BHA panel asks: Who is planning Brooklyn’s future?
“Why aren’t we really thinking bold when we all know we have to drive less? Why aren’t we all talking about getting rid of the BQE altogether?”
This question was posed by Ginia Bellafante, a Brooklyn resident and New York Times columnist, at the Brooklyn Heights Association’s packed annual meeting on Tuesday.
Bellafante led the keynote panel discussion “Who Is Planning Brooklyn’s Future?” which featured Hunter College urban planning professor emeritus Tom Angotti, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee Michelle de la Uz and Alexander Garvin, formerly responsible for planning the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and former City Planning Commissioner.
The city’s plans for the reconstruction of the BQE was called “the most consequential development to affect this area for decades” by BHA President Martha Bakos Dietz during the meeting’s annual report.
The panelists looked at the BQE dilemma and beyond, at times disagreeing on what approach — visionary vs. practical vs. pain sharing — would overcome the city’s piecemeal planning methods.
“I’m all for it. Take it [the BQE] down!” Angotti said. “If you look at the transportation planning over the last 60, 70, 80 years, there hasn’t been any long-term vision about how you’re supposed to travel around the city.”
Even though the subway and bus systems are falling apart, “You have little boutique projects like the BQX and some ferries that don’t solve the problem,” he said. “We have to think not of the next 30 years, but of the next 100 years.”
Garvin, on the other hand, looked to the past for successful city planning.
“I would restore the City Charter of 1961,” he said. The charter “gave the role of planning for the city to the City Planning Commission, which had to draft the city’s annual capital budget and develop a five-year capital improvement plan.”
“It was removed in 1975 in the charter reform, and we need to go back to an entity really responsible for planning the entire city,” Garvin added. “Nobody’s responsible for central planning anymore.”
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De la Uz recalled speaking to former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden 25 years ago about the need for the deteriorating BQE to be replaced. “Our infrastructure challenges as a nation are so significant that we kicked the can … We haven’t made it politically feasible to have these conversations … about the horrible tradeoffs we have to make.”
While de la Uz applauded the BHA bringing together experts to try to solve the BQE dilemma, she said she wanted “to challenge us, so we’re not so reactive.”
Can’t have people driving freight on Citi Bikes
Bellafante questioned the practicality of eliminating the BQE altogether. “We can’t have people driving freight on Citi Bikes,” she said.
But Angotti urged more and bigger vision.
“We have a malady in this city called incrementalism,” Angotti said. “Little tiny steps are made, but it takes too long … What about looking for elected officials who have big ambitions to plan for the future? We don’t really plan in this city. The next generation of elected officials forgets what the last generation had in their mind.”
There used to be a capital needs statement drawn up, Garvin said. “We know how to do this.”
The city’s budget is $92 billion dollars next year, he said. “The notion that we don’t have the money is nonsense. We are spending it on the wrong things.”
Angotti noted that the City Planning Department doesn’t plan. “They do zoning.”
The panelists presented differing views on the “moral imperative” of affordable housing and what sacrifices should be required of communities in terms of density and heights.
“To have the integration we believe in, tough choices have to be made,” said de la Uz.
Garvin singled out Brooklyn Heights as a place where these choices weren’t possible.
“Nobody’s going to build anything in a historic district. That’s nonsense,” he said. Garvin said it would take $32 billion to fix conditions in public housing and added that it could be done “right now” by issuing bonds.
Angotti countered, “We have to have a source for repayment.” But he admitted he agreed with Garvin that “the state, city and federal government have abandoned public housing.”
Other ideas discussed ranged from the idea of converting homes in single-family neighborhoods to two- and three-family homes and the legalization of basement apartments to a better way of distributing consumer goods in the truck-clogged city.
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