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A stretch of Bedford Avenue will be closed to traffic during four Saturdays this summer, allowing the Northside’s funky, vibrant commercial strip that has become internationally famous in recent years to function exclusively as a pedestrian plaza.
From noon to 7 p.m. on July 19 and 26, as well as August 2 and 9, there will be no cars on Bedford Avenue from Metropolitan Avenue to North 9th Street, the heart of the “hipster” Northside.
Cross-traffic is allowed on the streets crossing Bedford Avenue, however.
The project is the brainchild of Jason Jeffries, a local business and purveyor of the community Web site Billburg.com.
“Bedford Avenue has really changed dramatically. Every weekend there are people spilling into the streets from the sidewalk. It has a festive, community feel; we thought it would be fun to open up the streets to the neighborhood,” he said.
The Department of Transportation gave final approval to the street closure last Tuesday. A day before, the city announced a similar closure on Manhattan’s Park Avenue planned for three Saturdays this summer.
Jeffries hopes these closures will compel people to re-think the city’s public space is used.
“This is re-imagining public space. It’s taking the cars away and letting the community take the streets back,” he said.
Jeffries also said the proposal will be good for businesses, many of which have banded together in support of the plan to revitalize the long-defunct Northside Merchants Association.
“This takes our street and turns it into a destination. That means more people, and more people means more sales,” he said.
Highlighting the Northside’s unique retailers will help preserve the strip’s unique character and integrity, according to Jeffries.
“We think this is a step toward preserving the character of the neighborhood. These businesses are almost 100 percent small, local, independently owned businesses. We think it’s worth preserving rather than letting it become Chases and Duane Reades like so many streets in Manhattan,” he said.
On these these four Saturdays, merchants will be allowed to set up retail on the sidewalk, while restaurants licensed to have sidewalk cafes will be allowed to expand seating to the edge of the curb.
Musicians and other street performers will occupy sidewalk space as well.
The streets will be set aside for pedestrians.
Transportation Alternatives, the cycling and pedestrian organization that has a loyal following in Williamsburg, where cycling is possible, will show its support by providing valet bike parking for the event.
“Bedford Avenue is really an exceptional street – it’s one of the great walking streets in the city. This will let us breathe and stretch our legs on Bedford Avenue,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director of Transportation Alternatives.
The City Reliquary, the museum and civic organization centered around uniquely Williamsburg kitsch, will pitch in by posting directional signs showing the way to local businesses. On these signs, the distances will be expressed in terms of pedestrian steps.
Jeffries took pains to differentiate the plan from a street-fair, the traditional event for which city streets are closed on summer weekends.
Rather than bringing in generic vendors from outside the neighborhood, Jeffries’ idea seeks to highlight the existing local businesses unique to the Northside.
“This isn’t about tents and fried dough; this is about the community viewing the space as a place to congregate and enjoy,” he said.
The proposal owes some of its inspiration to the Car-free Bedford Avenue movement, which seeks to permanently close Bedford Avenue from traffic and convert it into a green plaza replete with grass strips on the street.
The idea was proposed by freelance graphic designer Emil Choksi in 2005, and has been favorably received in urban planning circles.
(Detailed renderings of are available on Choksi’s website, www.carfreebedford.com.)
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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