BHA’s 2023 Annual Meeting: Adams praised, cajoled on BQE
This year’s panel: ‘Rethinking the Public Realm’
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — The chapel at Packer Collegiate Institute was nearly filled Wednesday night for the Brooklyn Heights Association’s (BHA) 2023 Annual Meeting. It was the first in-person meeting for BHA since 2020.
BHA President Koren Volk led off with a topic that has been an active focus of the neighborhood organization for years: the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in particular BQE Central, the segment that includes the crumbling Triple Cantilever supporting the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
Volk stated firmly that the organization applauded the Adams administration “for determining that it had to prioritize a long-term solution for the entire BQE corridor.” However, she also made it clear that the organization believes the entire corridor should be slimmed down to four lanes, as opposed to six — a stance supported by Brooklyn officials up and down the highway, but something that the administration has not committed to.
“BHA applauds the Adams administration for having the vision to look beyond a patchwork collection of BQE repairs,” Volk said. “Mayor [Eric] Adams could actually go down in history books as the man who righted the wrongs of Robert Moses. But we need a solution that improves quality of life, reduces greenhouse gases and reverses the trends in poor public health for everyone who lives or works near the BQE. We need a bold and innovative solution, and the path to bold and innovative is four lanes, not six,” she said to applause.
Volk said that BHA is also advocating for “covering and capping as much of the roadway as possible,” and for “New York state to join us at the table to plan for the future of the BQE.”
The audience groaned when they heard that construction, which is slated to begin in 2027, may take as long as 10 to 15 years.
“There’s no way around it this,” Volk said. “The construction project is going to significantly impact all neighborhoods along BQE Central, including our own. Construction is noisy; construction reduces air quality; construction disrupts traffic; and we are going to be living with that for years. But if we are going to have to put up with this disruption for a decade or more, then we deserve the best possible outcome.”
Other topics of the meeting included the past year’s activities, including BHA’s main fundraiser, the third Brooklyn Heights Designers Showhouse. “We dazzled the design community!” Volk said.
She also spoke about the organization’s amazing success in attracting new businesses to Montague Street, and this year’s upcoming events.
This year’s upcoming Day of Service will take place on May 7. “We will be introducing two new hands-on activities on that day — a tree stewardship program in partnership with Councilmember Lincoln Restler and a food prep and packaging for our community fridge and the Saint Ann’s food pantry,” Volk said.
Susan Restler provided the fiscal review (audited financial statements can be found on the BHA website.
BHA presented its annual Community Service Awards to groups and individuals who have made significant contributions to the neighborhood’s quality of life. Continuing a long tradition, Tom Stewart, former staff announcer (he recently retired) for Thirteen WNET New York, emceed the award ceremony.
The meeting also featured a panel discussion on “Rethinking the Public Realm,”
with Jeffrey C. LeFrancois, executive director of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District BID; Andrew Brown, director of programs for Van Alen Institute; and Jenna Miller, deputy director of Urban Design and Policy at the Public Design Commission. The panel was moderated by Susannah Drake, award-winning architect and designer (and a principal at Sasaki), and a long-time resident of Brooklyn Heights.
Community Service Awards
This year’s awards for community service were presented to Anil Chandrakumar, horticulturist for the Promenade Garden Conservancy (PGC is a public-private partnership between the NYC Parks Department and BHA), and the Friends of Hillside Dog Park.
“The PGC lucked out when Anil joined the team. His vision, leadership, dedication, and his friendship have been transformative to the gardens but even more importantly, to the people who have volunteered with him,” Stewart said. “His selection by NYC Parks to manage the Promenade gardens and the volunteers is a testament to what we all know to be true – his unique and special combination of horticultural and people skills.”
In lauding the Friends of Hillside Dog Park, Stewart noted that not only did the group revive Hillside Park, but “has spearheaded numerous service days in the park with the support of many dedicated volunteers. It’s notable that Friends of Hillside is focused not just on making the park more appealing for those who use it, but also in supporting important climate goals,” and forming relationships with partners like NYC Parks, DSNY and Councilmember Lincoln Restler and his staff.
Hillside winners (and their dogs) include: Cathy Clarke (and Too), Brian McCormick (and Harry), Nan Richardson (and Dash), Nick Ferrone (and Smith), Andrea Demetropoulus (and Lola), Sasha Linney (and Bebe), Grace Lee (and Mini) and James Bogan (and Mia).
Rethinking the Public Realm”
“How do you bring artists, designers, and communities together to build spaces that really dignify the people who live there? You are swimming upstream when you ask that question, but it’s a fight that has to be fought,” said panelist Andrew Brown of the Van Alen Institute, which recently moved to Gowanus.
Jeffrey LeFrancois of Manhattan’s Meatpacking BID pointed out that that 80% of the city’s open space was dedicated to vehicles, and “only 20% of safe space for people.
“It’s important to think very bold,” he said. “My focus is the space outside — to make sure that experience outside is just as enjoyable as it would be if you were buying a bag at Hermes or a pair of jeans at Rag and Bone. The space outside is so important for New Yorkers.”
Public Design Commission’s Jenna Miller said the group is “chartered by the city to review all proposed projects that involve architecture, public artwork, landscape art on or over city-owned property.” But the commission has a tiny staff, she pointed out — just 11 pro bono commissioners from a variety of fields, including architecture and art, and representatives from museums and libraries.
“In addition to just aesthetics, we really try to encourage people to think about equity in community urban design and how all these different projects fit together. in our public sphere,” she said.
At prompting from moderator Susannah Drake, both Brown and LeFrancois said it was often hard to get things accomplished due to an unresponsive city bureaucracy, especially during the pandemic.
One of the lessons he learned, Brown said, is “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. … I don’t say in the long run that this is the way the city should work.”
“I’ll say it,” LeFrancois said. For example, “In 2021, I told DOT 8 months in advance of the Flower Show that I was going to design a planter barricade.” After not hearing from the city, LeFrancois went ahead with the project anyway, and it proved successful, he said.
“What Jeffrey just suggested is not crazy,” Brown said. “Most people at that level in the community never propose anything insane, and yet there’s still all these hurdles. There’s a lot of creativity in our neighborhoods that can be unlocked. We just need to lower the barrier to let that happen.
“Most people are willing to pilot [a design] and if it goes on for 6 months and it looks like it didn’t work, pull it back,” Brown said. “You don’t have to raise the stakes so much. You don’t have to etch it in stone.”
Volk said her takeaway from the discussion was, “Ask people what they want, and treat people with dignity. These are very important lessons we learned tonight.”
A raffle wrapped up the evening, with prizes provided by neighborhood businesses including Books Are Magic, Cloudy Donuts, Dellarocco’s Pizza, James Weir Floral Company, Joe Coffee, Kiels, L’Appartement 4F, Le French Tart Deli and Montague Wine and Spirits.
Dr. Jon Berall won the bag stuffed with goodies.
“I’ve always been lucky,” he said.
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