City presents new ‘stacked’ design for BQE triple cantilever

Too many questions left unanswered

June 22, 2024 Mary Frost
A view of one design variation, dubbed “linear” because of the vertical framing, as seen from Furman Street. Graphic: NYC DOT
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DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Brooklyn residents on Thursday got their first look at a new design idea for rebuilding the Triple Cantilever portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at a presentation by the NYC Department of Transportation in Downtown Brooklyn.

While the engineering solution appeared an improvement over previous designs, many attendees said so many basic questions were unanswered — including how many lanes the highway will end up having — it was hard to come to any conclusion. 

This was the fifth design presented by DOT over several years to replace the crumbling city-owned stretch of highway running from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront. (The city calls this segment BQE Central.)

A connection from the Promenade, concerns about demolishing the retaining wall and “looking at big ideas now” were some of the ideas attendees at Thursday’s BQE meeting brought up at this table. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

The new design, as explained by Julie Bero, DOT’s Chief Strategy Officer, and engineer Michael Stein of schlaich bergermann partner, would replace the current cantilever configuration with stacked levels, squaring up the overall shape. 

Modern highways must, by law, be about 20% wider than highways built during Robert Moses’ era, such as the BQE. By stacking the two lower traffic levels (the top level is the Brooklyn Heights Promenade) the new BQE structure would take up roughly the same room as it does currently — assuming it is limited to two traffic lanes in each direction, which is not a given. 

If stacked east of Furman Street as proposed, the structure would allow 21-27 feet between the highway and the existing residential building at 360 Furman St., similar to the current distance.

Only the two-lane configuration was illustrated, however. An additional lane in each direction would add 8-10 feet to the width, according to Bero.

The new design would allow from 21-27 feet between the highway and 360 Furman St., but only if restricted to two lanes in each direction. (“Linear” design variant.) Graphic: NYC DOT

Would require demo of retaining wall

This configuration would require the demolition of the existing retaining wall next to the highway’s Staten Island-bound lanes in order to line it up with the retaining wall adjacent to the Queens-bound lanes. Stein said the new retaining wall would be air-gapped, helping to preserve buildings currently undermined by vibrations from the highway. 

The actual process of demolishing a 75-year-old retaining wall underpinning or adjacent to numerous structures was not explained in detail, however.

The new design would allow from 21-27 feet between the highway and 360 Furman St., but only if restricted to two lanes in each direction. (“Triangle” design variant.) Graphic: NYC DOT

Would require Promenade tear-down

The stacked design would also require tearing down the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade. DOT said the Promenade would be rebuilt “in kind.”  (Previous designs called for larger and more stark Promenade replacements, considered by many residents to be out of scale and lacking the historic character of the current esplanade.)

The view of the new highway design as seen from Joralemon Street. Graphic: NYC DOT

Would likely require a temporary bypass highway

A bypass highway would likely have to be built during the teardown of the current highway, but the presentation did not cover how or where this could be done, or where the extensive staging would be placed. Alienation of parkland was not discussed.

An aerial view of the design proposal, which only encompasses the Triple Cantilever portion. Graphic: NYC DOT

Number of lanes still not known

Bero said that DOT was running 99 traffic models in order to consider two- and three-lane configurations. The recent “pause” on congestion pricing would have to be factored in now as well, she said. The city is also planning major new waterfront development just south of Atlantic Avenue and extending into Red Hook, which will have to be factored in.

On the positive side, DOT would consider closing the dangerous Queens-bound on-ramp at Atlantic Avenue based on the results of the studies, she said.

Following this analysis and rounds of environmental studies, construction could begin mid-2029.

DOT’s timeline of the BQE Central redesign project. Graphic: NYC DOT

Why spend $5 billion to maintain the status quo?

“There are positive elements to the new concepts shared with our community, but ultimately we’re left with even more open questions,” Councilmember Lincoln Restler told the Eagle following the presentation.

He added, “I am committed to continuing to push for a BQE design that limits noise, vibration and negative environmental impacts while expanding green space.”

Some attendees questioned spending $5 billion to rebuild Robert Moses’ outmoded highway, when the city’s own original maintenance plan would have preserved the existing highway for at least two decades while a more comprehensive and sustainable solution could be conceived.

“We’re still in the process of understanding what exactly is being proposed and what the ramifications would be, not only for Brooklyn Heights, but for all of the BQE-adjacent communities we are working in collaboration with, including our partners in the BQE – Environmental Justice Coalition,” Lara Birnback, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, told the Eagle.  

Lara Birnback, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association (center) discusses the new BQE proposal and its ramifications on Thursday. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

The coalition, which launched in April, says the city’s proposal ignores the plight of communities living north and south of BQE Central, which have been bisected by the highway for 80 years. BQE-EJC is calling for a comprehensive, corridor-wide transformation of the entire BQE.

“I appreciate that this new concept is responsive to feedback about not expanding the highway’s footprint and further encroaching on homes and Brooklyn Bridge Park (of course, that’s only if the highway doesn’t revert back to six lanes),” Birnback said. “It’s also encouraging that closing the Queens-bound entrance ramp at Atlantic Avenue is being studied, as this intersection and on-ramp have long been a scourge.

 “Aside from that, however, numerous questions and significant concerns remain,” she said. “The most  fundamental of these, and which we’ve been asking since the beginning of this process, is why the city and state are proposing to spend approximately $5 billion to maintain the long-discredited infrastructure of our city’s past — instead of investing in its future.”

Workshop participants discussed a new BQE Central design on Thursday at a presentation by the NYC Department of Transportation in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Public needs more information

Too many questions remain about the retaining wall, parallel highway and overall configuration, several attendees said.

“The public is entitled to see all of the implications of these designs,” said urban planner and designer Marc Wouters. “Demolition of the existing retaining wall will likely require a parallel highway constructed next to the existing one, so traffic can move during construction. It will be in place for several years.” 

Wouters added, “If a three-lane option is selected by DOT, DOT admits it will be bigger than the perspectives shown. The public is entitled to see all of these things, so that they can make an informed decision.”

Michael Stein of schlaich bergermann partner and Julie Bero, NYC DOT’s Chief Strategy Officer, presented DOT’s latest design idea for BQE Central. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Bringing down retaining wall a huge job

Transportation activist and tunnel advocate Roy Sloane said that the engineering work presented by Stein was professional. and leaving the air gap was a good idea … “But the big news from this meeting is they are talking about bringing down the retaining wall. I have great respect for international contractors… but is the city qualified to do this job? The state has the depth and the caliber of expertise to be able to handle a project like this, and has done a number of magnificent projects — I point to the K Bridge (Kosciuszko Bridge).”

He also feels that the design “is going to create backups and slow traffic in all of the various areas that Commissioner Rodriguez says he cares about. The only solution is a tunnel.”

 A 2020 study for the New York City Council, carried out by global engineering firm Arup, highlighted the tunnel proposal as one of its two preferred solutions. 

“The 2020 BQE hearing recommendation and DOT’s own 2016 feasibility study proved that the tunnel alignment was doable,” Sloane said.  “It should at least be explored.”

DOT’s presentation will be repeated on Monday, June 24, 6:30 p.m. online on Zoom.

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