A large crowd assembled for Thursday evening’s meeting at which City Department of Transportation officials discussed plans for the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway below Brooklyn Heights. I took the photo some minutes before the program began; by the time it did there were even more standing in the back or along the sides, and some were turned away because of lack of space. The size of the crowd, almost all of whom made the trek from the Heights to Myrtle Avenue just beyond the Flatbush Avenue Extension, was occasioned by the DOT’s recent announcement of an “innovative” plan to build a temporary elevated highway that would replace the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for six years and put highway traffic, including many trucks, close to residences and playgrounds. These are my takeaways from the meeting; for other accounts see The Brooklyn Paper and Curbed.
Nothing is settled. DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said that this meeting was only the first of many public events to be held as part of the environmental review process that will continue from now until 2020, when the request for proposals to design and rebuild the BQE will be issued. While the DOT’s Chief Engineer, Robert Collyer, stated his preference for the “innovative” plan, he allowed that the decision on how to proceed would be made as a result of the environmental assessment. Even the tunnel option is still a conceivable outcome, although DOT’s Senior Program Manager Tanvi Pandya noted that the only tunnel alignment the DOT considers feasible would place its northern entrance and exit north of both the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. This means that traffic to and from these bridges would still have to use the present BQE alignment, or else be routed over local streets. Other means of reducing the traffic burden on the BQE, such as putting tolls on the East River bridges and effecting congestion pricing in Manhattan, would require cooperation at the state level. State Senator Brian Kavanagh, addressing the meeting, said he would support whatever state actions were necessary. Any action with regard to the Verazzano Bridge tolls would require federal approval.
The temporary highway may be re-routed over part of Brooklyn Bridge Park. This was suggested by a local resident during the question and answer period, and was also alluded to by City Council Member Steve Levin, who noted in his remarks at the meeting, “there are these berms ….” The Wall Street Journal reports that, after the meeting, Commissioner Trottenberg expressed willingness to consider this option.
No matter what, the Promenade must be rebuilt. In her opening remarks, Commissioner Trottenberg said that like many of Robert Moses’s structures, the cantilevered portion of the BQE “was not built to last.” Ms. Pandya noted that the Promenade is part of this “not built to last” structure and that, while it doesn’t bear the weight burden that the BQE lanes below do, it is still structurally unsound. The question is whether the rebuilding of the Promenade will be done in one fell swoop (and, under the “innovative” plan, following a six year closure) or in segments, allowing access to parts of the Promenade while work is done on others.
Direct access from Columbia Heights to DUMBO, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Squibb Park, and Hillside Dog Park will be interrupted. This is because the bridge that carries Columbia Heights over the BQE must be removed during the reconstruction. This will also entail temporary loss of the Harry Chapin Playground, which sits atop that bridge. Asked about the effect of the “innovative” plan on the Pierrepont Playground, which would abut the temporary elevated highway, Ms. Pandya said the playground would be all right. There were also assurances that, apart from the access issue, Hillside Dog Park would not be affected.
Existing BQE environmental problems may not be cured. During the question and answer period, Willowtown Association member Martin Hale said he had measured noise levels from BQE traffic at Adam Yauch Park, near his home, and found they sometimes exceeded eighty decibels. He said the federal regulations governing environmental assessments included provisions allowing the grandfathering of pre-existing conditions or those that cannot be mitigated by technically available means, and asked if the DOT would rely on these. Mr. Collyer said they would not rely on them with respect to the construction work, and would do their best to mitigate any noise and air quality problems. However, no assurance was given that, following completion of the project, pre-existing environmental problems would be alleviated.
Update: The BHA has now announced its opposition to the “innovative” proposal and urged the DOT to “work with the community to identify and evaluate other options that do not prioritize motorists at the complete expense of residents.” The BHA has yet to take a position. The first speaker during the question and answer period was Peter Bray, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. He began by comparing the available options to the circles of Dante’s Inferno, an analogy with which Commissioner Trottenberg agreed. Mr. Bray said he had heard from many Heights residents, all of whom were strongly opposed to the elevated highway proposal. He said the BHA “will listen to all alternatives and be responsible to the community.” He also noted concerns that the city would run short of money needed to complete the restoration of the Promenade. Commissioner Trottenberg replied that it’s not up to DOT which option to choose, that there are “many stakeholders” as well as those directly affected by the elevated highway proposal, and that the “Design/Build” procedure authorized by the state for the project meant that the contractor would agree to a firm price. Ms. Pandya added that bonds and insurance would cover the contractor’s obligations.