A nonprofit group made up of business interests, developers, urban planners and transit advocates is doubling down on its support of Mayor de Blasio's proposed $2.5 billion Brooklyn Queens Connector streetcar, with a dramatic new website, renderings, FAQs, and a video endorsement from Brooklyn-born rapper Talib Kweli.
"When I was growing up Queens seemed like a world apart," Kweli says. "You meet a girl on the train, and she be like, 'I live in Queens,' and you be like, 'Oh you live in Queeeeens....'"
The streetcar, which the mayor has called a "noble experiment" in outer-borough transit, would eventually run 16 miles from Astoria in Queens to Sunset Park in Brooklyn along the waterfront, connecting tech and startup hubs like Industry City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as new waterfront residential developments in DUMBO and Long Island City, and NYCHA developments serving more than 40,000 residents.
The city has touted the BQX as a green transit alternative that would replace car traffic. One trip would cost $2.75—the equivalent of a MetroCard swipe—and connect Brooklyn and Queens residents without a transfer through Manhattan.
"We want to reach anyone and everyone who will benefit from the BQX, and the website is one tool we’ll use in addition to lots of on-the-ground outreach," said Ya-Ting Liu, Executive Director of the Friends of the BQX in a statement on Friday.
A spokesman for Friends said earlier this week that the organization will not be providing any consulting work to the city.
Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector published a feasibility study of the BQX in January, demonstrating how the BQX could "create an enormous opportunity for new investment" along the corridor. The group posited that the project would effectively finance itself, attracting new development and increasing property values along its route. While this approach to funding would keep the project independent of the debt-strapped MTA, critics argue that it could also price out working class residents along the waterfront, accelerating the pace of gentrification.
"The landlords, whatever their increase is, they're going to start to pass it on [to their tenants]," predicted a Columbia Waterfront District resident and broker at a recent community meeting on the BQX. "It looks like this is going to displace people who are now rooted in their communities."
Friends' 25-member Board of Directors includes big names in real estate development, including The Durst Organization, Tishman Speyer and Two Trees Management. (Jed Walentas of Two Trees already has a vested interest in waterfront development, between his DUMBO holdings and forthcoming mixed-use development at the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg.) There's also a managing director from Goldman Sachs on the board, and two former MTA chairmen: Jay Walder and Joe Lhota, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013.
Business development groups on the board include the Queens and Brooklyn Chambers of Commerce. Friends confirmed to DNAInfo that it is funded by some of the board members, but declined to give specific names.
Paul Steely White, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives is also on the board.
"The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is teeming with opportunity," White says in the promotional video. "People with Uber can get around [on the waterfront], but people with a MetroCard cannot. Because right now our transit system does not serve everyone. That's a stark fact."
Speaking with us on Friday, White added that while the potential for rapid gentrification is "a cause for concern," that in-and-of itself is "not a reason to not do it." Critics have argued that city money would be better spent on expanded bus service, which would be less expensive and easier to implement than a streetcar. White countered that the BQX would be able to serve more customers on narrow waterfront streets than SBS bus service, which requires a wide thoroughfare.
"Investing in better public schools spikes property values too," he said. "Does that mean we shouldn't do it?" He added that with the MTA in dire straights, "The city needs to take control of its own transit density."
"The city has a responsibility to protect low and middle-income individuals, and that's what the mayor's affordable housing plan is all about," White added. "That's been a huge victory."
The New York City Economic Development Corporation and the DOT published a joint assessment of the Friends report last month, concluding that the BQX is "the most appropriate transit intervention along this corridor."