Brooklyn Heights

Peter Bray to leave post as BHA executive director

March 28, 2019 Raanan Geberer
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Peter Bray, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association since 2015, has announced he’s stepping down at the end of June because of a serious health issue in his family, and the BHA has begun a search for a new director.

From the moment he came on board, Bray recalled, he was confronted by big issues in the community.

Perhaps the most visible has been the drive for an alternative with less negative impact to the community to replace the city’s plan for a temporary six-lane highway on top of the Promenade to facilitate reconstruction of the BQE’s Triple Cantilever section.

Although the DOT held a number of informational meetings earlier in 2018 that made it clear that the reconstruction of the BQE would result in disruptions to the community, the presentation of the six-lane highway plan in September “raised the project from a major concern to an existential threat that has fully mobilized the resources of the BHA and others in the community,” Bray said.

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In January, the BHA came up with its own plan, known as the “Parallel Highway” designed by Mark Wouters. This plan would move traffic to a temporary two-lane structure west of the existing Triple Cantilever rather than atop the popular landmarked walkway.

Since then, other plans have appeared. These have included Roy Sloane’s tunnel plan, which would redirect BQE traffic into a Cross Downtown Brooklyn Tunnel; city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s truck-only plan, which would eliminate cars, run trucks at the bottom level of the cantilever and turn the rest into a linear park; and Mark Baker’s plan that would redirect a six-lane BQE onto an enlarged and enclosed Furman Street and turn the Triple Cantilever into a Tri-Line park.

In support of these efforts, Bray said, “The BHA welcomes creative ideas from the community that can contribute to broadening the alternatives DOT will consider as part of its upcoming environmental assessment of the BQE reconstruction project.”

The BQE situation, as high-profile as it is, is only one of the many issues that Bray has had to deal with.

‘A hot-button issue’

“On my first day in the BHA office, the community’s concern over development in Brooklyn Bridge Park was already a hot-button issue. Pierhouse and 1 Hotel were under construction, and it was clear that fundamental promises made to the community had been broken,” Bray said in a statement. “A lawsuit over the height of 1 Hotel was underway, and in short order, the BHA became involved in another lawsuit over the intrusion of Pierhouse into the Scenic View District.

“It was not long thereafter that the Park Corporation and its chosen developers moved forward with plans to build the two Pier 6 towers, which violated the basic tenets of the park’s General Project Plan that limited development to the minimum necessary to meet the park’s financial needs,” Bray went on.

“Though the court rulings on all three lawsuits did not go in the community’s favor, their outcome did not detract from the importance of the fact that the BHA acted on principle to preserve the park’s primary objective as recreational space and not as a development project,” he said.

Another issue in which Bray and the BHA were involved was the successful effort to landmark the stately People’s Trust (Citibank) building at 181-183 Montague St. and adjacent Art Deco skyscraper at 185 Montague St., known as the National Title Guaranty Company Building, as city landmarks. These two buildings, which had earlier been excluded from the Brooklyn Skyscraper District, finally became city landmarks in January 2017.

Brooklyn House of Detention

In September 2018, Bray was one of a group of community leaders to criticize Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to replace the existing Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue with a new 430-foot-high jail.

Although the local coalition that the BHA has been involved with in this issue has been supportive of efforts to close Rikers Island and to replace the Brooklyn House of Detention with a more modern and humane jail facility, he said, “We have been forceful in opposing other aspects of the plan, particularly the lack of any meaningful community involvement in its formulation and the massive scale of the new jail, which would be greatly out-of-context with our communities.”

Earlier career

Bray doesn’t live in the Heights himself – he has lived in Park Slope since 1982. As a member and trustee of the Park Slope Civic Council, he led the effort to expand the Park Slope Historic District. Both the Heights and the Slope, of course, pioneered the brownstone revival of the 1960s.

The first 20 years of Bray’s career in New York, he said, were devoted to the revitalization of the South Bronx. Then, starting in the 1990s, “I became involved in using a new federal program that funded organizations that combined financial services and community development,” he said.

He later founded and served as executive director of the New York City Financial Network Action Consortium, which was designed to strengthen the growth of affordable financial services to low-income communities and to increase opportunities for low-income families to save, build financial skills and start businesses.

Community relationships are key

Asked about his greatest achievements as executive director, he replied that it has been building trust and relationships with neighborhood residents and other local organizations.

“I have … been able to leverage the relationships I had developed over the prior decade with neighborhood associations surrounding Downtown Brooklyn through getting involved in zoning and preservation issues. These relationships have enabled us to work on a number of issues as a coalition and to be able to count on their support,” he said.

As another achievement, he named the BHA’s campaign to promote passage of Design Build (a fast-track contracting process in which design and construction services are contracted by a single entity) authorization by the state legislature for the BQE project. “The BHA took a leadership role in organizing a coalition to press for this legislation, which resulted in Design Build being finally authorized after years of futile effort,” he said.

Change: Negative and positive

The four years since Bray came on board have brought enormous change to the greater Heights area. The biggest change, he said, has the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park, which brings tens of thousands of people to the area to visit the park and the Promenade.

While at first there was tension between neighborhood residents and park users, partially due to several incidents of petty crime, this situation has gotten better because of a greater police presence in the park. “The Heights is no longer the secluded neighborhood it once was,” he said. “The park has become greatly valued by the neighborhood as a recreational amenity, and it would be difficult to imagine it not being there.”

A change Bray sees as negative, however, has been massive development in Downtown Brooklyn. The combination of overdevelopment and inadequate infrastructure, he said, cannot be easily resolved. At the BHA’s most recent annual meeting, a panel discussion came to the conclusion that “the city could undertake better comprehensive planning if it had the political will to do so.”

In the future, he concluded, Brooklyn Heights will continue being a desirable community for residents to live. Residents will continue to “preserve what is best about it and manage the inevitable process of change,” he added.

All in all, he said, “It has been a pleasure to work in a community like Brooklyn Heights where people are so strongly attached to their neighborhood and have been generous in their support of the Brooklyn Heights Association.”

BHA President Martha Bakos Dietz said, “Peter Bray has been invaluable during his tenure at the BHA in strengthening the organization to best serve the community of Brooklyn Heights.”

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