Q&A with Alexandra Bowie, new president of Brooklyn Heights Association
BHA to focus on LICH, Library, and Brooklyn Bridge Park
Founded in 1910, the BHA has a distinguished history, particularly as a watchdog protecting the quality of life in New York’s first Landmark Community. In recent decades, that role has expanded to districts and projects adjacent to the Heights, as their effect on the Heights is often critical but perhaps not recognized by the community at large.
INBrooklyn: How would you describe the mission of the BHA today?
Alexandra Bowie: Our formal mission statement says that we engage the Brooklyn Heights community in maintaining and improving the quality of life in our neighborhood. We strive to preserve the physical fabric of the neighborhood, and to inform and help residents and businesses with, and advocate about, matters affecting the community.
So we are about community first, and all the things that make us a community: people, institutions, and buildings.
Informally, I would say that we work best when we can help New York City do the right thing. A great example is our work with the Promenade gardens. The core is a dedicated group of volunteer gardeners. We join with the Parks Department in hiring the gardener – we raise the money for and pay half of his salary. We are very happy with the way that program has grown, from the Tuesday morning volunteers who work in the garden to the introductory gardening programs our last gardener started with PS 8’s kids.
INBrooklyn: It has been said—not by the BHA, but by appreciative homeowners in the Heights—that the association serves as a protector of the quality of life in a community where the collective real estate portfolio is immeasurable. If that’s true, should not every homeowner, every co-op or condo owner, feel compelled to join and support the BHA?
AB: We think everyone should be a member of the BHA, regardless of the value of their real estate! The more members we have, the better we represent the community. Part of our effectiveness comes from elected officials knowing that we have the membership behind us, so the more members we have, the more clout we can wield.
INBrooklyn: What are some of the more active committees, particularly opportunities where new members might get involved with areas of their primary concerns (i.e. traffic, trees, landmarks)?
AB: We do our work through our committees. Our most active committees are Traffic, Landmarks, and Parks. We welcome BHA members who want to get involved and invite them to join our committees – or propose others. (And, as I said above, we encourage people to join – you can join through our website, thebha.org.) It’s often committee membership that leads to membership on our board, which is our policy-making body.
The issues we work on, traffic, trees, tour buses, rats, parks and quality of life affect everyone who lives in our neighborhood, whether they rent or own. We have an immeasurably valuable resource in our Executive Director, Judy Stanton, who fields questions from neighborhood residents every day, and doesn’t ask whether the caller is a member (though she will ask you to join if you let her know you’re not.)
INBrooklyn: Can you tell us how you came to live in the Heights, and what you find most attractive about it? What is least attractive?…Traffic?
AB: My husband was living in Brooklyn Heights when we met, and I moved here when we were engaged. I love this neighborhood – it’s beautiful, green, leafy and quiet – and virtually the entire city is accessible by public transportation. I love that people will pick up a kid’s dropped mitten or hat or shoe and hang it on a fence, and how often I bump into friends and neighbors when I’m out.
The one thing I don’t like is cars and trucks speeding through the neighborhood. I hope we pursue making Brooklyn Heights a Slow Zone, which would mean 20 mph speeds and speed bumps, as well as signage. And we need more traffic enforcement, so I would like to see the speed cameras bill move forward.
INBrooklyn: What are the items that cost BHA money to serve the community? (Maintenance of office, staff, etc)
AB: We have a very dedicated office staff of two, who have to be paid, and we have office expenses. It costs money to plant trees, around $1,500 per tree, and to take care of them. So we raise money all the time, like every other non-profit.
INBrooklyn: Historically, it seems that the BHA has enjoyed a very high level of volunteer professional members, particularly in the legal community. What today are some professional services that, offered by resident volunteers, could be most helpful?
AB: We have many kinds of professional backgrounds represented on our board, including architects, like our last two presidents, finance, advertising, and lawyers. But you can’t easily pigeonhole people: I have a law degree and worked for NYC government for 10 years before working for the next 20 or so in not-for-profits. I would like to see more schoolteachers and librarians on our board. But the most important qualifications are openness to what we do and a readiness to do the work.
INBrooklyn: How will you leave your mark on the BHA?
AB: I would like to see our communications improve. And our membership needs to grow. We were tremendously successful during our centennial year three years ago, and I’d like to apply the lessons we learned then about what sorts of programs appeal to the neighborhood and use them.
INBrooklyn: I see you have a blog, and BHA is on Twitter now (we are “following” them). Does BHA have a new social media program? Are younger people getting involved with BHA? How is BHA reaching out to new potential members?
AB: My blog is for my consulting business, and I also contribute book reviews to the Brooklyn Bugle. Yes, the BHA has a new social media committee, which board members Jen Donaker and Kerith Aronow are running. We would like to see younger people involved with the BHA – though I also understand (and remember) that it’s hard to feel connected when you are a tenant, when you’re young and establishing yourself in a career, and when you have young children. So I’m open to suggestions about how to reach more people.
INBrooklyn: BHA is sometimes mocked on certain blogs as being “stuffy” or catering to entrenched interests. Are you attempting to counter this (mis)perception?
AB: I didn’t live here then, but I have heard stories about how 30 or 40 years ago the BHA Board got out heavy brooms and swept Montague Street. That doesn’t sound stuffy to me. I think it’s an impression that some people have because our biggest event is the House Tour. How do you counter that? It’s similar to the library issue – I heard at a meeting that I attended in the library that the “BHA members don’t know their way to the library.” I’m a heavy user of the library – it’s embarrassing to admit but I’ve memorized my bar code – and have been ever since my kids were very young. BHA members live in the neighborhood, we use the services of the neighborhood, and we respond to things our members tell us.
INBrooklyn: As far as BHA is concerned, what are the major issues facing Heights residents today?
AB: As I’ve discussed in my various answers, the main issues we are working on now are LICH, the library, the completion of Brooklyn Bridge Park, trees and traffic.
INBrooklyn: BHA shocked a lot of people when it did not oppose the sale of the Heights branch library. Is it rolling over, or just facing the inevitable? 2. How does BHA feel about the impact of hundreds (or thousands) of new residents in the neighborhood as a result of the new building? For example, the need for a new school or its impact on traffic?
AB: Actually, we didn’t say that we were not opposing the sale. What we said was that we are not opposing the redevelopment plan at this time, so long as three conditions are met. I’ll get to those conditions in a minute, but I think it’s important to distinguish between the branch and the building. BPL is proposing to sell the building, but to retain the branch. We feel that we have a useful role to play – in getting the City and the Library to do the right thing as it builds a new branch – by participating as members of the Community Advisory Committee. What is the right thing in this case? We think there are three right things: 1) ensure that the money from the sale of the building goes to the BPL; 2) ensure that there is continuity of service from now until the opening of the replacement branch in a new building; and 3) ensure that the replacement branch is of adequate size.
We have been concerned about schools and traffic for many years. We were instrumental in helping PS 8 with its turnaround and the development of its new middle school. And as you’ll see below, we are very interested in traffic calming and are hoping that there is community support for making Brooklyn Heights a Slow Zone.
INBrooklyn: While we hear from the nurses and staff at LICH rallies and in Albany, the voice of BHA is not very public. (We know BHA has urged members to write letters). 1. What’s BHA doing regarding LICH? 2. Has BHA looked into doing a study of the health needs of the area and how they’d be met without a hospital?
AB: Our voice has been very public. Take a look at our letter to Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Shah, written by our dedicated board members Susan Shepard, Jane McGroarty, and Meredith Hamilton, in which we asked for a thorough review of the health policy (including community) impact of closing the hospital. There’s a link to it on our website. We sent this letter to Governor Cuomo, Health Commissioner Shah, the media, and local elected officials as well as to our members. We have been advised by the LICH Concerned Physicians, New York State Nurse’s Association, and Union 1199-United Health Care Workers that getting the attention of Governor Cuomo is critical. Accordingly, we have asked BHA members and others in the LICH community to send letters to Governor Cuomo and Dr. Shah.
Our letter was intended to be balanced and factual, and we researched it carefully. There have been rumors and inaccurate statements made in the course of the public discussion, and we believe that it is important that these critical issues be debated factually and on the merits.
We are closely monitoring events. BHA board members attend all meetings regarding the closure, including recent meetings with DOH in Albany and one convened by Borough President Markowitz.
In terms of commissioning a study of the health needs of the community, the issues are complicated, and it is the role of the NYS Department of Health to understand and manage health care and to determine whether the closing of a hospital is appropriate. Both the LICH Concerned Physicians and the New York State Nurses Association have data on the health needs of the community and the impact of closing LICH, and are using that data to bolster their cases against closing.
INBrooklyn: Is BHA involved in decision process surrounding the BQE rehabilitation (still scheduled for 2015?)
AB: According to Patrick Killackey, chair of our Traffic Committee, the BQE capital project is no longer in the active capital program for NYS DOT. The planning and design effort, which did include BHA as a community stakeholder along with many other parties, has been suspended with no restart date set. The project is still on State DOT’s list of needs, but funding is simply not in place for the foreseeable future. Our focus now is:
(1) to stay on top of vibration and quality of life issues affected by the deteriorated road condition; we are in the process of preparing a letter to City DOT asking that they carry out the necessary maintenance work–resurfacing and joint repair work–to reduce vibrations. Note that City DOT is the responsible party for maintaining the road until there is a capital investment project, after which it will become a State asset to maintain.
(2) To the best of our ability, assess and advocate for the need to invest in this structure that is critical to the shape and functioning of our community. This would include necessary maintenance work as described above, but also reinstatement of the capital project at the earliest possible date to ensure that the structure’s condition does not directly affect the community through its shortcomings. For example, we do not want unplanned shutdowns or losses in capacity to lead to an increase in neighborhood thru-traffic.
INBrooklyn: The Martha Atwater tragedy highlights problems with traffic flow through the Heights at certain intersections. Is BHA involved with this issue?
AB: On traffic safety, the BHA is beginning a community outreach effort on Slow Zones and other traffic calming efforts to increase the safety of pedestrians in the neighborhood. We are also supporting the efforts of Transportation Alternatives to bring speed cameras to the City (Atlantic Ave would a likely location for them) and Transportation Alternative’s already successful effort to increase Police resources for accident investigations.
INBrooklyn: At one point BHA wanted to ensure a mix of businesses on Montague Street that better served the community. How does BHA feel about Montague Street today? What does the neighborhood need?
AB: We would like to see a robust mix of businesses that serve residents’ needs.