weigh in and be considered more than someone who is just passing through.”

Despite some residents feeling unsafe traveling the street with bikes and motorized cycles traveling significantly over the 5-mph speed limit, that the street is closed off to automobile through traffic for twelve hours a day has had an impact. NYC DOT reported that 2020, the same year Open Streets was implemented, had the fewest number of crashes on Berry Street within the past four years prior. 

But while the presented DOT data may not be reflective of how the majority of Berry Street residents view their open street, open streets have benefits.

As our area’s first green corridor, the Berry Open Street has made more community programming and activities possible and has served as a “tool for pandemic recovery,” according to the DOT’s feedback survey.

“New Yorkers securing access to more public space, including open streets, is one of the silver linings of the pandemic,” said NYC Council Member Lincoln Restler. “Our office is working with community stakeholders, neighbors, businesses, and city agencies to ensure that the Berry Open Street is safe, well maintained, and a dynamic asset for our community.”

NYS Assembly Member Emily Gallagher described Berry Open Street as a “vibrant community space,” that has “certainly had its growing pains.”  She also called attention to how crucial it is that DOT work with local businesses. Nonetheless, she said the proposal to make the street permanent and sustainable is: “a step in the right direction, ensuring slow vehicle speeds and creating open space infrastructure that doesn’t require having to put up and take down barriers every day.”

NYC DOT seeks to address concerns by continuing their check-ins with emergency service partners, providing better barriers and signs for access clarification and creating more space for parking, loading, and deliveries.

Karen Nieves, business expansion and retention manager at Evergreen, admitted she is “all for open streets” at the June 30th meeting. Yet, she raised concerns about lack of DOT outreach to businesses on potential traffic flow changes in the new project proposal for Berry Open Street that the DOT presented. “With the street reversals how are you going to accommodate those manufacturers that are still there who need to get their trucks and their deliveries mid-block, which are having difficulties right now?” she asked.  Within the time since making this complaint, she said, “a better effort,” from the DOT is being made.

“Whether on screens or in streets, the city has spent hundreds of hours speaking to our neighbors. They have used that feedback to formalize the Open Streets process, dedicate resources to support it, partner with the Horticultural Society of New York to manage it, and distribute new signage and barriers to improve it,” said Kevin LaCherra, organizer for NBK Open Streets. “All of this alongside a year-long engagement process that will inform one of the most impactful investments our streets have seen in decades.”

Be that as it may, BSA has maintained their stance against the permanence and redesign of Berry Open Street and currently have a petition against it.

Vincent Barone, spokesperson for the DOT said: “DOT is committed to building on the success of the Berry Open Street with permanent, transformative upgrades to support pedestrians, cyclists, and others who enjoy this space. We are making enhancements to our existing proposal and will have more to share soon.”

To view the plan the DOT presented at the June 2022 CB1 Transportation Committee meeting visit: https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/berry-open-street-jun2022.pdf.

Author: Kassondra Gonzalez

Communications Associate and Contributor of the Greenline.

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