Funded and furious civic force to save a landmark unleashes new, powerful weapon: Kids
Group uses organized PR and passion to engage local activism in Brooklyn Heights
“I want to save the Promenade,” 6-year-old Sasha told a TV interviewer when asked why she attended a mass “draw-in” at Pierrepont Playground on Sunday.
Sasha and hundreds of other Heights kids were protesting the de Blasio administration’s plan to replace the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a six-lane highway during the upcoming reconstruction of the decrepit Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).
The draw-in was organized by a grassroots campaign called A Better Way NYC (previously known as Save the Promenade), part of a major civic engagement effort to protect what neighborhood residents hold near and dear: the beloved Promenade, with its landmarked views of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
With the institutional expertise of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) and the brio of the young professionals in A Better Way NYC, Brooklyn Heights residents are “capable of doing this in a way no one else can,” a resident of Montague Terrace, which overlooks the Promenade, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
DOT’s plan is backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who described it as “pulling the Band-Aid off” because it would be faster than the traditional lane-by-lane reconstruction process.
But some Heights residents see it as an existential threat to the landmarked neighborhood.
In a letter to the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and elected officials last week, noted preservationist Otis Pratt Pearsall said the city’s 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.”
Parents worry the six-lane highway, to be constructed literally feet from Pierrepont playground, will expose their kids to the same hazards. Roughly 153,000 vehicles a day, including thousands of trucks, use the BQE.
Another neighborhood play area, Chapin Playground, named for famous musical resident Harry Chapin, is set to be demolished during the reconstruction.
No Highway to Hell
BHA has organized a fund for the defense and is gearing up for a lawsuit, if it proves necessary. The group has met with elected representatives to hash out possible alternatives, and will be meeting with DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Last 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).
A Better Way NYC is working at the grassroots level. Hilary Jager, a former U.S. prosecutor who lives in the Heights, joined the group 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.
In one initiative, “Chalk the Walk,” the group packaged up little bags of chalk and asked Promenade users to write messages of what the walkway means to them and share it on social media. On Sunday they hosted the draw-in.
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. These numbers show the fate of the Promenade “is not just a Brooklyn issue, it’s a New York City issue.” The petition had close to 49,000 signatures on Monday.
“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,” Jager said. Knocking down the Promenade “could destroy our community and destroy a national treasure. It’s worth it to get it right.”
Pearsall: Feisty New Blood Fighting BQE Plan
Young professionals in Brooklyn Heights are “springing up” to defend the neighborhood against the city’s plan to knock down the Promenade, Pearsall told the Eagle.
Pearsall 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 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 of 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 BHA is fully engaged in the fight, Pearsoll adds. He wants to make clear that he is not suggesting that today’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.”
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 his 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.
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.
Heights Groups Working Together
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 last 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.