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Fort Greene Open Street suddenly removed then restored, raising questions about City Hall interference

It remains a mystery who initiated the call to end one of the city’s popular Open Streets on Willoughby Avenue in the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods, but the blowback was swift.

Within hours of Department of Transportation officials removing signs, barricades, and planters, which designated the street being closed to traffic, the agency reversed course and restored everything. 

But one thing was clear: The call to release the street back to vehicular traffic came from someone in City Hall. 

On Friday morning, Mayor Eric Adams didn’t deny that a staffer attempted to make Willoughby Avenue the first Open Street to close. Instead, he emphasized that he was “mayor of the city” and said he immediately took action when he heard what happened.

“When the information came to my attention — which I was not aware of — when it came to my attention, I called the commissioner,” Adams said Friday. “I asked, ‘Is this something my Councilwoman wants?’ And once I was told no, I was very clear: ‘Put that street back.’”

The Willoughby Avenue Open Street runs for eight blocks, between Fort Greene Park and Hall Street, and is closed to through-running traffic 24 hours a day.

It’s one of hundreds of Open Streets across the city that were initiated during the pandemic. However, a recent survey by Transportation Alternatives found that about half of the official Open Streets — 126 locations, or 24 miles of streets — were actually operating as intended. As a candidate, Mayor Adams said he’d bring Open Streets to more neighborhoods.

Alia McKee, a member of the Fort Green Open Streets coalition who volunteers at the Open Streets program on Willoughby Avenue, said at 2:45 p.m. on Thursday she got a call from a representative of the Department of Transportation for an emergency Zoom call. According to McKee, the DOT representative said that all the barriers and signs for Willoughby Avenue have already been removed and that it had been, “mandated by the commissioner that the Willoughby street be decommissioned.”

McKee was told her street was the only one that had been decommissioned.

“We were really all dumbfounded,” she said. “Volunteers were completely bereft — many of us had invested nearly two years of our volunteer efforts advocating for and championing the open street.”

She also worried about safety, with no notice being posted the barricades were coming down. Further, the Willoughby Avenue Open Street has become a thoroughfare for students at P.S. 20, and crossing guards had no notice of the street being open to traffic again.

”It was a dangerous and confusing few hours,” McKee said.

On Thursday night, the Department of Transportation called the removal of the open street a “miscommunication.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office declined to say who in the mayor’s office requested the Open Street be closed, and returned to traffic.

“If someone in my office carries out an action that didn’t come from me of that magnitude, I’m going to make the decision instantly on how to reverse it,” Adams said. “If I felt it should be open I’d have made a public announcement. How the miscommunication happened doesn’t matter to me, the street is now back.”

Members of the Fort Greene Open Streets Coalition are planning to have a party on Saturday to celebrate the return of their Open Street.

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