Brooklyn officials: NY state must partner with city to build ‘BQGreen’

Would cap a section of BQE North with green parkland

June 20, 2023 Mary Frost
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WILLIAMSBURG Brooklyn officials and community organizations gathered in Rodney Park North on Tuesday to demand that Gov. Kathy Hochul direct the state to partner with New York City to apply for federal infrastructure funds to build a green, parklike platform over a sunken portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) cutting through a Black, Latino and Orthodox Jewish section of South Williamsburg.

The trench, which falls into a state-owned section of the highway the city calls BQE North, has divided the neighborhood for 70 years, and pollution from the interstate highway has affected the health, economy and opportunities of residents for generations.

The city is willing to be a co-applicant with the state on the project, dubbed BQGreen, which has been in a preliminary planning stage for more than a decade, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso and Rep. Nydia Velazquez said.

The BQE “Trench” divides the South Williamsburg community. The neighborhood’s only playground is adjacent to this polluting highway. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

“But the state said no,” Reynoso said.

The state’s stance is inexplicable given that the project appears to match a major priority of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework: reversing decades of divisive and polluting infrastructure projects that have fallen most heavily on communities of color. 

Reynoso said he has been working on the project since then-Councilmember Diana Reyna, for whom Reynoso was serving as Chief of Staff, came up with the project in 2010.

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso (at the podium), with Rep. Nydia Velazquez (left) and a host of Brooklyn officials and representatives from community organizations. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

“Decades later, nothing has changed. I tried again as a Councilmember. Here we are again.” He noted that childhood asthma cases at Woodhull Hospital was three times higher for neighborhood kids than the rate for the general city population. “It’s no coincidence” that the BQE runs mostly through low-income neighborhoods, he said.

“Now the stars have all but aligned – the [federal] funding is there, the support of the people remains strong – but still the state chooses to dig in its heels and turn a blind eye to the harms of the past that remain alive and well here in Williamsburg. We’re asking for the bare minimum from the state,” Reynoso added. “If we miss this opportunity, New York State is to blame.”

The funds necessary to build BQGreen in Williamsburg “is peanuts — a drop in the bucket,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Velazquez: ‘This is peanuts’

Velazquez said the BQE had divided Brooklyn communities and caused high asthma rates, heavy traffic and noise pollution all along its route for decades. 

“The federal infrastructure funding currently available presents our state with a critical opportunity to finance BQGreen and address numerous environmental justice and public health issues in the process. We can’t let this moment slip by,” she said.

The state’s lack of action is not about money, but about priorities, Velazquez said. New York State would be receiving $32 billion in federal grants, while BQGreen would cost roughly $200 to $300 million. 

“This is peanuts — a drop in the bucket,” she said. “We’re asking the governor to join us in this fight.”

“We are demanding that Gov. Kathy Hochul show up for this community,” Councilmember Jennifer Gutierrez said. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Reynoso and Velazquez were joined by Councilmember Jennifer Gutierrez, Councilmember Lincoln Restler, state Sen. Kristen Gonzalez and community groups St. Nick’s Alliance, Los Sures, El Puente and David Katz, representing Rabbi Lederman.

“As of June 20, we are no longer encouraging — we are demanding that Gov. Hochul show up for this community,” Gutierrez said. “By embracing the plan that this community has developed for years, we can restore unity and environmental justice, and give this community the green space and clear air it deserves.”

“The community in the Southside of Williamsburg coalesced around a vision for its stretch of the BQE highway many years ago,” Restler said.

From left: Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Councilmember Lincoln Restler enjoy a moment of levity at Tuesday’s press conference on the BQGreen proposal. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Unlike the city-owned central portion of the BQE — the Triple Cantilever which runs along the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights — in BQE North and BQE South, builder Robert Moses “rammed” the highway straight through neighborhoods, Restler said.

The city is applying for federal infrastructure funds to an upcoming redesign of BQE Central, which underpins the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade. “That should set a model for what should happen in other neighborhoods,” he added.

BQE builder Robert Moses “rammed” the highway straight through disadvantaged Brooklyn neighborhoods, Councilmember Lincoln Restler said. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

The plans for BQGreen would cap the highway and combine Marcy Green and Rodney Park into 3.5 acres of green, open space. The park would be outfitted with a flower garden, playground, baseball diamond, barbecues, grassy and wooded areas, indoor pool and a water play zone.

In April of 2010, Reyna funded the St. Nick’s Alliance to commission DLANDstudio to explore whether the trench portions of the BQE in Williamsburg could be covered over and used as a public greenspace, resulting in the BQGreen proposal. 

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso describes the features of the proposed BQGreen. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Cover all the BQE trenches, Brooklyn communities say

Communities south of BQE Central, from Cobble Hill to Red Hook, have also suffered from the same division and pollution as neighborhoods in Williamsburg. A coalition of organizations and officials are pushing for a corridor-wide transformation of the entire BQE, calling this moment a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take advantage of federal infrastructure funds to radically reimagine the highway.

At the recent BQE 2053 symposium on Governors Island, an overarching theme was the necessity of rethinking the entire BQE corridor as a whole, rather than in segments, as part of a sustainable, multi-modal transportation network. BQGreen could fit into this transformation, supporters said.

“Let’s make the air cleaner for everybody,” said David Katz, representing Rabbi Lederman. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

However, a corridor-wide redesign necessitates forming a joint city-state corridor governing body — a step that has so far not been taken.

The state is responsible for 95% of the BQE. In February, Reynoso, Velazquez and 16 fellow elected officials issued a joint statement calling the state’s refusal to commit to participating in NYC DOT’s visioning process for their portions of the BQE “completely unacceptable and irresponsible.”

State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez said she grew up near the BQE, which was known as the “Boulevard of Death.” Eagle photo by Mary Frost

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