DOT deals blow to Gowanus Tunnel hopes
Chuck Otey's Pro Bono Barrister
Twenty years ago, half a million residents in west Brooklyn welcomed a proposed development as an infrastructure miracle in the making! The proposed Gowanus Tunnel was seen by man as a virtual breath of fresh air that would replace the rusty, dilapidated, pollution-spewing Gowanus Expressway with five square miles of livable, tax-producing property.
This popular innovation, backed enthusiastically by the Regional Plan Association’s Al Appleton, as well as elected officials and community leaders up and down the West Brooklyn Corridor, seems to have been stalled. Why?
Maybe it’s been killed by a thousand knives, fashioned and formed by the collective heat of contractors’ political contributions.
Proof that the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) has deep-sixed the Gowanus Tunnel is its recent announcement that DOT will spend at least $344 million “redecking” the existing, outmoded, dreary expressway — same old, same old!
In truth, the state DOT has been dragging its feet on the Gowanus Tunnel for the last two decades, ever since it became clear that leading Brooklynites wanted to raze the Gowanus, with all its dangerous particulates poisoning the air, and drill a tunnel underneath, bringing life to an area in which there is now rotting concrete and rusting metal, servicing more than 100,000 cars daily.
The drive to bury the Gowanus reached its zenith back in the late 1990s, when thousands of residents signed petitions to tear it down and replace it with a tunnel running roughly from Hamilton Avenue, then heading south along Third Avenue and hooking up with the Leif Ericson Drive to the Verrazano or the Belt Parkway.
One of the most memorable moments in the Gowanus Project movement came about 15 years ago at a Bay Ridge Community Council Public Forum that packed St. Patrick’s Auditorium and was held primarily to present the case for the tunnel.
Tony Giordano’s “Show And Tell” Proved Gowanus X-Way Must Go!
Stealing the show that night was Gowanus Tunnel Coalition member Tony Giordano (widely known nowadays as Facebook’s Sunset-Parker). When Tony stepped to the podium, he said very little at first; instead, he took out a tape recorder featuring “drive time” traffic reports from several radio stations, all noting that “The Gowanus is tied up again. A half-hour delay for inbound commuters.” Or, “Another Gowanus nightmare; traffic is tied up all the way back to the Verrazano Bridge.”
The audience was puzzled at first, but, as the steady staccato of “Horrible day on the Gowanus — angry drivers are now jamming local streets in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park” reports got Tony’s message across, there was laughter, followed by loud, continuous applause.
Other speakers had provided the necessary words to convince the assemblage of the need for the Gowanus Project, but when Tony dramatically offered some of the actual sounds of the morning motor rampage, he sent a message that no one could ignore — even the state DOT representatives sharing the Public Forum panel.
One point driven home that night was that reliable data was then available, showing that the cost of a tunnel would be substantially offset by improving public health and creating thousands of acres of tax-producing, privately owned properties.
Coalition Lost its Momentum With Death of Eileen Duggan
The galvanizing force in the long, tough tunnel campaign was late Assemblymember Eileen Duggan. The tough and charming legislator consistently and effectively charged that the state DOT’s decision to “rebuild the same ugly, rusting highway” at a cost of $2 billion was a terrible idea — a farce and “a cash cow for contractors.”
Whenever the DOT people tried to present their ill-conceived agenda — at public meetings, or coalition meetings, held in the office of then-Borough President Howard Golden — Assemblymember Duggan would correctly label their transparent presentations as “dog and pony shows.”
Following Duggan’s death, the coalition lost its organizing mojo. Its members were all high-quality performers, but she was the only person with the clout here and in Albany (where favored contractors feed steadily at the public highway fund trough) who could command attention and generate a little bureaucratic fear at the same time.
These same contractors, or their descendants, are now gleefully chortling about the $344 million in fees they’re already carving up among themselves. In effect, they’re carrying out the same agenda described by Assemblymember Duggan as “idiotic.”
Nevertheless, the coalition continued to function, performing fairly well, and received very positive press in local newspapers.
A look back: With Assemblymember Duggan lending her will and political wisdom, the coalition, in its early years, was one of the most effective forces in Brooklyn’s ongoing 50-year battle to recover from the devastation wreaked by Robert Moses.
Moses destroyed much of South Brooklyn and Sunset Park by doubling the amount of Gowanus traffic lanes to smooth the path for his equally disastrous approaches to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Coalition membership reflected the wide support it had won through petitioning, position papers, public forums and working closely with elected officials.
Regularly attending coalition meetings toward the end of the Duggan era were Buddy Scotto, Carroll Gardens Association; Jane McGroarty, Brooklyn Heights Association; Jo Anne Simon (the new assemblymember), Boerum Hill Association; Assemblymember Felix Ortiz; Ben Meskin, CATS (activists in the area now christened by real estate brokers and hipsters as Gowanus); Bob Cassara, Dyker Heights Civic Association; Howard Graubard, representing Sen. Martin Connor; Leah Kramer, representing Assemblymember James Brennan; this writer, representing the Bay Ridge Community Council; and Bob Howe, president of the Merchants of Third Avenue.
Over the years, the Gowanus Tunnel Project and its stakeholders did come out with studies and reports. Yet the rotting, decaying, dilapidated roadway stands in mockery of those who must endure it each day. It’s claimed hundreds of lives since and has continued to corrupt the lungs of those living within its shadow, especially young children. (This was proven and documented in a study by Lutheran Medical Center that showed an increased incidence of pediatric asthma in homes near the expressway.)
The original Gowanus Tunnel Coalition — composed of leaders from Bay Ridge and throughout Brooklyn — led the way in developing a very much-appreciated alternative to an original, unpopular NYDOT proposal that would raze the current elevated Gowanus at a cost of $2 billion and simply build another new, identical Gowanus Expressway in the very same spot.
Ironically, after years of study and sincere labor, the rechristened Gowanus Community Stakeholder Group recently came up with another proposal for a Gowanus Tunnel. Though it has support from many in the Gowanus corridor, this latest proposal is doomed at the outset by the above-mentioned plans by DOT to squander $344 million on “redecking” this Titanic of a roadway.
Transportation Alternatives is still pushing the Gowanus Tunnel, but most of its activity these days is focused on bike lanes, not tunnels.
Time to Deal With Damning Mayhem Wreaked By Moses
Like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Gowanus Expressway is another example of Robert Moses’ love affair with the automobile and his own image. Cars are more important than people’s neighborhoods, or health, in one case, and Moses’ fear of association with suicides in another.
The battle for the Verrazano Bridge Lifeway — spurred by the Harbor Ring Initiative and the Merchants of Third Avenue — is continuing and its leaders foresee a day on which people of all ages and interests may journey across its scenic expanse at will, instead of one day (maybe) a year.
It’s time the Gowanus Stakeholders took the hint: they must act now; working with Transportation Alternatives and other interest organizations, they must go public and gain political support to remind all of us that there is a viable and positive alternative to that rickety, incredibly costly, elevated Gowanus Expressway.
Maybe expert web communicators like Tony Giordano, Kevin Walsh, John Quaglione and Justin Brannan will take the lead in lighting a fire and striking a blow for Josephine Citizen? The ball’s in your court, guys!
Perhaps one day we will all be attending the grand opening of the Eileen Duggan Gowanus Tunnel and the dedication ceremonies for Duggan Park at 55th Street and Third Avenue.