Hundreds of concerned Brooklyn residents rallied on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on Saturday to demand an alternative plan for the BQE rehabilitation project, specifically one that does not involve building a temporary six-lane highway where the historic Promenade currently stands. The "Rally for a Better BQE" was attended by elected officials, a new community grassroots group called A Better Way NYC, and the Brooklyn Heights Association (which is over a century old and successfully fought Robert Moses's plan to run the BQE through the streets of the neighborhood).
Residents from Bay Ridge to Brooklyn Heights decried the current $3 billion plan, which would turn the Brooklyn Promenade into a highway and construction site for at least six years while a 1.5-mile stretch of the BQE gets repaired. The Department of Transportation presented this along with one other plan in September—the other being a more traditional lane-by-lane work approach, which would take longer, be more expensive, and divert more traffic into the neighborhood streets.
The BQE is indisputably in need of repair. The sections of the highway slated for rehabilitation were built in the 1940s and 50s, and include the one-of-a-kind "triple cantilever" designed by Moses in 1948; they were supposed to last just 50 years. The Promenade, at the top of the triple cantilever, is inseparable from the BQE decks below.
In September, the DOT took reporters on a tour of the underside of the BQE viaduct, for a closer look at the crumbling roadway. At the time, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said, "Not replacing this road hasn't presented itself as an option."
Looking down the underside of the BQE viaduct, near Joralemon and Furman Streets(Jake Dobkin / Gothamist)
Concerned locals and officials are demanding more community engagement and transparency, and argue that the DOT and Mayor de Blasio should go back to the drawing board to develop a plan that does not displace residents and would not "shower hazardous pollutants" on neighborhoods near the construction zone.
Comptroller Scott Stringer, who helped organize Saturday's event, previously called upon the DOT "to send every piece of information we have demanded on behalf of the community. That's how you can build trust, by just answering the questions." In response to this, however, Stringer said he was told that the "DOT responds to a very large volume of FOIL requests (averaging 7,000 per year). Out of fairness, we respond to these requests in order in which they were received."
Following the rally, DOT Press Secretary Scott Gastel told Gothamist, "The City and DOT are thoroughly engaged with the community to ensure the BQE reconstruction is as transparent as possible, and any claim to the contrary is demonstrably false. We are committed to partnering with elected officials, community leaders and all local stakeholders on the entire project corridor to hear their input and prioritize their safety."
The DOT plans to meet with residents and businesses to further discuss the plans, and say this will be a collaborative process, and that they will review a range of options. When the DOT released its draft plans last fall, the department expected the work to begin in 2020 or 2021.
District Manager Robert Perris of Brooklyn Community Board 2 told us "there are currently no community board meetings scheduled to discuss any aspect of the project," adding that CB2 "has not taken any position on the renovation or reconstruction of the BQE."
The existing problems with the BQE's the triple cantilever section. (Courtesy of the DOT)
At Saturday's rally, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams declared, "I am against the damn plan as it stands, plain and simple. I’m concerned about the continuation of believing the only way we can move through this city is by expanding highways. I’m tired of the poison in schools. I’m tired of the poison in our air. I’m tired of the way we’re thinking about how do we move people around this city."
Adams also emphasized that the impact of the BQE project would be felt far beyond Brooklyn Heights. "This is more than just this community, this is Bay Ridge, this is Fort Greene, this is Red Hook, all of us are involved in this," Adams told the crowd. "And where the heck is the state? This is their problem. They need to be down here adjusting this problem. How did we inherit this mess? How did the city allow them to just turn their back on this important and crucial issue?"
Hillary Jager was on hand to represent the Better Way NYC group, and vowed to "reject any plan that would cause the BQE traffic to clog our local streets," adding, "The city has given us a false choice, that these are the only two options, and we are demanding that we find a better way." That better way, Jager said, would "honor the progressive values of the city... [we need] a plan that envisions a transportation solution that's designed for the next century, not a Robert Moses plan that's designed for the last one."
Jager also praised Governor Cuomo for finding "a better way" to solve the L train shutdown problem, though some would debate whether or not he did that.
One of the many homes in the neighborhood with this sign on its door. (Jen Carlson / Gothamist)
Actor Paul Bettany, who has been supporting A Better Way NYC on his social media accounts, was also on hand at the rally. Just last year, he moved in to a $15.5 million home in the area with his wife Jennifer Connelly and their children. Their home, along with just about every other home that boasts a backyard jutting up against the Promenade, has a "We need a Better Way than a 6-lane highway" affixed to it. Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and John Krasinski also just purchased homes in this area.
In December, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that "the biggest danger from temporarily replacing the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) will be invisible and insidious, says Laurie Garrett, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York." Garrett told the paper that "raising the BQE to sit atop the Promenade ... will bring a toxic cloud to street and garden level."
Last month, Stringer sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio requesting answers to a number of pressing questions around the BQE plan, including, "Have you looked at the long term environmental impact on the surrounding community from property damage, dust and debris due to the Innovative approach?" Following Saturday's rally, Stringer's office shared the full response with Gothamist, which was sent on January 11th from Trottenberg.
"The long term environmental impacts of this project and various feasible alternatives will be identified through analysis and disclosed in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as we go through the NEPA process which we estimate will take at least two years," Trottenberg wrote, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act. "Through this process, DOT will develop preferred alternatives through public participation as well as identify feasible mitigation for impacts that cannot be avoided. The environmental review process will also require an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts."
"The environmental review will start soon," Gastel told Gothamist on Sunday evening, but did not provide a more specific timeline.