BQE: Brooklyn Heights Association celebrates as Promenade is saved
Take down your 'Highway to Hell' posters
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.