A rundown: What happened with the BQE rehab plan this year
2019: Year in Review
A lot happened in Brooklyn this year — from environmental policies to infrastructure changes to housing reform. We’ve wrapped up the key pieces for you in “2019: Year in Review.”
The struggle over the city’s plans to rebuild a 1.5-mile segment of the BQE along the western Brooklyn waterfront was one of the most galvanizing Brooklyn stories of 2019.
The section of the BQE from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue is so decrepit it needs to be replaced before 2026, according to the NYC Department of Transportation, or tens of thousands of trucks daily will be rerouted through Brooklyn’s residential streets. The massive job could cost close to $4 billion. The city’s preferred plan would have temporarily replaced the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a six-lane highway, bringing the pollution and noise of 153,000 vehicles a day to neighborhood level for six to 10 years.
After off-the-charts levels of community activism, threats of lawsuits, numerous meetings with officials, redesigns submitted by a variety of interests and all manner of political maneuvering, the city softened its stance. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed an expert BQE panel to rethink the redesign and the City Council hired their own firm to double-check the work of the mayor’s expert panel and DOT’s contractor. Here’s what you may have missed.
Crowds came out to protest.
A vocal crowd of several hundred people braved sub-freezing weather in January to demonstrate their opposition to a six-lane “highway in the sky” that would destroy the landmark Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Residents ranging in age from 9 to 90, and representing Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and surrounding neighborhoods, carried placards, and crowded around a podium of elected officials.
Leaders from A Better Way NYC — a grassroots, non-profit organization focused on the environmental, economic and community impact of repairing the BQE — joined Peter Bray, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association; City Comptroller Scott Stringer and an array of elected officials as they called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg for transparency and community engagement around the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rehabilitation.
Congestion pricing gave a bit of hope.
The stars appeared to be lining up in January for congestion pricing in New York City, and that could have a major effect on the city’s controversial BQE reconstruction plans. Early in the year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Director of the Budget Robert Mujica made clear the governor’s support.
While the governor looks to congestion pricing as a way to fund subway repairs, Brooklyn Heights residents saw it as a way to help save their neighborhood from the devastation caused by the city’s plan to rebuild one and a half miles of the BQE, including the triple cantilevered section underpinning the landmarked Promenade. In April, congestion pricing was approved.
Area leaders tackled local outrage.
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon was confronted by some angry constituents at her “Java with Jo Anne” coffee meetup in DUMBO in January. By the end of the two-hour klatch, however, she managed to convince many in attendance that she was indeed looking out for her people.
“The point is that there are also constituents of mine who live in the area, who are very affected by this, who disagree with your position entirely,” she told the crowd.
The first alternative rendering was released.
The Brooklyn Heights Association released in January a rendering of its alternative to the city’s controversial plan to replace the landmarked Heights Promenade with a six-lane highway.
The BHA’s alternate plan, dubbed the “Parallel Highway,” was conceived by Heights-based Marc Wouters Studios. It would move traffic to a temporary two-level structure west of the existing triple cantilever, rather than atop the popular landmarked walkway.
An old idea came back onto the table.
A proposal to build a Cross-Downtown Brooklyn Tunnel, an idea studied by the state in 2010, sparked new interest in February.
A tunnel could eliminate the need to build a temporary six-lane highway atop the Brooklyn Heights Promenade while the triple-cantilever beneath is rebuilt, supporters said.
The speaker made a sweeping call for change.
In his first State of the City speech in March, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson prominently mentioned DOT’s controversial plan to rebuild a section of the decrepit BQE as the emblem of everything that’s wrong with the city’s transportation vision.
“Let’s get people out of private cars. Let’s break the car culture,” he said. “Right now, we’re living in a past created by Robert Moses, the ‘master builder of New York’ who loathed mass transit and worshiped highways from the back of a limousine.”
The comptroller introduced his own plan.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in March released his own proposal for the reconstruction of two miles of the BQE — a plan dramatically different from that of DOT. Stringer’s strategy would eliminate cars, run trucks along a two-lane thruway at the bottom level of the triple cantilever and turn the rest into a new linear park.
Neighborhood groups praised the idea for addressing long-term community concerns and for its forward thinking. They also gave Stringer kudos for consulting with them before releasing the plan — something they said the city initially neglected to do with its $3.4 billion proposal.
Another plan presented the ‘Tri-Line’ park.
Another proposal, put forth in March, would turn the decrepit section of the BQE into a three-level Tri-Line park, similar to the Highline Park in Manhattan. Under the plan, the Triple Cantilever would become the “cliffs” of Brooklyn Bridge Park, overlooking the park, the harbor and the skyline of Manhattan.
The BQE’s cars and trucks would be routed along a new, enclosed highway at ground level along Furman Street’s road bed.
The mayor formed a panel to evaluate the rehab.
To finally bring a measure of urban planning to what has been a chaotic, whiplash-inducing BQE reconstruction planning process, Mayor Bill de Blasio in April announced a blue-ribbon panel of experts to look at options for the replacement of a 1.5-mile stretch of the decrepit highway.
The panel is not only attempting to sort through proposals that have appeared out of the woodwork after the city’s own plans provoked tremendous outcry, but will make decisions that could set a course for the city’s transportation future.
“This new panel presents an important opportunity to create the best plan possible — with community voices heard throughout the process,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said. The mayor tapped Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, to head the panel.
A new report recommends a narrower highway.
The Regional Plan Association, a not-for-profit civic organization, released a report in April with five recommendations for reducing traffic on the BQE to turn the current six-lane interstate into a smaller, four-lane highway. Brooklyn Heights-based nonprofit A Better Way NYC hired RPA for its analysis on the plans.
“New York should join the growing list of cities that are updating, scaling back, and in some instances, removing their highways,” Tom Wright, president and CEO of Regional Plan Association, said.
An overflowing town hall finds inspiration.
A blockbuster crowd packed a church in Brooklyn Heights in early April to hear proposals for the replacement of a crumbling 1.5-mile section of the BQE. 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.
Architects, urban planners and elected officials presented their ideas to enthusiastic applause, and officials in attendance received approval. Taking center stage was a plan unveiled by DUMBO’s Bjarke Ingels Group for a sweeping new Brooklyn-Queens Park, or “BQP.”
A comedic interlude from the mayor — er, former presidential candidate.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s use of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade as a prop in his presidential announcement video in May brought swift scorn from those who noted that he recently proposed demolishing the iconic site.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, told the Brooklyn Eagle, “Imagine my surprise when I watched the de Blasio campaign announcement video this morning and saw this … Certainly says something that the mayor chose the view he proposed to demolish as a backdrop for his national debut, doesn’t it?”
We got even more alternative plans.
The Brooklyn Heights Association revised its plan for the $4 billion rehabilitation of the BQE — and in May developed a couple of alternate concepts as well. BHA presented their new and revised ideas to the 17-member BQE panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, association President Martha Dietz told the Brooklyn Eagle.
The new plan takes the original temporary bypass idea and makes it a permanent addition to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The most controversial plan found itself on weaker footing.
Brooklyn community organizations heard in late June that the mayor’s BQE panel has “very little chance” of approving two major BQE rehab proposals that involve building a temporary bypass.
Also in late June, the Cobble Hill Association, Brooklyn Heights Association and A Better Way NYC released a Unified Vision Statement for the BQE reconstruction.
The mayor’s panel put the city’s plan under scrutiny.
The expert panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to study options for the $4 billion BQE reconstruction said in early July that it was “headed towards the end” of its work. Panel head Carlo Scissura said the group was “re-examining options for construction techniques that may be faster and less disruptive.”
The City Council hired its own experts to the cause.
The New York City Council hired its own engineers to review the city’s controversial plans for the upcoming $4 billion reconstruction of the BQE, Speaker Corey Johnson’s office told the Brooklyn Eagle in mid-September. The council selected multinational engineering firm Arup to provide “independent, outside expertise” on the DOT’s plans.
Arup is examining the project independently of both DOT’s own engineering contractor, Aecom, and the expert BQE panel assembled by de Blasio in April.
The neighbors presented a united vision.
In late November, a dozen community organizations, representing neighborhoods from Carroll Gardens to Vinegar Hill, joined forces to present a common vision for the BQE rehab. Though preserving the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade is among the coalition’s demands, the vision intends to speak across individual neighborhood interests.
Then they tried to freeze nearby construction.
A coalition of Brooklyn community groups in mid-December urged the city to put a freeze on new construction adjacent to the section of the BQE slated for a massive reconstruction project.
Some of the panel’s plans leaked — and drew mixed reactions.
In mid-December, locals fretted about the latest leaked plan for the BQE rehab project, which could be an emergency patch job starting as early as 2021. Members of a panel appointed by the mayor to study the $4 billion reconstruction of the highway leaked the possible outcome of their report to the Wall Street Journal.
The head of the mayor’s panel, Carlo Scissura, told the Brooklyn Eagle that despite these leaks, the final report about what to do with the deteriorating section of the highway has not yet been finalized. “We look forward to issuing a report in early January,” he said.
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