The NYC Department of Transportation unveiled its first draft of design possibilities for the re- construction of the “Central” portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) at a standing-room-only meeting held in Downtown Brooklyn Tuesday night.
BQE Central is the decrepit section of the highway running from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street, which includes the triple-cantilever underlying the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The 1.5-mile strip is controlled by the city.
“Now is the time to think big,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a release issued as the meet- ing was taking place. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a BQE for the 21st century and transform an environmental and aesthetic night- mare into a dream come true for our city.”
Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, a plan was developed by an expert panel which called for emergency repairs and lane reductions while a more visionary solution could be conceived over the course of 20 years. Adams and his DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, however, have decided to accelerate the redesign timetable to take advantage of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Rodriguez emphasized that the city was focusing on equity in its long-term plan to rebuild not just the Central BQE but BQE North and BQE South as well.
“Equity is not a word. Equity is a plan of action.” he said. “We want to make sure we hear the voices of everyone from the north to the south part of this corridor.”
This was the second round of public workshops, and DOT officials said the options were based, as much as possible, on input received from residents who attended the earlier round of meetings in October. After a brief presentation, the crowd made their way to tables for breakout discussions.
“Our goal is to get additional feedback and hear what you like and what you don’t like, and where we should continue to explore these options,” said Julie Bero, NYCDOT Chief Strategy Officer.
Warns that number of lanes could increase
The designs unveiled on Tuesday include variations on three basic scenarios, each consisting of just two lanes of traffic plus a shoulder, which could possibly be repurposed as an HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) or mass transit lane.
Some participants had been told on Monday, however, that the city was considering in- creasing the number of lanes to three plus a shoulder in each direction, leaving them confused when they saw the plans with fewer lanes.
Tanvi Pandya, the DOT’s head engineer on the BQE project, clarified that the number of traffic lanes could indeed increase to three plus a shoulder.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if it will [be two or three traffic lanes], because we have to go through the full environmental process. We have to show that whatever decisions we are making are not negatively impacting some other neighborhood … We are going to have to work with the Feds and see where’s that middle ground.”
She added, “We started with the narrowest one that we think we can potentially get through the system.”
After former DOT Com- missioner Hank Gutman reduced the traffic lanes from three in both directions to two plus a shoulder, comparative
2021 and 2022 DOT data show “significantly decreased traffic speeds in all surrounding neighborhoods — some up to 30-50 percent,” according to DOT.
“Open space over a tunnel” was the design most desired by those who have been involved in the process, Bero said, “As in BIG’s BQPark design and the Brooklyn Height’s Association’s design.” (The Brooklyn Height’s Association’s design was developed by Heights-based Marc Wouters Studios.)
A tunnel sunk below ground level would not be possible because of existing infrastructure including a subway tube, but covered or enclosed roadways (called tunnels for these purposes) are feasible. However, the entire length of roadway can’t be enclosed because of ventilation considerations, DOT officials said.
“We looked at a variety of tunnels” in length from 300 to 800 feet in length, David Vega-Barachowitz, associate principal of WXY Studio, said. DOT concluded “coverings of 300 feet to be achievable and coverings of 300-800 feet may be feasible but would need additional analysis.”
Four MTA structures need to be worked around — two fan plants, an MTA substation and the Clark Street train vent and egress. MTA is budget -constrained and has no reason to move them, Pandya said.
One of the design options involves totally replacing the retaining wall, while the others involve a partial replacement. Replacing the entire retaining wall would be more expensive and take longer, but the final result would be longer lasting, Pandya said.
Some of the designs stack above Furman Street, while others place the lower level at street level. Some designs include an “enhanced Promenade.” Officials were fuzzy about what that meant at this stage, but said they would respect the often ex- pressed opinion of residents that retaining the beloved and historic Promenade was a major priority.
Three basic designs
The three design variations are dubbed “The Stoop,” “The Terraces” and “The Lookout.”
The Stoop design involves a partial replacement of the retaining wall. It brings all the lanes in both directions up to a single level above Furman Street, and covers this level with a park-like platform below the Promenade level. Variations of The Stoop demonstrate several ways that walkways or terraced steps could wend from the plat- form to Brooklyn Bridge Park below.
The Terraces design also involves a partial replacement of the retaining wall. It features a staggered roadway of two levels, each with traffic in a different direction, similar to the existing BQE. The lowest level could be built at street level, or alternately could be above street level, freeing Furman Street for local traffic.
The Lookout design involves full replacement of the retaining wall. The roadways would be stacked on top of each other above street level, preserving Furman Street for local traffic. Variations on this theme showed either a ramp to the park below; mini landscaped plazas on top of some sections of the roadway; or what appears to be curved landscaped plazas built right next to the roadways.
‘A lot of complex information’
“This is a lot of complex information and I wish that there had been a much larger screen, a more detailed presentation and more time for question and answer,” Councilmember Lincoln Restler told the Brooklyn Eagle.
He applauded DOT’s use of breakout groups, however, saying they helped people ask individual questions and engage with designers. But he said he wanted to clear up “exactly what they are proposing in terms of number of lanes. It’s for our climate future; that way we don’t just replicate the status quo of highway infrastructure that has severely hurt and de- stabilized our communities with terrible air quality and noise issues and vibrations.”
Restler said he was eager to hear from his neighbors and stakeholders “to formulate a collective response with our state and federal elected officials together. You know this project requires the City Council’s approval, the state Legislature’s approval, and the active advocacy of our federal legislators as well. So the DOT must work in partnership with us if they hope to enact any of these proposals.”
Responsive to the community
“It’s great to see the turnout,” said Marc Wouters, who designed the original BQE plan commissioned by the Brooklyn Heights Association. Wouters said he also originated the plan DOT is calling The Stoop.
“I don’t know why they’re calling it The Stoop,” he laughed.
He said he prefers this design because the highway is one level up, preserving the landscape and some of the buildings of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
“The highway is all on one level but it’s one level up from Furman Street, with two lanes in each direction and the emergency shoulders. And then you can take the upper level of the roadway and turn it into a pedestrian plaza with a big deck; the Promenade can stay unchanged, and I think it’s a good combination of things and millions of dollars less.”
Increasing the number of traffic lanes “bothers us because the two lanes appear to be saf- er.” he said. “The accidents have been reduced in this section because the merge lanes are now safer.”
Wouters was positive about what he saw at the meeting. “They’ve demonstrated at least some options that are responsive to some of what the community has talked about previously.”
‘Going to these meetings for 20 years’
“I’m always going over or under the BQE. I feel like I’m in a moat. It’s never a pleasant experience,” said Nora McCauley, who lives on the edge of Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn and works at the Navy Yard. “I’m always dodging trucks or stepping over homeless people, and I can’t see around the corner. It’s not pleasant.”
“The people at my table [during the breakout session] have been in the Brook- lyn Heights Association and the Cobble Hill Association for over 20 years and they have been going to these meetings for over 20 years,” McCauley, said.
“They were like, ‘Why can’t we just tunnel under 4th Avenue? They do it in Paris, and there’s Roman ruins under Paris.’”
The same meeting will be repeated virtually via Zoom on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 6:30 p.m. Register in advance to get zoom details.