The City Council will hire an independent firm to analyze plans to reconstruct a deteriorating stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Council speaker Corey Johnson announced during a packed town hall in Brooklyn Heights.
Hundreds crammed into Plymouth Church on Wednesday night to hear about a series of proposals, which turn to innovative solutions as an alternative to the city’s contested reconstruction plans. Regardless of the project the city presses forward with, the plan is required to go through a rigorous approvals process with City Council and state Legislature review. To aid in that, the council is taking on an independent expert to provide analysis as everything unfolds.
“Our guiding principal is this: If we’re going to spend billions and billions of dollars on a project that is important to our city and to this neighborhood, shouldn’t the end result be better than what we began with?” Johnson told the crowd. “Let’s not assume that the best way forward is the old car-centric way. Our city needs to get creative.”
Johnson’s pledge came hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will convene a 16-member panel of engineers, architects, and urbanists to explore new options—taking a page out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s book, who assembled his own panel to avoid the dreaded L train shutdown.
The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) put forward two possible plans to mend the decaying roadway last year. One, which the city has dubbed the innovative approach, would temporarily replace the cherished Brooklyn Heights Promenade with an elevated six-lane highway during construction. Alternatively, workers could refurbish the BQE lane-by-lane and divert traffic around construction in what the city calls the traditional approach.
Each plan has drawn the ire of locals, including the Brooklyn Heights Association, which has submitted its own proposal known as the temporary bypass method, and has spent some $50,000—with contractual obligations bringing that up to $85,000—on consulting experts related to the project, according to Martha Dietz, the association’s president. A Better Way, a grassroots group that sprung up in opposition to the the city’s plans, spent $45,000 last year lobbying DOT and elected officials, city lobbying records show. Those groups joined forces to host Wednesday’s town hall.
Outrage from elected officials has mounted, with Johnson calling the idea of a temporary, six-lane highway on Brooklyn Heights residents’ doorstep “not a viable solution,” noting that DOT’s plans “traded one problem for another.” City Council member Stephen Levin, who represents Brooklyn Heights, was less tactful, saying “options A and option B stink” and calling on the city to meaningfully engage with the community on forward-thinking solutions. Comptroller Scott Stringer, who put forth his own plan that would convert the BQE into a truck-only highway topped with a nearly two-mile-long linear park, stressed the project’s city-wide implications.
“We’ve got to build communities that are clean and safe, we have to understand that it’s the children who will suffer if we don’t,” said Stringer. “If we can build on community-based planning here, it will be a rallying cry to every neighborhood in the city.”
Bjarke Ingels Group is the latest and most prominent firm to throw its hat into the ring with its “BQP” proposal, which envisions two scenarios to fix the roadway with an aboveground tunnel that would be decked over. A Better Way visited BIG’s offices to pitch them on looking into the BQE project, only to discover that for the last month and a half the firm has been working on its own pro bono study that would add 10 acres of parkland to the area.
“What we want to understand is, is there a way that we can actually create this as social infrastructure—so not just repairs of an aging highway that then accommodates cars,” Jeremy Siegel, an associate with BIG, said during the firm’s first public presentation of the plan. “But how can we double, triple, and quadruple those investments so that they’re working overtime?”
Under the proposal, BIG would convert Furman Street into a new six-lane roadway that would be decked over. This would be done through a lane-by-lane deconstruction and reconstruction approach. BQE traffic would be rerouted to that new expressway, and the new landscape would allow BIG to create sprawling green spaces extending Brooklyn Bridge Park. Furman street could also be incorporated as a corridor for the city’s proposed BQX streetcar, if there’s a desire for that, Siegel noted.
Meanwhile, the triple-cantilever structure could be repaired and turned into a linear park, which Siegel notes is similar to the tri-line proposal suggested by Brooklyn Heights resident Mark Baker. If the structure is too damaged, the rubble from its deconstruction could be ground up and reused to create a “stabilized slope” from Furman Street up toward the promenade that would feed into the creation of new parkland. A “menu of ideas” is possible here, Siegel said.
Existing infrastructure and buildings would need to be rejiggered with the massive plan, including the relocation of an MTA substation, razing the four-story Brooklyn Bridge Park headquarters building on Furman Street, and creating a “cul de sac of cars” on Joralemon Street. The plan would also deck over the Cobble Hill trench—a depression of the BQE that runs from Congress Street to Hamilton Avenue—but would start at Atlantic Avenue for a more seamless integration into the neighborhood.
“We could really rethink this whole area as a cohesive unit,” said Siegel.
A cost and time estimate for the plan has yet to be made public, though BIG claims it will be less expensive and less time-consuming than DOT’s proposals.
Regardless of the plan the city selects, it will have to go through an extensive land use review process and will be subject to City Council and state Legislature approvals. But the Mayor’s new panel and the City Council’s investment on an independent firm gives advocates hope that an innovative alternative that puts the community first is possible.
“Instead of what are you fighting against, which was really the question we were all left with [when the city announced its plans], the question I have for you tonight to go home and think about is: What are you going to fight for?” said Hilary Jager, with A Better Way. “Can we fight for this to be an opportunity to be something really, truly innovative?”