Eagle interview: Chris Ward, the man looking to revolutionize South Brooklyn
Plan Could Bring Subway Line to Red Hook, Subway Stop to Governors Island
It’s no secret that Red Hook has a lot to offer. This charming, secluded sea village in the heart of Brooklyn boasts romantic cobblestone streets scattered with dive bars, art galleries and restaurants. But what it doesn’t offer, at least for now, is a subway line.
Chris Ward, however, is attempting to revolutionize Red Hook and the South Brooklyn waterfront by bringing a subway line to the neighborhood via a tunnel under the East River.
The name? No. 9 train. The cost? $3.5 billion.
The former Port Authority official and current senior vice president of the global engineering firm AECOM believes that Red Hook’s lack of accessibility is a major factor in why the area is plagued by high levels of poverty and a lack of education.
Ward, therefore, is advocating for a subway line, which could lead to thousands of jobs for Red Hook residents while also making the area an appealing housing destination for thousands of other New Yorkers.
In an exhaustive report complete with breathtaking renderings, Ward and his firm lay out exactly how they might bring a subway line, which would be an extension of the No. 1 train line, to the area and what the benefits would be.
After the release of the study, the Brooklyn Eagle caught up with Ward and gave him an opportunity to flesh out the project entirely and address those who may doubt the plan. Following are edited excerpts from the Eagle’s conversation with Ward.
Eagle: What was your inspiration for conducting this study?
Ward: The whole genesis for the framework came from the idea that the city is facing three huge challenges. One positive is its growth, and that means 1 million people will be moving to the city, and we’ll need to create another 250,000 jobs. The Brooklyn waterfront is the largest undeveloped, underutilized part of the city.
At the same time, if you look at [the rise of] sea level and storm surge, it’s also perhaps the most vulnerable part of our city. So it leaves places in existing communities, in many cases low-income communities, at tremendous risk. So the combination of both opportunity and challenge was the catalyst.
[Another inspiration was the question of] how you end up making decisions about balance and growth, sustainability [and] resiliency and [figuring out] how [to] balance all those. We didn’t have a client, we don’t have a project there, but thought it would be a worthwhile civic discussion to put those kind of questions in front of the community. This is the beginning of a conversation.
Eagle: Can you elaborate on the three frameworks for civil discussion: environmental, transportation and housing?
Ward: The questions of gentrification and affordability and the maintenance and expansion of the city’s housing projects are all critical to the character/nature of Brooklyn.
The water and environmental question has transitioned, obviously. Now, we have a great, fresh clean drinking water system, but we have this incredible environmental challenge, and if not met, [it] calls into question the entire future of that Brooklyn waterfront.
Last, transportation has always been the economic pipeline of people getting to and from work. If you look at the poverty levels and the lack of education levels in and around Red Hook and also parts of Sunset Park, it’s not the sole explanation, but the lack of transportation is clearly a part of that crisis. One of the main proposals, then, [is] the extension of the subway — the [No.] 1 train from Lower Manhattan over into Brooklyn to give people an opportunity to get out from their neighborhood and get to where the economic engines of the city are.
Eagle: How exactly would you extend the No. 1 train?
Ward: The main challenge is getting underneath the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. You have to have the train split off from just south of Rector Street and then it would be tunnel boarded down underneath the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Our engineers have done the slope and gradient change for an MTA train, and by pulling back into Rector Street, it’s not so steep either going down or steep coming up, so it’s an appropriate sloping gradient for the [No.] 1 train.
The idea is to bring it underneath Governors Island, and just a footnote. If people were so inclined and the resources were available, you could put a deep station in Governors Island to provide really phenomenal access to that incredible asset that now is so limited by the ferry system.
Then the idea is to have a stop over in Red Hook and a final stop adjacent to the F train on Ninth [Street] there, so it’s about a $3 billion price tag. If you were to do the Governors Island station, it would probably add another half a billion dollars.
Eagle: How would it be funded?
Ward: It would be funded through a tax increment-financing proposal — again, this is the question of tradeoffs and values. With the right amount of growth, which means money and wealth, you could base it on the taxes that it would create, through funding structure that would pay for the subway.
Eagle: Would you need approval from different organizations like the MTA or the Port Authority?
Ward: Oh, huge. Obviously the state’s role is potentially enormous. One, the project would require integration and cooperation with the MTA, and that’s paramount. Second, equally paramount, is the disposition of the Red Hook container terminal that the Port Authority will be struggling with.
Eagle: Have you consulted any Red Hook residents or councilmembers?
Ward: We attempted to talk with Councilman Menchaca, who obviously, after seeing the plan, completely rejected it and somehow felt that we were not concerned about the community impacts, when candidly, that’s not true — because what we said is this is a tool, this is a framework, this is a conversation piece that everybody can comment on.
We briefed Menchaca, we briefed [U.S. Rep.] Nydia Velázquez’ office, [U.S.] Sen. Schumer’s office [and] Councilman Brad Lander, so we were out talking to elected officials before this was laid out on Sept. 13.
Eagle: How do you plan on engaging the community going forward?
Ward: We have no plan. That’s the thing I have to emphasize to the Eagle. There is only a conversation if stakeholders within Brooklyn want to engage. All we wanted to emphasize was the future of Brooklyn has already started.
If we’re not smart about it and think about it with the community now, the next 100-year flood, gentrification, further impoverishment of that community, the status of the Red Hook Housing Projects, all of those are potentially in play and in jeopardy for Brooklyn’s future. It must come from elected officials and community groups.
Eagle: Do you have any sort of timeline for any of this happening?
Ward: There are some external events that are probably going to drive this. One, missing the last hurricane was both a blessing, but potentially a bit of a curse in that as Sandy recedes, complacency in terms of sea level rise creeps in. And we cannot be complacent about the Brooklyn waterfront.
Just simply building a wall is not appropriate for how dynamic that waterfront is. A wall just separates communities from the waterfront. There is no money right now coming from anywhere for Brooklyn, so we need to get started on that sooner rather than later.
And the affordable housing crisis. If we don’t do anything, gentrification and housing crises in Sunset Park and Red Hook will happen just like they did in Cobble Hill.
Eagle: How do you think the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) will affect your project?
Ward: I think they really complement each other. It’s a north, south, east, west axis that you’re getting with the BQX. One of the things I emphasize is that if you look at the route of the BQX, you could use that route as part of a resiliency storm surge barrier and do it in a way that is appropriate and architecturally significant. You could raise and berm it up and then use that berm to push water in the right directions and keep it away from at risk housing projects or at risk communities.
Eagle: What’s the next step?
Ward: Patience. I think we have to see where the elected officials and the stakeholders want to go with this. This is a private company prompting the conversation — that’s not for us to say this is where it has to go. I worked on the Brooklyn waterfront for almost 30 years of my career, and it’s just always struck me that it is the existential question for New York: What will become Brooklyn?
It’s going to become something; will it be high-rise, co-ops and condos? Or will it be the underutilized low-income, unconnected community it is today?
Eagle: If you had to describe this entire project in one word, what would it be?
Ward: Two words: Brooklyn’s future.
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