Brooklyn Heights

No matter how DOT repairs BQE, Brooklyn Heights Promenade will be out of commission for a long time

December 12, 2018 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As DOT considers options for a massive $3.4 billion reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Brooklyn Heights residents are facing issues including years of pollution from traffic and construction and the temporary loss of the beloved Promenade. The Promenade is an integral part of the BQE’s unusual triple cantilever structure. Below, the northbound lane of the BQE can be seen below the Promenade walkway. Eagle photo by Todd Maisel

Pollution will be a major problem

“People are freaking out, and I don’t blame them,” state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday.

As residents of Brooklyn Heights vacillate between outrage and panic, the city’s DOT has begun to analyze the feasibility of a plan put forth by community groups that might save the landmarked Promenade from being temporarily turned into a six-lane highway.

No matter which plan the city eventually goes with, however, DOT says the Promenade is going to be out of commission for years, since the walkway is the inseparable top level of the BQE’s triple layer structure.

DOT engineers have proposed routing a temporary BQE over the iconic Promenade while the triple-cantilever beneath is rebuilt. The idea, called the “innovative” plan by DOT, has shocked residents and businesses as it would bring the noise and pollution of 153,000 cars and trucks up to the level of neighborhood yards and streets.

The Brooklyn Heights Association and local officials met with DOT on Nov. 18 to present their alternate proposal, which would route a temporary BQE over the eastern edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park, far below the residential neighborhood.

Because of the specialized software the BHA’s architect used to create the plan, DOT received a universally readable copy of it just last week. A DOT spokesperson told the Eagle that it was currently evaluating the “feasibility of different plans, including the alternative plan suggested by the BHA.”


DOT: Promenade Can’t Just Be Propped Up

Some residents are holding out hope that the Promenade could emerge unscathed from the massive reconstruction.

DOT said, however, that the walkway is integral to the BQE’s overall structure and it would likely have to be at least partially taken down.

“The Promenade forms the top deck of the section of the BQE known as the ‘triple cantilever’ (between Orange and Remsen streets), which has unusual engineering characteristics — it is a ‘one of a kind’ structure,” the DOT spokesperson told the Eagle this week.

“The three cantilevered decks are supported by a vertical wall that also serves to hold back the earth behind it. A complex system of forces holds up the cantilevered decks and soil, and moving one of its parts affects the others. Thus, the BQE cannot be fixed without affecting the Promenade,” the spokesperson said.

No matter which BQE reconstruction plan the city eventually goes with, DOT says the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is going to be out of commission for years. The landmarked walkway is the inseparable top level of the BQE’s triple cantilevered structure, as can be seen in this DOT diagram. Diagram courtesy of DOT
No matter which BQE reconstruction plan the city eventually goes with, DOT says the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is going to be out of commission for years. The landmarked walkway is the inseparable top level of the BQE’s triple cantilevered structure, as can be seen in this DOT diagram. Diagram courtesy of DOT


“If the Promenade falls down, it’s not going to be a landmark,” Assemblymember Simon told the Eagle. “You can’t just brace it up, and people recognize that.” However, she said, people want the Promenade to be out of commission “for as short amount of time as possible.”

The mayor revealed his backing for the “innovative” plan in October, enraging local residents and businesses who say he blindsided them and “short-circuited the community engagement process.” Soon after, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would be willing to consider alternatives — as did DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

“We are continuing to evaluate a variety of ways of addressing the structural deterioration of the entire BQE, including the Promenade. It is important to remember some of the same deterioration issues that exist at the roadway levels also exist at the promenade level and NYCDOT’s intent is to address all of them in the most prudent way possible,” DOT told the Eagle.


Air Pollution Already a Problem

Assemblymember Simon says air pollution from the BQE is already a problem, and vehicle emissions would be even more of an issue “if the roadway is closer to people’s backyards.”

But she pointed out that construction also causes air pollution. If the job were to proceed on a traditional lane-by-lane basis, another option DOT has considered, construction — and pollution — could last up to two years longer.

“If you don’t have the temporary roadway and they do it lane-by-lane, you will have construction and air pollution like crazy,” Simon said. “The temporary roadway will keep down the construction schmutz, which is higher in particulate matter. If I understand it correctly, particulate matter is more damaging than vehicle emissions.”

Simon cited a 2012 study conducted by researchers at Lutheran Medical Center and SUNY Downstate Medical Center that found that living near a heavily congested highway correlates with a higher presence of asthma.

The study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, reported higher rates of asthma among those living closer to the BQE (aka I-278), near a portion known as the Gowanus Expressway. Those living in the same community but farther from the Interstate had lower levels of hospital admissions.


‘Prepare EIS Ammo’

Until now, the Promenade has partially shielded neighborhood residents from this pollution, said Laurie Garrett, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and Pulitzer Prize-winning author on global public health.

“The Promenade overhang has, for decades, buffered both BQE noise pollution and actual CO, CH4, CO2, ozone, PM 2.5, lead, mercury and other pollutants, holding most of the horror beneath. Moving all traffic up to Promenade level will bring that noise [and] air pollution up to ear, nose, mouth level for local Brooklynites,” she commented in response to an article in New York Magazine by architecture critic Justin Davidson.

In a letter to Brooklyn Heights neighbors, Garrett urged residents to prepare “EIS ammo,” referring to the required Environmental Impact Study.

“The situation is getting worse, rapidly. City officials are portraying opposition to the BQE ‘repair’ scheme as the selfish actions of rich Brooklyn Heights NIMBYs,” she wrote. “It is clear that officials are moving rapidly on each step of the process, and anybody that thinks this problem is going to ‘go away’ is sadly self-deceiving.”

She added, “A city EIS process will likely commence in early 2019, and the window for response will be quite small.”


Simon Feels DOT Being Open

Simon, however, says she feels DOT is being open in their approach. The $3.4 billion BQE reconstruction is one of the most massive engineering feats the city has attempted since Robert Moses built the highway and its triple cantilever section in the late 1940s.

“Who would want to do this? It’s a horror,” she said. “I believe DOT is looking very seriously at any valid proposal. They have a very difficult job on their hands and ultimately there will be a lot of unhappiness to go around.”


Prize Jewel of Brooklyn Heights

The Promenade is considered the jewel of Brooklyn Heights, attracting thousands of visitors. The structure, designed by landscape architect Michael Rapuano along with his partner Gilmore Clarke, is part of the neighborhood’s historic district and its landmarked views of the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge have received special designation.

In his New York Magazine article, Davidson wrote, “Charles Birnbaum, the head of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, makes a persuasive case that the Promenade was Rapuano’s translation of Rome’s Pincio into Brooklynese.”

Commentator Sam Howe, on his blog Howe’s Brooklyn, said, “That cherished esplanade, popularly known as the Promenade, is one of the most glorious vantage points in the city. And it is in danger of being destroyed.”

He paraphrased Churchill in a passionate defense of the structure: “We shall fight in the meeting halls; we shall fight in the courtrooms; we shall fight with our checkbooks…we shall never surrender.”