Brooklyn Heights

Are the BQE workshops an empty exercise?

Online format rates higher, but ignoring previous studies criticized

October 26, 2022 Mary Frost
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BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Many of the 141 people who logged into the NYC Department of Transportation’s online Oct. 18 engagement workshop about the redesign of the “Central” portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) said they felt the virtual format was more conducive to open discussion than the previous week’s in-person workshop on the same topic

Some participants, however, thought there was something missing in both of the city’s BQE Central workshops: an acknowledgment of the years of previous workshops and community forums, the Mayoral Expert Panel report, the City Council report, a regional study and other studies.

In the chat during the Zoom workshop, Ann Dooley commented, “I think this format works much better than the in-person to have group discussion and gather information.”

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Cindy McLaughlin said, “Agreed! This was a much more helpful format, because we could provide context and bigger ideas rather than just looking at individual pain points.” (The slideshow can be viewed online at bqevision.com). 

Several concerns became apparent in the breakout room discussions. One was the wish to center the discussion on transformative ideas, including minimizing the BQE, burying it, or even reviving the idea of a tunnel under 4th Avenue. Another concern was the preservation of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the safety of the houses along its edge. 

Elizabeth Davis, who lives on Grace Court overlooking the BQE, said the vibrations the last two years have gotten so bad, “We have moved into our kids’ bedrooms in the back Monday – Thursday.”

Ann Herendeen agreed. The vibrations have been “much worse” in the past few months, she said. “Afraid the building won’t survive until repairs start in March?”

Others asked, “Where will the trucks go?” 

“I really fear the massive increase in truck traffic which will come down Hicks Street in front of my building.” said Martha Ellman.

The separation of the project into BQE Central and BQE North and South segments, each with its own timetable, was seen as a limiting factor by some of the workshop participants. 

“If the Central section is designed before the South section, will that not inherently limit the possible designs, especially for the section between Atlantic and Joralemon?” commented Furman Street resident Ned Dodds, a member of the planning group for Boston’s enormous “Big Dig” project. 

DOT’s Julie Bero promised that in the next in-person workshop, “We will aim to foster more group conversation.”

A screengrab from the recent online BQE workshop shows “pinchpoints” affecting the highway. Courtesy NYC DOT

 

Something missing: the past, and years of work

After some criticism following the first BQE Central meeting, DOT added a slide to their project website with a photo and brief description of some of the many previous concepts and studies. But these were not a major topic of discussion during either workshop. Newbies sounded surprised when it leaked out in the chat section that there have been many design ideas already conceived.

“I have been going to meetings on this for 15 years,” Sidney Meyer wrote.

“Would love to be able to reference past designs. Are they viewable somewhere?” asked Nora McCauley.

In the chat, DOT supplied a link leading to the web page with the names and photos of some previous designs. No discussion of these designs ensued, however, and DOT’s website had no links leading to a discussion of these options.

In this screengrab from the recent online BQE workshop, facilitator Charvi Gupta from WXY moderates a hands-on exercise for participants. Courtesy NYC DOT

 

Is it just an exercise?

On its face, the city seems to be making a good faith effort to conduct community outreach. The topic is one of the most complex ever faced by the city’s DOT. The city is pressured by the decrepit condition of the roadway, eaten away by years of corrosive salt and overweight trucks, and the incredibly “ambitious” timeline imposed by Mayor Eric Adams. DOT is further hemmed in by the roadway’s position: wedged in between an extremely expensive and popular park, supporting a beloved landmark, and running alongside some of the most desirable real estate in New York City. 

However, a reluctance to include information about the massive amount of work already carried out on the project almost gives the impression that the city’s outreach effort, despite its nicely-designed graphics, is pro forma. 

One could be forgiven for thinking that while the community is back at square one, pasting circles on their areas of concern on pretty maps and leaving their comments in Zoom chats, the city, DOT and the many vendors signed onto the project are already on square 16.

That is why the Brooklyn Eagle is revisiting online some of the ideas that were developed over the past several years. Seven major plans can be found online at here

We are also linking online to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Expert Panel Report (2020); the NYC Council’s ‘Future of the BQE’ report (2020); the Regional Planning Association’s ‘Reimagining the BQE’ (2019); and NYS Environmental Impact Study (2011) for various options including a tunnel. 

We are also linking to A Better Way NYC’s resource-filled website; the Brooklyn Heights Association’s web page on the BQE; and the Unified Vision Statement the Brooklyn Heights Association and eleven other neighborhood associations and groups  sent to the Mayor’s Expert Panel. 

 

While participants found the online format of the workshop better than the in-person event, others wanted to learn more about previous design solutions, which were not brought up during the workshop. One of these, Brooklyn-Queens Park (BQP), designed by the firm BIG, is shown above. Courtesy of BIG

Why it matters

BQE Central, a 1.5-mile section of the highway from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue, which includes the triple-cantilever underlying the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 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 section of the highway has been the focus of enormous community activism for years. DOT’s initial plan under former Mayor Bill de Blasio— which would have transformed the Brooklyn Heights Promenade into a six-lane, pollution-spewing highway while the BQE was reconstructed underneath — was eliminated after massive outcry.

De Blasio then moved on to convene an expert panel. After months of study, the panel called for immediate emergency repairs, waterproofing 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 decided to drop this plan and accelerate the Central part of the redesign timetable to take advantage of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” 


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