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Archicritic Wistfully Calls For Waterfront Streetcar Line

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It's not a new idea, a waterfront streetcar line meandering the length of Brooklyn and Queens' flourishing neighborhoods along the East River, but the New York Times has just latched on. On Sunday, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman made a case—really, a call to action—for the development of this fixture, that he argues would constitute "a permanent commitment which generates economic development and becomes its own attraction." The line would weave from Astoria Park through Long Island City, require a new bridge (kindly pitched with a pedestrian/bike path over Newtown Creek) to link it to Greenpoint, and travel down through Williamsburg and Fort Greene, and culminate at Ikea Plaza in Red Hook. It's a decade-old idea borrowed from urban planner Alex Garvins, and one that's contested for its relative impracticality compared with expanded bus service. But there's no "romance" in expanded bus service, Kimmelman notes,

Why a streetcar? Buses are a more obvious solution. Improved bus service is an easier sell, faster to get up and running, and cheaper up front. A bus would be ... fine. But where's the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change. It invites investment and becomes its own attraction. I'm not talking Ye Olde Trolley. This is transit for New Yorkers who can't wait another half-century for the next subway station.

Kimmelman believes the streetcar would serve the masses who hyper-bop from Greenpoint to Bed-Stuy to Red Hook in the span of one day, and also notes the impact he believes it will have on "New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force," those who live in the underserved neighborhoods between the river and subways. Kimmelman's idea, Second Avenue Sagas notes, is "a Big Idea for the sake of Big Ideas,"

It's always dangerous when The Times latches onto an element of urban planning as they tend to push real estate interests over transit needs, and their coverage of this idea as a mixed-traffic streetcar connecting waterfront areas that don't need to be connected to each other follows a similar pattern. This is a Big Idea for the sake of Big Ideas and not to solve a discrete problem As for the cost of this lofty project? An executive in a firm developing self-powered, wireless streetcars quotes $241 million for the cars and installation of the rails. Kimmelman: "So double that number once or twice back here on Planet Earth, then add the bridge and operating expenses....O.K., I hear the Bronx cheers. Too expensive, not important enough, a pipe dream. But the truth, though, is that healthy transit-supported development — we're not talking about a $4 billion Path Station here—nearly always pays dividends in New York." Ah, touché.
[Image via Second Avenue Sagas from Next New York.]
· Brooklyn to Queens, but Not by Subway [NYT]
· In which The Times discovers waterfront light rail [SAS]
· Light Rail for the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront [Next New York]