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BQE barrier, emblem of bisected waterfront, becomes beacon for Brooklyn Bridge Park traffic

Historic 'Main Street' Link To Waterfront Once Led Down To A Busy Ferry Terminal

October 10, 2013 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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It was a barrier between merchants and visitors to that great people-magnet, Brooklyn Bridge Park. A BID has turned it into a gateway to a shopping corridor that is forever hungry for customers.

It took creativity, a summer of dedication by teenage artists and a $75,000 grant from the city Department of Small Business Services to beautify the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass at the foot of Atlantic Avenue. The result: a gorgeous new mural to draw park-goers from Pier 6 up the street to shops and restaurants.

“It was basically pigeon heaven – they are cliff dwellers,”Atlantic Avenue Business Improvement District executive director Josef Szende said Tuesday, pointing to underpass rafters.

Thanks to a “mitigation substance” – a sticky, spicy substance the birds find disgusting – pedestrians can take angst-free walks past the mural, which he showed off to attendees of the International Downtown Association’s (IDA’s) World Congress and 59th Annual Meeting.

The business-development executives in the walking tour he led came from as far away as South Africa and London to check out the avenue and its new public-art piece, which incorporates imagery from the park, the history of the avenue and current storefronts.

An estimated 800 guests descended on Brooklyn neighborhoods for the conference organized by the IDA, a group of urban planners and biz-development executives who work to make cities large and small economically vibrant.

After a morning at Pratt Institute with speeches by Mayor Bloomberg and experts from far-flung cities from Singapore to Grand Rapids, many conference-goers headed outdoors – or underground – for a closer look at Brooklyn neighborhoods.

There was a Two Trees Management-led waterfront tour on the East River Ferry, a ride on the L subway line to check out the “hipster-fication” of Brooklyn and tours of Prospect Park and Barclays Center.

The executives in Szende’s walkabout toured the mile-long span of the historic avenue that his BID district encompasses, from Fourth Avenue to Furman Street, through Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights.

“We like to say Atlantic Avenue is Brooklyn’s Main Street,” he explained. “Brooklyn is too big to have a Main Street, but Atlantic Avenue is a very good candidate.”

The avenue was first a farm road that morphed into an important industrial street because there was a ferry terminal at the end of it. The downside was that the road wound up wide – so “people don’t feel like it’s a comfortable retail street,” Szende told the visitors. “It’s highway-like We’re doing things to counteract that difficult retail environment.”   

Big strides have been made in recent decades in cleanup and safety: “It’s a privilege to say crime is no longer our main problem,” he said.    

The visitors got a first-hand look at the chronic difficulties merchants have in drawing customers by stopping in at Nancy Cogen’s empty storefront. The BID vice chair recently shut down her 41-year-old batik shop at 492 Atlantic Ave., which was called The Melting Pot.

“It’s a struggle on this avenue,” Szende said. “There isn’t enough foot traffic.”

Cogen told the group that back in the bad old days, she and her neighbors got together and planted trees and worked with police.

“We don’t have people sleeping in doorways anymore,” she said.   

The point of the underpass project is to “create buzz,” Szende said – and it’s working. The mural was recently featured in the New York Times travel section.

The BID has a budget of just $240,000, one staff member and 20 volunteer board members – so the mural would not have been possible without the city grant, which was won in a Small Business Services Department competition, he said.

For his next project, Szende wants to work with neighboring BIDS to liven up the plaza at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue. By doing so, he hopes to lessen the impact of Flatbush Avenue – a formidable barrier that discourages patrons of nearby Barclays Center from shopping on his BID’s end of Atlantic Avenue.

“We’d like to see Times Plaza reinvigorated,” he said.

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