Red Hook

New streetcar plan reignites old Red Hook controversy

April 29, 2014 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A proposal for a streetcar line linking waterfront areas in Brooklyn and Queens from Sunset Park to Astoria resembles, in part, a familiar plan by an outspoken Brooklyn rail advocate known for his tenacity.

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, in his column on April 21, praised city planner Alexander Garvin’s proposal for a “desire line.” The line would run along the waterfront from Sunset Park to Red Hook, up Columbia Street and east to the Downtown area, then north to DUMBO. Then it would swing over to the Navy Yard and proceed north across Newtown Creek all the way to the Triboro Bridge. The obvious reference is to Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The waterfront neighborhoods, says Kimmelman, are poorly served by rapid transit, “even as millennials are colonizing Astoria, working in Red Hook, then going out in Williamsburg and Bushwick.” 

Both Kimmelman and Garvin distinguish between “streetcars,” whose tracks share the street with cars, and “light rail vehicles,” which run on their own right of way (i.e., Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue trolley).

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By now, readers should recognize the similarity of the plan to one that Brooklyn’s Robert (Bob) Diamond developed in the 1990s to link transit-starved Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn. Ultimately, Diamond wanted to run his Red Hook trolley into the abandoned Long Island Rail Road tunnel under Atlantic Avenue that he discovered in the ’80s.

Diamond won permission from the City Planning Commission and funding from the Department of Transportation (DOT).  He also bought about a dozen old streetcars, and his volunteers started laying tracks and installing overhead wires in the streets of Red Hook. But in 2003, after a dispute, the DOT pulled the plug on Diamond’s funding and ripped up the tracks.

Garvin, a former NYC deputy housing commissioner and member of the City Planning Commission who now teaches urban planning at Yale, says his plan is different than Diamond’s.  

“My plan is about community development, to link these neighborhoods so people who live in Fort Greene can get a job in Greenpoint, and people who live in Greenpoint can take a ride to Brooklyn Bridge Park. It also holds out the possibility of growing the population of Astoria,” he told the Eagle.

However, Diamond said, “It’s just a takeoff on my idea.” He pointed out that Garvin actually voted for Diamond’s plan when Garvin was a City Planning commissioner in 1999. He also said that his original 1989 proposal had the line going north to DUMBO before the city scaled it down to a Red Hook-Downtown route.

Garvin originated his plan about 10 years ago.  “At the time, I was more interested in Long Island City and Astoria, but when IKEA [in Red Hook] went up, it was clear to me that Red Hook had to be included as well,” he said. Although the plan hasn’t been introduced officially, he has presented it at community meetings.

After the city pulled the plug on Diamond’s plan, the idea of a light rail or streetcar system from Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn was kept alive by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who received $300,000 in federal funds in 2005 for a feasibility study. The DOT sat on the money until then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his deputy mayor for economic development, Daniel Doctoroff, expressed interest in the idea.

The DOT conducted a study, but its final report, issued in September 2011, concluded that the high costs involved, the “relatively low expected transit rider ship increase” and the area’s narrow streets.

Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, which includes Red Hook, commented on Garvin’s new proposal: “Much of the proposal is familiar to us. There are three problems that might be insurmountable – the route, the financing, and finding an operator.” Asked why, he mentioned lack of resources and of strong leadership to push the project forward.

Rob Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, which includes Downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO, said, “Kimmelman’s plan is a visionary one, and later in the article, he deconstructs it himself by referring to the inflexibility, the cost and other factors. In light of the DOT’s study on the Red Hook-to-Downtown Brooklyn streetcar, it’s hard to see how this would get off the ground.”

For his part, Diamond remains optimistic. “Rather than argue points of plagiarism with Garvin, Doctoroff & Co., might I suggest that since everyone seems to finally be on the same page, we all get past egos and work together with Mayor de Blasio to make this project happen,” he told the Eagle in a statement.

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