Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights residents have mixed feelings about first ‘BQE Central’ engagement meeting

Postwar cantilever worn down by overweight trucks

October 15, 2022 Mary Frost
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BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Dozens of Brooklyn Heights residents trekked to the New York City College of Technology on a rainy Thursday night to attend the NYC Department of Transportation’s first community engagement meeting for the redesign of the “Central” portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).

BQE Central is the dangerously decrepit section of the highway running from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street, which includes the triple-cantilever underlying the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. This section needs to be replaced within a matter of years, or tens of thousands of trucks daily may need to be rerouted through Brooklyn’s residential streets. 

This is the only section of the highway owned by the city and the section most in need of immediate reconstruction; the segments north and south of the triple cantilever (BQE North and BQE South) are owned by the state, and their redesign will take place on a more extended timetable.

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BQE Central has been the focus of enormous community activism for years. Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, a plan was painstakingly hashed out by an expert panel which called for immediate emergency repairs and lane reductions while a more visionary solution could be conceived over the course of the next 20 years.

Mayor Eric Adams and his DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, however, decided to accelerate the visionary part of the redesign timetable to take advantage of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” 

Brooklyn Heights Association President Koren Volk, right, with husband Rick Dean, study a map at DOT’s first community engagement meeting for the redesign of the “Central” portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).

‘The urgency of the moment’

Thursday’s workshop included a slide presentation narrated by Julie Bero, chief strategy officer at NYC DOT, and Bahij Chancey, consultant with WXY Studio, followed by an invitation to view posters arranged in a circular “science fair” format. (The materials can be viewed online at bqevision.com).

Bero said the 20-year plan worked out under de Blasio would have spent “hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars and end up with the same unaddressed structure that we have today. And that’s why in June the mayor made clear that the city will now pursue a long-term fix for the city-owned portion of the BQE while taking the bold corridor-wide approach to address the entire structure and reconnect communities divided by the highway.

“Equity means investing in communities along the whole BQE corridor,” she said.

She also said that City Hall has launched a multi-agency effort to consider viable alternative routes for freight traffic along the BQE.

The public engagement process is set to run from now through mid-2024; the environmental review process will be initiated in spring of 2023; design will take place from mid-2024 to the end of 2025; and construction from the beginning of 2026 to 2031. In the meantime, short-term repairs and monitoring will take place, Bero said.

Participants had numerous ideas for the reconstruction of the BQE Central section.

Posters and Post-Its don’t please everybody

The posters on display detailed the history of the BQE, highway designs from other cities, the city’s engagement approach and goals, and related topics. Consultants from companies WSP USA Inc., WXY Architecture and Urban Design, and agency 3×3 manned the stations.

Attendees were encouraged to interact by sticking pins in maps, writing suggestions on small brown tags, or writing questions on Post-It Notes.

While some of those present said the workshop was a good first stab at community engagement, others were left fuming. 

“I am greatly disappointed by this presentation,” said Jennifer Eisenstadt, a member of the grassroots group A Better Way NYC. “I think that there has been a great deal of time and money spent creating very glossy posters with information that, as a community, we already know through and through, since we have all in this room been so engaged with this project for years. 

“And to have a meeting on a rainy night with no seating for elderly people, no official question-and-answer period, and staff that nods and asked you to put a cute card on a pin board, is deeply offensive,” Eisenstadt said. “As a member of the community who has put so much into trying to come up with a better way for this project, I hope that next time they will do better.”

Councilmember Lincoln Restler looks at a poster depicting the history of the BQE.

City Councilmember Lincoln Restler also expressed some doubts about the approach.

“I’m appreciative that the administration is prioritizing the failing triple cantilever, but I struggle to understand the format of the events for this evening,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle. “There isn’t really an opportunity for the community to give feedback or input that, according to DOT, is going to inform their plans and designs. So I’m worried that DOT is getting off to a start where they are not engaging and listening, because I don’t see any opportunity for direct feedback.”

“If they are preparing to submit a specific plan for the future of the triple cantilever in the next few months, then they need to start having real conversations with this community yesterday,” Restler said.

Brooklyn Heights resident Susan Skerritt, however, was willing to cut DOT some slack.

“I think this meeting is a good start,” she said. “It’s not a lot of time and I think that there are a lot of constraints they have to deal with, but I think they are going to do everything they can to be transparent so that we all have an understanding of what the issues are and what is possible given those issues.”

Skerritt added that she took a tour of Central Park last week and was struck by “how visionary our New York ancestors were. And how it would be nice if the work that we are doing now on the BQE could in fact be as visionary, so that in 200 years the people in front of us look back and say, ‘Wow, they really were thinking long-term about the city.’”

Julie Bero (left), chief strategy officer at NYC DOT, and Bahij Chancey, consultant with WXY Studio, started off the workshop with a slide presentation.

Brooklyn Heights Association President Koren Volk said that she was trying to remain optimistic.

“The good news is there are people in the community who care enough to come out on a rainy night,” she said. “I honestly think that the timetable is really tight for conceptual drawings in December, and I’m somewhat skeptical about how much real input these workshops can provide because we are not engineers, so all we are doing is just nibbling around the edges. I am trying to remain optimistic, but there are some serious issues.” 

Ultimately, she would like the BQE to be “invisible” to the neighborhood, Volk said. “And I’m sure every neighborhood that has the BQE next to it would like the BQE to be invisible.” 

Heights resident and architect Marc Wouters, who worked with the Brooklyn Heights Association in 2018 to design an alternate option for the BQE, said he felt positive about the workshop. “It’s early yet and we’ll have plenty of other times to talk,” he said.

“I think it’s always a good first step to engage the community and try to provide educational materials, and have someone who people can walk up to and talk to about the process of what’s going on and some of the major issues,” Wouters said. “And the public engagement hopefully is transparent, and that’s always the right thing to do.”

Linda DeRosa, president of the Willowtown Association, speaks to Zeeshan Ott, Sr. Manager, Communications & Public Involvement at WSP.

“I think it’s a good start; it’s a crummy night and a lot of people came out,” said Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon. “I hope that they will do more engagement of a sort where people are talking to each other going forward. Because it’s great to talk one-on-one, but you can get stuck talking about one thing for 20 minutes and not engage with anybody else in the room.” 

Simon added, “One of the things that I think will be key to making this engagement process work is to realize that we have a lot of people who live and work in the area who are in fact planners, engineers and architects and have a lot of experience with this roadway, and also have credentials in these areas and have a lot of ideas.”

“I am satisfied with the presentation. It’s a good start,” said Laurie Duncan, new chair of the Atlantic Avenue BID. “I was at the kickoff meeting on Zoom and I was looking forward to talking to people in person.

“I think if all of these players are truly being honest when they say they want community input and that they will take that input seriously, then I think we can all get out of this alive. If it is just theater, if it is just pacification, we are going to end up with something worse than we currently have, but maybe it won’t be falling apart and that’s the only consolation that we will get,” Duncan said.

Linda DeRosa, president of the Willowtown Association, told the Eagle, “I think that I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I’m ready for some meat and potatoes.” There have been two Zoom presentations and other levels of engagement from some community members, she said, “But I really haven’t seen anything coming back from their side so it’s a little concerning. The community, we want a little more commitment from them. If they are planning to really start working on the cantilever section soon, then next year they need to really start giving some information on it.”

Dozens of Brooklyn Heights residents trekked to the New York City College of Technology on a rainy Thursday night to attend the BQE Central workshop.

Heights resident and science journalist Laurie Garrett said she was appalled by the workshop.

“We’ve already been through I don’t know how many meetings for the last several years. We’ve seen one report after another, one alleged plan after another. And now we are supposed to put push pins into fiber boards and say, ‘Gee whiz, I live here,’” she told the Eagle.

“I am pretty appalled by this,” Garrett said. “It feels very Mickey Mouse to me, and I assume they will throw away all of it.”

Hank Gutman (right), former Commissioner of DOT under Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaks to a DOT or design representative at the workshop.

In a letter sent to the Eagle after the workshop, Garret said she got the impression from the posters on display that the options being considered will not challenge the “bottom-line assumption” of a six-lane highway following basically the same route as the current highway. 

She also pointed out that “no details were provided” regarding the lengthy report compiled in 2017-2018 by de Blasio’s panel of experts. “It’s as if their entire effort simply vanished,” she said. 

A virtual session covering the same material will take place virtually on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m. For more details please visit the project website, bqevision.com.

Heights residents attended the BQE Central workshop on a rainy Thursday night at New York City College of Technology.
Some participants said there wasn’t enough room to fit important ideas on the little tags.
Heights resident and architect Marc Wouters, center, called Thursday’s BQE Central workshop “a good first step.”
Participants in the workshop were asked to write their ideas on tags and stick them to the map.
Important milestones in the BQE Central process. Courtesy of DOT
DOT’s anticipated timeline for all sections of the BQE rehabilitation. Courtesy of DOT

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