City Council backs two sweeping BQE fixes
Council, Arup, recommend transformative designs
The New York City Council and engineering firm Arup have recommended two different but equally sweeping ideas to replace a decrepit section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The multi-billion dollar project would reconstruct, at minimum, a 1.5 mile section of the interstate highway from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue.
The Council is urging the city to use this opportunity to rethink not just the triple cantilever underlying the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, but the entire I-278 corridor.
One approach would route the BQE’s cars and trucks along an enclosed highway at ground level along Furman Street, and turn the triple cantilever into a park. Doing this would eliminate noise and pollution from the highway, enlarge Brooklyn Bridge Park by eight to ten acres and preserve the promenade. The BQE would pass under Atlantic Avenue, unifying Van Voorhees Park.
The other approach would replace a section of the BQE with a three-mile long tunnel from the Gowanus Canal to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The BQE from Cobble Hill to Clinton Hill could be converted into a surface street and new open space, “providing significant room for re-imagination, and could include dedicated transit and bicycle lanes, new parks and other public facilities,” the report said.
The two recommendations were among those originated by residents, officials and design firms in the aftermath of the release of the city’s controversial proposal in September 2018, which it dubbed the “Innovative Plan.”
In its much-maligned plan, NYC Department of Transportation would have replaced the promenade with a temporary six-lane BQE bypass while rebuilding the highway, part of I-278. This would have brought the noise and pollution of roughly 153,000 cars and trucks a day to ground level in Brooklyn Heights for six to eight years. It also would have done nothing toward advancing the city’s goals of reducing traffic and pollution, critics said.
‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’
“New York cannot continue to kick the can down the road on redeveloping the BQE,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a release Monday. “This is not just about rebuilding a highway, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the city we deserve and need in the future. I am deeply proud of the work the Council has done with Arup to ensure that the ideas put forward were thoroughly reviewed and that the neighboring communities were partners in this effort, rather than spectators.”
The enclosed (or “capped”) highway approach recommended by the Council was originated by both Brooklyn Heights resident Mark Baker and DUMBO’s Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which developed the idea further. The tunnel idea was revived and championed by Cobble Hill resident Roy Sloane, a 35-year member of the Transportation Committee of Community Board 6.
BIG has estimated that the capped highway plan would cost around $3.2 billion. Arup’s high-ball estimate puts the cost roughly similar to that of DOT’s Innovative Plan.
The tunnel bypass would cost much more but would be a more transformative project, the report said, and it could pay for itself using tolls. NYS DOT had ruled the tunnel idea out in an earlier study because of existing underground infrastructure and the need to acquire a “considerable” amount of property “to construct portals and one or more ventilation structures.”
The outcome of the Mark Baker/BIG plan would be reminiscent of Brooklyn Heights’s historical conditions, where “the city and the river interlaced seamlessly” before the BQE was built, Jeremy Siegel, an associate at BIG, told a packed crowd at Plymouth Church last April.
Sloane told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday that it was “deeply gratifying and thrilling” to have the tunnel concept validated.
“They have recognized how a tunnel can help improve air quality, improve health, make our urban area more livable, more walkable, more bikeable – very simply, to improve the quality of life for all of our citizens in every way.” It would also be a boon for businesses as well as drivers living far from mass transit, he said.
Simply fixing the triple cantilevered roadway “provides no transportation improvement — it merely prevents a truck from collapsing a section,” Sloane added.
The Council report said the next step is to pass state legislation this session to create a new governing body to manage the project.
City Council’s recommendations take up where mayor’s panel stopped
Over the past year, a local group called A Better Way NYC and the Brooklyn Heights Association led community opposition to the city’s original plan. In an unusually effective effort, these groups wrangled protests and letter-writing campaigns, threatened lawsuits and held numerous meetings with officials. BHA came up with its own alternative BQE plan, designed by local designer Marc Wouters, which opened the floodgates for further visionary designs. BHA and A Better Way were later joined by the Cobble Hill Association and other community organizations in a loose coalition.
After opposition had reached a furious crescendo, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a handpicked BQE expert panel, headed by Carlo Scissura, in April 2019 to examine the options and make recommendations.
Speaker Johnson selected Arup to double-check the work of the mayor’s expert panel and DOT’s contractor, Aecom, in September 2019.
The mayor’s panel released its report in January. It recommended starting emergency repairs immediately while removing one third of the highway’s lanes. Patchwork on the existing roadway has already begun.
The mayor’s panel did not recommend any of the visionary plans floated by the public, but did advise that planning for a “transformational re-envisioning of the entire BQE corridor” start immediately.
The City Council’s recommendations take up where the mayor’s panel stopped.
Hilary Jager, a member of A Better Way, said in a statement that the group was gratified that the report “echoes our call for a comprehensive, transformative and environmentally sustainable solution — including essential legislation that would create a governing body of city and state representatives to implement the best corridor-wide plan.”
Martha Bakos Dietz, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said that the report made “a significant contribution to the challenge of determining how to reduce the scale and environmental impact of an antiquated thoroughfare that divided communities and served the transportation needs of a previous century.”
Dietz added, “They have presented visions for Brooklyn that minimize the negative impacts of the current BQE by in part burying it beneath our streets or at street level and in part replacing it with green boulevards and more parkland. As importantly, they have identified the immediate need for a governing entity that can bring to fruition any vision for a transformed BQE.”
Another version of the plan, developed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, proposed extending a green deck over the despised Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens BQE trench. The Council’s proposal listed “public realm improvement strategies for the Cobble Hill trench and under the Park Avenue viaduct” as a primary concept.
“The BQE has been a scar on neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens for decades and I’m pleased that we are finally taking a bigger picture look at ways to fix the corridor and begin to knit some of our neighborhoods back together,” Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon said.
Amy Breedlove, president of the Cobble Hill Association, said the organization was “enthusiastic about the transformative possibilities of covering the Cobble Hill Trench and removing the deadly exit and entrance ramps in our neighborhood.”
The section of the BQE from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue is so decrepit it needs to be replaced before 2026, according to DOT, or tens of thousands of trucks daily will be rerouted through Brooklyn’s residential streets.
Arup will present its findings during Tuesday’s Council Committee on Transportation oversight hearing on the BQE. The City Council’s report can be found here.
A rundown of the Brooklyn’s Eagle‘s articles on the BQE issue can be found here.