Brooklyn Heights

BQE: Brooklyn Heights Association celebrates as Promenade is saved

Take down your 'Highway to Hell' posters

February 27, 2020 Mary Frost
Brooklyn Heights Association President Martha Bakos Dietz goes over current events for the crowd at the association's annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 27, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

The mood at the Brooklyn Heights Association’s annual meeting Wednesday night was upbeat as President Martha Bakos Dietz confirmed that an existential threat faced by the neighborhood — a temporary six-lane highway over the Promenade — is no longer being considered by New York City.

“The Promenade Highway is dead. We won that battle,” Dietz said to loud applause. “You can take down your ‘Highway to Hell’ posters. We have some new posters and some new buttons.”

Members of the association have spent a large chunk of the past year fighting the city’s preferred BQE rehab plan, which would have brought the noise and pollution of 153,000 vehicles a day to the neighborhood’s street level. Their work won the support of officials and the attention of the mayor, Dietz said.

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“And the mayor’s expert panel heard us too, and stated in its report that the Promenade Highway should be taken off the table,” she said.

Now, many of the area’s community groups — including BHA, A Better Way and the Cobble Hill Association — are advocating for transforming the entire BQE corridor into “an urban highway for the next century,” Dietz said. To do so, they have formed the Coalition for the BQE Transformation, or BQET.NYC.

The Brooklyn Heights Association held its annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 26, 2020. At the meeting the community group discussed current events, including repairs of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and held a panel to discuss vacant storefronts. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
The Brooklyn Heights Association held its annual meeting at St. Francis College on Wednesday.  Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

The coalition’s new posters show a stylized map of the BQE running its entire length through Brooklyn and Queens, atop a backdrop of multi-colored icons representing people of every background.

As its next step, BHA is advocating for an intergovernmental entity with the authority to see the BQE rehabilitation through to its completion, Dietz said.

In the short term, however, the BQE is in immediate need of repairs to keep it usable while a master plan is being created. BHA has requested that a task force be created to ensure community input for the immediate patch-up plan.

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Dietz herself received an ovation and huge bouquet of flowers from the board for her leadership of the organization through an extended three-year term.

“We would not be where we are today without Martha’s stewardship, her firm guidance, her clear-eyed focus, her tireless dedication, and let’s not forget, her ruthless editing. And her very dry humor when a moment of levity was needed,” BHA First VP Erika Belsey Worth said.

Brooklyn Heights Association Executive Director Lara Birnback goes over the group's finances at their annual meeting on Feb. 26, 2020 at St. Francis College. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Brooklyn Heights Association Executive Director Lara Birnback goes over the group’s finances. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Community Service Awards

This year’s BHA Community Service Awards went to an individual and a group who have made “significant contributions to the neighborhood’s quality of life and enhanced its spirit of community.” The awards were presented with humor and aplomb, as always, by Thirteen WNET’s announcer Tom Stewart.

Architect and urban planner Marc Wouters was honored for working with BHA to develop the first alternative to DOT’s Promenade Highway proposal. His Parallel Bypass plan envisioned a temporary structure away from the Promenade, making repair easier and avoiding six lanes of vehicles rushing by people’s homes. Wouters, who is continuing to refine his plan, opened the city’s eyes to creative possibilities and helped convince the mayor’s expert panel to reject the “Promenade Highway” concept.

Tom Stewart, left, presents a community service award to Marc Wouters of Marc Wouters Studio at the Brooklyn Heights Association Annual meeting on Feb. 26, 2020 at St. Francis College. Wouters contributed to the idea process for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway repair. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Tom Stewart, left, presents a community service award to Marc Wouters of Marc Wouters Studio. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Promenade Gardens Mapping Project volunteers were honored for their work mapping the location of every major planting in the Promenade Garden. The data will be put into a software mapping program to serve as a permanent record.

“The strong likelihood that there may be damage to the gardens during the BQE repair and reconstruction has made this work especially timely and meaningful,” Stewart said.

The group includes Joanna Dean, Rachel Epstein, Maureen Healy, Ellie Levinson, Craig Meachen, Cristina Page, Steve Sacks, Karen Schlesinger, Koren Volk and Susan Weinz.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade Gardens mapping volunteers were given community service awards at the Brooklyn Heights Association annual meeting at St. Francis college on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade Gardens mapping volunteers. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Empty Storefronts Panel Discussion

The issue of empty storefronts and commercial corridors, including Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, was discussed by panelists Nur Asri, senior research strategist at Streetsense; Deborah Marton, executive director of the Van Alen Institute and Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. The panel moderator was New York Times journalist Eliza Shapiro. Lara Birnback, BHA executive director, introduced the panel.

A Department of City Planning report and the Comptroller’s Office analyzed retail vacancy trends across the city over ten years. While rising rents are often cited as the reason behind the vacancy issue, the truth is more complicated, Birnback said.

Vacancy rates have risen to 5.8 percent in 2017, up from 4 percent in 2007. But there are various reasons for this, including rising rents, industry-wide shifts in retail due to the rise of internet shopping, competition between corridors, doubled property taxes and government regulations, the reports found.

The New York Times Reporter Eliza Shapiro moderates a panel on empty storefronts at the Brooklyn Heights Association annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
The New York Times Reporter Eliza Shapiro moderates a panel on empty storefronts. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

When Nur asked for a show of hands from the audience about how many received packages in the mail, almost every hand went up.

Besides a shift to online buying, Peers listed the many obstacles to starting a business in New York City, including an increase in costs and mandates, the higher minimum wage, paid sick time, new mandatory scheduling for restaurants and higher costs to prep brick-and-mortar spaces. He also pointed to a jump in property taxes.

“Now it’s 70 percent more than it was five years ago. That’s a significant hit,” he said.

Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Randy Peers speaks on a panel about vacant storefronts at the Brooklyn Heights Association annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Randy Peers. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Panelists agreed that vacancy taxes on commercial landlords — the “stick” part of carrot and stick — was not the best solution.

“A blanket tax strategy is not the best solution for a city as diverse as New York City,” Nur said. She suggested starting more Business Improvement Districts, which would “nudge” business owners to fit the needs of the new kind of tenant.

Peers said that another reason behind the vacancies was an increase in supply coming into Brooklyn over the last five to ten years. “It’s more competitive,” he said.

Nur agreed. “We’re oversupplied. We need to be okay with a shrinking footprint,” and noted that some cities allowed some spaces to revert back to residential.

Senior Research Strategist of Streetsense Nur Asri speaks on a panel about vacant storefronts at the Brooklyn Heights Association annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Senior Research Strategist of Streetsense Nur Asri. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Marton suggested looking at solutions, including a Dutch-style “Woonerf.” A woonerf is a “living street” where sidewalk curbs are removed and vehicles share the space with pedestrians and cyclists. Cars are forced to drive at pedestrian pace.

“Montague Street would be a good candidate for that,” she said.

She also suggested making vacant storefronts open to cultural pop-ups while awaiting permanent tenants. Doing so would “bring life into those spaces,” she said.

Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute Deborah Marton speaks on a panel about vacant storefronts at the Brooklyn Heights Association annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute Deborah Marton. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Marton cautioned that connecting Montague Street directly to Brooklyn Bridge Park, while increasing foot traffic, might change the character of the street.

“It’s beautiful. What’s its character? How do we want to live in it?” are issues that should be discussed in advance, she said.

Brooklyn Heights Association President Martha Bakos Dietz goes over current events for the crowd at the association's annual meeting at St. Francis College on Feb. 27, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Brooklyn Heights Association President Martha Bakos Dietz. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

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