Opinion: BQX, enhanced bus service could combine to end Red Hook’s isolation
The issue of the BQX Brooklyn-Queens waterfront streetcar lines continues to be debated. Even it if is approved, it will take until 2029, according to the city’s latest predictions, for the line to be in operation.
I’m all for the BQX, as I am for all rail-based transportation (I’ve been a subway and railroad buff since early childhood). I’ve seen how well light-rail works in Amsterdam, and I’m totally sold on it. There are also other, more immediate measures that can be taken to make Red Hook, the planned southern terminus of the BQX, less isolated. I’m speaking of restoring a discontinued bus route and/or starting new bus routes. It’s not an either-or situation: Red Hook needs both more buses AND the BQX.
For its first hundred years or so, the Red Hook peninsula was basically an area of port facilities and warehouses (some of these warehouses, like the Beard Street Warehouse, were successfully rehabilitated in the ‘90s). In time, a community of low-rise homes sprung up there, mainly for people who worked on the waterfront. In 1939, NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest public housing project, was built.
Unfortunately, later on, the BQE effectively isolated Red Hook from the mainland. It was still basically a working class area: Gabriel Cohen’s novel “Red Hook” depicted the area as one of dock workers, bodega owners and drug dealers, a place where old timers’ social life revolved around the liquor store, the American Legion Hall and the church, while younger residents took to the basketball court.
The closest rapid transit station to Red Hook, Smith-9th Street on the F and G lines, is accessible from Red Hook only by bus. To this day, local businesses in the area complain that lack of transit cuts down on the number of potential customers, and residents of the Red Hook Houses (as well as other homes in the area) often complain about the long, unreliable commute to and from work.
Starting around 2000, it looked to many that Red Hook would become the “next big thing.” Fairway and IKEA both opened in the neighborhood, New York Water Taxi established its base there, new townhouses were built and many of the older townhouses were rehabilitated. Food places like Steve’s Key Lime Pies came to the area, and artistic and literary types were attracted to bars like Sunny’s and Rocky Sullivan’s.
While many of these places are still there, Superstorm Sandy slowed things down a bit. New York Water Taxi’s ferry from IKEA to Lower Manhattan is a welcome development, but the area’s main connection to the rest of Brooklyn and, ultimately, the rest of the city, is still by bus.
If you don’t count the IKEA shuttle bus, there are two main bus routes to Red Hook. They are the B61, which goes east on Ninth Street to Prospect Park West and Windsor Terrace in one direction and north to Fulton Street in the other direction; and the B57, which goes north, crosses Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue, then turns east on Flushing Avenue and proceeds to Maspeth, Queens. Unfortunately neither one of these buses directly reaches the busy Civic Center-Court Street-Borough Hall area, although they come close.
For years, politicians and residents have been pressing the MTA to bring back a third bus — the B71. The B71, which connected Red Hook with Park Slope and Crown Heights, was discontinued in 2010. The B71 served nine schools, three senior centers, multiple public housing complexes and several cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, but it was in the 10 percent of buses with the lowest ridership throughout the city, according to the MTA.
Since the bus was discontinued, residential and commercial developments have thrived in the area. And because the original route often hit traffic jams on Union Street, an amended route proposed by officials would avoid busy Union Street and Eastern Parkway. In fact, it would also be extended west through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and into the financial district. If the B71 is revived with this new route, Red Hook will be a lot less isolated and more connected with Park Slope, Central Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Still, there is a limit to what buses can do. As we’ve mentioned, possibly because of so many bus routes in Downtown Brooklyn creating congestion, the B61 doesn’t reach the Civic Center area, with its important government offices, courthouses, bank branches and the vital Court Street-Borough Hall transit hub with its multiple subway lines to Manhattan.
The idea of light-rail transit returning to Red Hook after a long absence isn’t new. Nationwide, interest in light-rail began to grow in the ’80s, and many cities built new systems. If you want to see one in action, you don’t have to go far — just travel to Hudson County, New Jersey, to ride the successful Hudson-Bergen Light-Rail line.
Red Hook may have attracted light-rail advocates as a sort of testing ground because of the comparatively light auto traffic compared with other New York City neighborhoods. Transit buff and engineer Bob Diamond, with the initial support of the city, bought a fleet of early 1950s “PCC” streetcars and started laying down tracks and mounting overhead wires in Red Hook until the Department of Transportation pulled the plug on his project in the early 2000s.
Later on, around 2010, local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, sought a feasibility study about the prospects for light-rail transit in Red Hook. The study by the DOT, released in 2011, compared the proposed Red Hook route with trolley operations in Portland, Oregon and several other cities. It concluded that narrow streets and sharp turning radii, plus low clearance under some overpasses, made the idea impractical.
A few years later in 2016, the trolley or streetcar option was revived. This time it isn’t confined only to Red Hook, but is part of the BQX route that was originally designed to start in Sunset Park, then go north to Red Hook, turn east on Atlantic Avenue, travel a bit to the heart of the aforementioned Civic Center, then toward Fort Greene and the Navy Yard area, from there proceeding north to Williamsburg, Greenpoint and finally Long Island City. Perhaps because of local opposition, the line’s southern terminal was later cut back from Sunset Park to Red Hook.
The line would, for much of its journey, travel down fairly wide, well traveled such as Columbia Street, Atlantic Avenue and Brooklyn’s Park Avenue. Because it would have to navigate some narrow streets with sharp curves, such as Lorraine Street in Red Hook, the BQX’s sponsors are proposing that it use streetcars, rather than the somewhat larger light-rail vehicles that have greater capacity. (To most observers, the two types of transit cars are identical, but there is a subtle difference.)
To many, the most obvious reason the BQX is being proposed is the growth in residential real estate development, especially in Williamsburg. But another important reason has to do with changes in the average New Yorker’s work and shopping patterns. In the past, the great majority of New Yorkers worked in either Midtown or Downtown Manhattan.
But now, Downtown Brooklyn is the city’s third-largest business district, with Long Island City close behind. DUMBO and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, too, have many jobs, especially in the tech industry. People living in Red Hook or Williamsburg and working in Downtown Brooklyn or DUMBO may be the wave of the future.
All in all, a situation in which a revived B71 bus can connect Red Hook residents to Crown Heights, Park Slope and the Manhattan Financial District, and in which the BQX can connect them to DUMBO, the Navy Yard, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City will better integrate Red Hook into the life of the city as a whole and will make the neighborhood substantially less isolated.
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