Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights preservationist Pearsall: Feisty new blood fighting BQE plan for landmarked Promenade

Six-lane plan would ‘decimate’ historic Heights

November 2, 2018 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Wednesday, the Brooklyn Heights Association distributed glossy signs reading “Fix the BQE Plan” on one side and a fiery “No Highway to Hell” on the flip side. The signs began to appear on windows across the north Heights the next day.  Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Young people in Brooklyn Heights are “springing up” to defend the neighborhood against the city’s plan to knock down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and replace it with a six lane highway during reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Otis Pratt Pearsall told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Pearsall is the celebrated preservationist who led the community’s seven-year effort in the 50s and 60s to designate Brooklyn Heights as the city’s first Historic District. The district includes the beloved Promenade itself, with its protected views of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.

Pearsall compares today’s BQE struggle to the battle to preserve the Heights 60 years ago. It seemed to the neighborhood’s new, young professionals back then that the staid Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) “wasn’t doing anything to stop efforts to tear Brooklyn Heights apart.”

In 1958, a “new group of young activists” formed the Community Conservation and Improvement Council — CCIC (pronounced “Kick”) — and poured their energy into the fight to landmark the Heights, Pearsall said.

CCIC and the BHA went on to work together “and the alliance proved successful,” Pearsall said. “The Heights stands today as a monument to vision, common sense and tenacity over failed and futile city policy.” The young rebels were absorbed into a re-energized BHA after the Heights was designated a Historic District.

Fast forward to today’s battle to preserve the Promenade, and the formation, by a group of young, high-energy residents, of a group called Save the Promenade, which recently updated its name to A Better Way NYC.

“I see a parallel here. Young people are springing up to the neighborhood’s defense,” Pearsall said. The number of “very intelligent, articulate young people who have plunged into the fray gives me a great deal of heart.”

The difference is that today’s BHA is fully engaged in the fight, Pearsoll adds. He wants to make clear that he is not suggesting that todays’s BHA isn’t leading the charge, but simply that the “onrush of new blood is an invigorating influence, supplementing the major ongoing efforts of the BHA.”

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Part of Landmarked District, but Is It Protected?

 The Promenade itself is include in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, Pearsall said, but that may not be enough, he said.

“The Landmarks Commission is a mayoral body. I was on the Design Commission, and I know how the mayor can influence the outcome.”

Landmarked status “is an important factor but I can’t say it’s a silver bullet … It’s just one arrow in our quiver.”

Mayor’s Support ‘Blindsided’ the Heights

In October, before the community input process was complete, Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced abrupt support for DOT’s six-lane approach.

DOT calls this plan, which would take roughly six years, the “Innovative” approach. DOT’s “Traditional” approach, given short shrift by the agency, would fix the roadway using the typical lane-by-lane method over eight years.

The six-lane approach would bring 153,000 vehicles a day, with their pollution and noise, alongside the back doors of some of the most valuable real estate in Brooklyn.

The mayor compared the plan to “ripping off a Band-Aid.” But BHA said the mayor’s precipitous support for the plan “blindsided” them.

Would ‘Decimate’ the Historic District

In a letter to DOT and elected officials last week, Pearsall said the six-lane highway plan “would absolutely decimate the Historic District, destabilizing if not destroying its fragile 150 year old buildings, scattering many residents who have built lives and investments here, loosing on our families incessant noise, pollution and other environmental hazards, collapsing real estate values, and eviscerating its quality of life and social fabric.”

DOT warns that thousands of trucks from the BQE could be diverted onto the streets of Brooklyn if repairs on the ageing structure aren’t completed before it reaches its expiration date in 2026. The six-lane approach would shave a couple of years off the repair timeline, it says.

A number of alternative plans have been suggested, including one backed by Councilmember Stephen Levin that would reroute the highway to the west of the current BQE, over the eastern section of Brooklyn Bridge Park; another that would reroute the BQE over Atlantic Avenue to Boerum Place; a tunnel approach (long scorned as impractical and too expensive by DOT); and a temporary halt of tolls over the Verrazzano Bridge to lead traffic elsewhere.

A Better Way NYC

Hilary Jager, a former U.S. prosecutor who lives in the Heights, joined Save the Promenade / A Better Way NYC after attending a public hearing. DOT’s proposal would do “permanent harm to Brooklyn,” she told the Eagle.

 “It’s surprising how many people don’t know about the proposal and the impact it will have,” she said.

“Our approach is grassroots,” she said. In one initiative, “Chalk the Walk,” the group packaged bags of chalk and asked Promenade users to write messages about what the walkway means to them. This Sunday, they’ll be hosting a postcard-writing campaign in Pierrepont Playground from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Under the heading “Save the Brooklyn Heights Promenade,” the group’s petition on Change.org has garnered 45,000 signatures “in just a month,” Jager said. (It was up to 47,000 on Friday.) These numbers show the fate of the Promenade “is not just a Brooklyn issue, it’s a New York City issue.”

The group, which is in the process of setting up meetings with City Hall and representatives, changed its name because “it’s a much more complex issue” than just saving the Promenade, she said. It’s about “how we can create the next century’s solution to transportation issues.

“We want the city to withdraw the plan and hit the pause button. We’re trying to gather information. We want to create a space to come up with as many options as possible,” she said. Knocking down the Promenade “could destroy our community and destroy a national treasure. It’s worth it to get it right.”

In one initiative seen above, “Chalk the  In one initiative seen above, “Chalk the Walk,” Save the Promenade / A Better Way NYC packaged chalk and asked Promenade users to write messages about what the walkway means to them. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

BHA Working with Officials

BHA has already met with elected representatives to hash out possible alternatives. Members met with Senators Kavanagh and Assemblymember Simon last week, and Councilmember Levin the week before, “to apprise them of our activities, discuss alternative solutions, and explore what role the state and other agencies can and should play,” BHA said in a release.

On Wednesday, the organization distributed glossy signs saying “Fix the BQE Plan” on one side and a fiery “No Highway to Hell” on the flip side. The next day, the signs began to appear on windows across the north Heights. (They can be picked up at the Women’s Exchange at 55 Pierrepont Street).

BHA and A Better Way NYC are collaborating in several ways to fight the six-lane highway idea. Better Way joins BHA’s weekly taskforce meetings, a BHA spokesperson said. Working together, the groups submitted Freedom of Information (FOIL) Requests to DOT this past week to gain access to information that will help the groups devise alternatives to the city’s plan.

Jager says there’s a role for each organization in the fight.

“We came into existence as a sole issue organization,” she said. “BHA does great things, but they have a roster of issues to deal with.”

Pearsall says the emergence of the neighborhood’s previously less engaged professionals was a positive thing.

“It’s heartening on so many fronts to see how the established group in the Heights is collaborating successfully with the younger brethren who have come to the fore. It’s a real demonstration of a community rousing itself. People are coming out of the woodwork to establish a united front,” he said.

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Story updated 11/5/18 the emphasize Pearsoll’s comment that BHA is fully engaged in leading the efforts against DOT’s six-lane plan.

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