BQE rehab brings massive crowd to Brooklyn town hall
BIG's 'Brooklyn-Queens Park' highlighted
A blockbuster crowd packed a church in Brooklyn Heights Wednesday night to hear proposals for the replacement of a crumbling 1.5-mile section of the BQE.
The turnout was unprecedented. Every one of historic Plymouth Church’s 1,000 seats was filled, and additional attendees were crowded four deep at the back.
The standing-room-only crowd reflected the community’s herculean efforts to thwart the city Department of Transportation’s contentious proposal to run a BQE bypass carrying 153,000 vehicles a day along the Promenade, the soul of the city’s first historic district.
The city’s plan would have destroyed a protected view plain and polluted neighborhood air with toxic particulates for six to eight years, opponents say.
Architects, urban planners and even elected officials presented their ideas to enthusiastic applause, and officials in attendance — including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, Councilmember Stephen Levin, Borough President Eric Adams and Dan Wiley, a representative for U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez — received roars of approval in return for their support.
Taking center stage was a plan unveiled by DUMBO’s Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) for a sweeping new Brooklyn Queens Park, or “BQP.”
In their plan, designed pro bono, all six lanes of the BQE would be moved from the triple cantilever underpinning the Promenade to a boxed-over ground-level highway (incorporating Furman Street and Brooklyn Bridge Park’s sound attenuating berms) topped by a deck.
The deck would be covered with a 10-acre extension of the park, and could incorporate a meandering Furman Street, with space for the potential BQX light-rail line. The deck portion would extend all the way to Atlantic Avenue, with a future extension to Red Hook.
The triple cantilever could be transformed into terraced gardens with park-like amenities. One version of the idea even included parking under the triple cantilever.
The result would be reminiscent of Brooklyn Heights’ historical conditions, where “the city and the river interlaced seamlessly” before the BQE was built, said Jeremy Siegel, an associate at BIG, and the crowd cheered renderings depicting a sylvan expanse of trees and grass, interwoven with lanes connecting to green terraced cantilevers.
The base cost would be lower than that of DOT’s preferred plan, Siegel said, and the plan less complex — and therefore less risky.
BIG’s plan was remarkably similar to a design proposed by Mark Baker, who came up with a proposal to create an almost identical decked-over BQE and convert the triple cantilever into a Tri-Line park. Baker introduced Siegel from BIG and passed him the baton.
“I was surprised when I learned that BIG had been working on their own proposal like mine, with a vented box covered with a park,” he said.
“It felt like my baby had grown up and gone to college.”
Brooklyn Queens Park was just one of several ideas for the replacement of the decrepit highway presented at the gathering, which was put together by two community groups, the Brooklyn Heights Association and A Better Way NYC.
“On Sept. 27, DOT sprung on us two plans,” said BHA President Martha Dietz.
One would temporarily replace the famous Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a six-lane highway for roughly six years. The other would rehab sections incrementally over the course of roughly eight years.
BHA “quickly set up a task force” and came up with their own alternate BQE plan, designed by Marc Wouters, she said. The group “worked with transportation consultants, strategic consulting firms and law firms, held numerous meetings with elected officials, looked at jointly retaining experts in a variety of fields.”
Hilary Jager, speaking for A Better Way NYC, said the group’s initial mission was to save the Promenade.
“We quickly realized the mission was greater,” she said. “How to turn this into an opportunity to build something that will leave all New Yorkers better off, rather than building a temporary solution that will reinforce the status quo.”
The joint efforts have already started to pay off, Dietz said.
The meeting opened with the news that Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced the creation of a new BQE panel to examine options for the replacement of the highway. The panel, headed by Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, will be comprised of experts in the fields of urban planning, transportation, business, design, engineering and construction.
“You know we’ve been effective because Mayor de Blasio announced today a panel to review BQE options,” Dietz told the cheering crowd.
“Today we sat in a room with City Hall representatives who indicated they want to turn the page and start anew the project,” Jager said.
“I believe they are sincere when they say they want transparency,” she added. “All of this is because of this community. Witnessing the resolve, passion and engagement of this community is nothing short of inspiring.”
“I’m committed to making sure we get this project right,” Speaker Johnson said.
“The City Council is required to approve any changes to parkland,” he assured the crowd. “Nothing can move forward without the approval of the City Council and the legislature.”
Johnson said the formation of the new panel “shows the power of grassroots organizing,” and gave de Blasio credit for “hearing our collective call.”
He got one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the night when he said, “I’ve said many times: We need to de-prioritize private cars and trucks. We need to break the car and truck culture in our city … When it comes to the BQE, I do not believe that rerouting six lanes of traffic to the Promenade for six years is a viable solution.”
Johnson promised to include the community in the process by announcing the results of the panel’s analysis as the process unfolds.
“If we’re going to spend billions, the result should be better than we started with,” he said.
Comptroller Scott Stringer received another enthusiastic ovation as the official who consulted with the local community and used the resources of his office to come up with his own innovative plan, which would eliminate cars but leave the trucks on the bottom level of the current BQE. The middle deck of the triple cantilever would be converted to a linear park, and the Cobble Hill trench would be decked over and topped with a park.
“It addresses the need for freight traffic and creates green space, decking over Cobble Hill trench, and integrates seamlessly into the existing Promenade,” he said. “In the process, we’re talking about stitching together neighborhoods long divided by the BQE and investing in more public transportation. That’s the future of our city.”
“It isn’t just about the BQE, about putting a marker down when you listen to the community,” he said. “It’s about breaking not just the car culture but the development culture of the 1950s … We can’t keep building luxury towers.”
Marc Wouters also received an outpouring of applause as the designer behind the BHA’s plan, which would reroute a temporary parallel BQE bypass along the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Wouters’ design was the first alternate to DOT’s proposals and opened the floodgates to more out-of-the-box thinking.
Wouters said his design was a “direct response” to DOT’s Promenade Highway plan, and used DOT’s restrictive criteria, which was not hindering subsequent proposals.
Under this plan the park would remain open to the public during reconstruction, the Promenade would remain intact and access to the triple cantilever would be unobstructed.
State Sen. Kavanagh, Councilmember Levin and Assemblymember Simon talked about the hard realities of getting the state, city and federal agencies to work together.
It would be a long haul, they said.
“We have to have a consensus plan — because if we don’t, there will be no plan,” Levin said.
“There will be no plan because it can’t move forward through the review process. Also, it will be likely to invite litigation.” Litigation would bring the project’s start dangerously close to the point when trucks will have to be removed from the stretch of highway in 2026.
Rick Brown, a resident of nearby Clark Street, agreed with the importance of looking to the big picture. “It’s important that we understand all the steps that have to be done before it becomes reality,” he said.
“It’s not that simple. The state controls it, but the city owns that piece where the Promenade is. It will work out — but not in my lifetime. I’m 84,” he laughed.
The inclusion of congestion pricing in the state budget was also cheered as a way to reduce traffic on the BQE.
Simon got applause when she pointed out “I’ve been fighting for congestion pricing for the last decade. And also for reversing the one-way toll on the Verrazzano Bridge,” which is under federal jurisdiction.
She said that newly-elected Max Rose in Staten Island “is our new partner. I’m hopeful we’ll have good news on the Verrazzano front as well.”
Sen. Kavanagh said that Simon had been “relentless” in the process and added, “Nothing you’ve seen tonight can get done legally without the city land-use process, an act of the state legislators, and signed by the governor. There’s no version that doesn’t encroach on park land.”
“Nydia Velazquez in Washington, D.C., is working with many agencies on funding and environmental reviews, he added. “It must come out favorably.”
“I love the proposal BIG put together,” Borough President Adams said. “We are going to win this, it’s clear. But we have to do far more.”
Everything the Heights community is doing “should be documented” and brought into other neighborhoods affected by similar problems, such Myrtle Avenue, where an unused stretch of elevated track is an eyesore, he said.
“Let’s go after school foods, health, transportation — big ticket items.”
“This should be an exercise in how communities come together and define themselves,” he said. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
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