Mayor appoints panel to evaluate BQE rehab options
by Benjamin Fang
Apr 09, 2019 | 3699 views | 0 0 comments | 168 168 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Since last September, Brooklyn residents have been calling on the city to reconsider its plan to fix a crumbling portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).

City Hall listened to those voices. Last Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of a new expert panel to evaluate the options to replace the aging highway from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street.

“The BQE is a lifeline for Brooklyn and the entire city,” de Blasio said in a statement, “which is why we are bringing in a panel of nationally renowned experts from a range of fields to vet all ideas and make sure we get this right.

“We will be engaging in a transparent, collaborative process to find the best solution for one of the most critical transportation corridors in the nation,” the mayor added.

The chair of the new BQE Panel will be Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress. Other members include leaders of labor, business and engineering companies and schools.

According to the city, the panel will begin meeting this month, and will produce their conclusions by this summer. The experts will then submit a brief report outlining key recommendations to solving the problem.

“This new panel presents an important opportunity to create the best plan possible,” said Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “with community voices heard throughout the process.”

This 1.5-mile section of the BQE features a triple-cantilever, topped by the popular Brooklyn Heights Promenade. When it was constructed under the leadership of Robert Moses in the 1950s, it only carried 50,000 vehicles daily.

Today, the highway carries more than 150,000 vehicles daily, including over 15,000 trucks. City officials who studied the road determined that if the road is not reconstructed by 2026, weight restrictions would need to be added, diverting all trucks to local streets.

DOT presented two options for rehabilitation, including one that would temporarily convert the promenade into a six-lane highway. Brooklyn Heights residents overwhelmingly rejected that choice.

Later that evening, more than 1,000 residents convened at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights for a town hall meeting. They celebrated the mayor’s announcement of the expert panel, but pledged to keep fighting for alternative plans.

“While it is exciting to see the momentum, the fight is far from over,” said Hilary Jager, who co-founded the grassroots group A Better Way. “This is a big step in the right direction.”

According to Jager, who met with City Hall representatives, city officials told her they wanted to “turn the page” and take a fresh look at the project.

“I believe they were sincere,” Jager said. “We see this as a huge step in a process that’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Brooklyn Heights resident Roberto Gautier, who has lived in the neighborhood for the last 16 years, said when he first heard the DOT’s BQE reconstruction plan, he thought it was “insane.”

“You have a six-lane highway on a level of the neighborhood with lots of children,” he said. “A lot of the traffic is truck and diesel.”

Gautier said he experienced a similar nightmare when the DOT rehabilitated the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010. He said construction began at 11 p.m. and ended at 6 a.m. –– preventing him from getting a good night’s sleep during those years.

“So this is a flashback to my experience of many years not being able to sleep,” he said. “It was outrageous not to take people into consideration.”

While he’s not an engineer, Gautier said he wants to see a solution that considers the health and human aspects of the project, including impacts on noise, air pollution and more.

At the town hall, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said any reconstruction plan must go through the City Council’s land use process. The State Legislature also has to approve any changes to parkland through an alienation process.

“Any plan the council approves will reflect our shared values,” he said.

Johnson added that while he welcomes the mayor’s change in approach to the project, he didn’t know “why it took so long” for de Blasio to reach that conclusion.

The speaker then committed to hiring an independent firm to evaluate each of the options presented to understand the pros and cons. They will then present an analysis.

“If we’re going to spend billions on this project, shouldn’t the end result be better than what we started with?” Johnson said. “Our city needs to get creative. The community has fresh ideas on how to address this problem.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who pitched his own proposal for the BQE last month, said he likes the other ideas on the table as well.

“The bottom line is we want choice,” he said. “That’s what community-based planning is all about.”

The comptroller’s plan calls for only rehabilitating the lower level of the bridge, and converting it into a truck-only thruway with one lane in each direction. The remaining roadway would be converted into a two-mile linear park.

That “greenway” would run from the middle level of the triple-cantilever to a deck over the Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens trench, onto a pedestrian bridge that would lead to a new park in Red Hook.

“We’ve got to think big here,” Stringer said. “There’s a lot at stake.”

In addition to the Stringer plan, there’s also the proposal by Brooklyn Heights-based firm Marc Wouters Studios, which was formed in conjunction with the Brooklyn Heights Association.

This alternative plan would create a separate two-level temporary highway parallel to the existing triple-cantilever. That would enable traffic to continue on the roadway, and construction crews unobstructed access to the BQE, without destroying the promenade.

A second temporary roadway would then be constructed north of that area, between Columbia Heights and the Brooklyn Bridge. Active areas of Brooklyn Bridge Park would also be protected by modified beams and sound barriers.

The third alternative proposal is the “Tri-Line” plan, which was conceived by Brooklyn Heights resident Mark Baker. The plan calls for turning the triple-cantilever into a High Line-style green space.

Cars and trucks would travel on a new, boxed-in highway along Furman Street. This method would capture the air pollution emitted from vehicles to be treated.

The last option that was presented at the town hall is the “Brooklyn-Queens Park,” a plan by the design firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).

This proposal would construct an at-grade roadway along Furman Street and Brooklyn Bridge Park, then covering it with a “simple deck structure,” essentially creating a box.

The deck would then be a platform to create up to 10 acres of new parkland, and connect it with DUMBO and Red Hook. There would also be space that could potentially be a route for the Brookly-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar.

Another scenario that BIG laid out is demolishing the entire BQE, create a cliff-side structure park and having similar green amenities.

Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents the area, said any plan that doesn’t have consensus behind it is likely to invite litigation. If there’s a lawsuit that goes on for years, that would put the timeline “dangerously close” to removing trucks from the road.

“We don’t have the option of having the city force through a plan,” Levin said. “We have to get this right, and I think we are on track.”
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