The man behind the plan: An interview with Marc Wouters, designer of BQE ‘parallel highway’ plan
An alternative to running highway over the promenade
No recent issue has gripped Brooklyn Heights more than the upcoming reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The city’s favored plan would temporarily replace the beloved Heights Promenade with a temporary six-lane bypass. This would bring the truck-clogged interstate, with its noise and pollution, to neighborhood street level for six to eight years.
The Brooklyn Heights Association has come up with an alternate proposal that would spare the Promenade. Dubbed the “Parallel Highway,” the plan was designed by Heights-based Marc Wouters Studios. It would move traffic to a temporary two-level structure west of the existing triple cantilever underpinning the Promenade, rather than atop the popular walkway.
NYC Department of Transportation is examining the plan and says it is one of several alternatives under consideration.
Marc Wouters, an award-winning architect, urban planner and Brooklyn Heights resident, spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday about the project.
The BQE as an Urban Planning Conundrum
Wouters, an architect by training, has been an urban planner for years, with a focus on issues of resilience. He worked in Coney Island on post-Superstorm Sandy flooding problems and spent time last year in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, where he continues to be involved.
Wouters confronted the BQE problem more than a year ago, when he started looking into ways to make better pedestrian connections across the interstate to the Promenade, Atlantic Avenue, Old Fulton Street or Brooklyn Bridge Park.
“In most cities that I’ve worked in, there is a major highway that serves as an important truck route that also divides neighborhoods,” Wouters said. “And one of the toughest problems in transportation to solve is how to connect the neighborhoods on both sides of the highway, but yet maintain those transportation needs.”
After the city announced its plan to replace the Promenade with the bypass, BHA began working with Wouters and other experts to develop a better solution.
While he’s worked with other communities on similar challenges, this is the first time he’s had to face such a tough one in his own neighborhood, Wouters said.
“I immediately just switched into work mode. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is the problem, similar to what other communities faced, and these are the steps.’”
Wouters has worked pro bono much of the time spent on the project.
The only way “you’re going to get a really good plan” is by working with the community to hear what they have to say, Wouters said. “Brooklyn Heights Association has been really great to work with. So that’s who I’ve done most of my partnership with.”
What makes this BQE design better than DOT’s?
Wouters outlined the advantages the Parallel Highway offers over DOT’s Promenade plan.
“We have two incredible public spaces — the Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park — all visited by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world each year. And there’s playgrounds here also,” Wouters said.
“There happens to be a sliver of land next to the BQE that very few people visit. And so we thought, let’s put the temporary bypass there, instead of putting it where one of the most popular places is located.”
“We think it offers certainly the obvious advantages that all of the parks here stay open,” he said. “Our drawings show the bypass could fit in this area with very little interruption to [Brooklyn Bridge Park].”
In addition, Wouters said, “There are many small businesses who depend on the Promenade for patronage. They’ll be able to stay in business.”
“What was also important for us was to come up with a plan that worked for all the communities along this stretch, from Cobble Hill all the way up to DUMBO,” he said. “We can’t create traffic backups in one community just to make it better for another community.
“So we looked at technical feasibility along the entire stretch,” he said. “We looked at construction strategies, and we presented construction strategies to the DOT. And we think some of those offer advantages for the DOT that would make their life easier … Our plan, we think, offers easier access to rebuilding the triple cantilever because there’s not a six-lane highway on top of it.”
The bypass is designed to allow the BQE to remain operational throughout the construction period. “You could use areas under our bypass as staging areas. Also portions of it could be used for parking for Brooklyn Bridge Park,” he said.
“And another advantage is you don’t have six lanes within several feet of people’s bedrooms.”
While there are BQE lane closures associated with all the proposals, Wouter said he has “tried to come up with a plan that brings the lane closures down,” he said. “And then we’re also hoping to use innovative traffic management techniques so that maybe the lane closures happen on nights and on weekends, so it doesn’t impact rush hour as much.”
The city-owned Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which operates and oversees the park, told the Brooklyn Heights Press on Wednesday, “We will be working very closely with the city on any aspects of this plan that will impact the Park.” In the meantime, work on a new parking lot at the eastern edge of the park continues.
“Our goal has been to work in partnership with DOT and have as much dialog as possible,” Wouters said. “We don’t have the financial resources to do the hundred thousand dollar studies that DOT can do.”
Wouters doesn’t know how much the project will cost — and doesn’t have the level of insight into traffic patterns and other information DOT is able to leverage.
Wouters says he hasn’t head from DOT for months. “We have heard, with meetings that they had in the neighborhoods, that our plan is one of the options that’s being considered. And we don’t know the status of the review.”
He remains hopeful, however, that DOT will give it a full and fair examination, and is heartened by the agency’s statements that it is not only considering the BHA’s plan but others, as well.
“What I’ve always heard is [DOT] Commissioner [Polly] Trottenberg is a good commissioner who cares about neighborhoods. Programs like Vision Zero are very innovative,” he said. “And so I’m very hopeful that, with the announcement that they’re not only looking at our plan, I’m still optimistic that a better outcome will occur.
He added, “If DOT comes up with a great idea, I will champion the great idea, no matter who the author is.”
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