BROOKLYN HEIGHTS – Several hundreds of people gathered on the beautiful Brooklyn Heights Promenade in the freezing cold to rally against the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) plan to turn the historic Promenade into a six-lane highway while repairing the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).
Last September, the DOT announced two rehabilitation options to repair the crumbling triple-cantilever section of the BQE. The first plan, labeled as the “innovative approach” would cost $3.2 – $3.6 billion. This proposal would create a temporarily elevated, six-lane highway at the level of the existing Promenade, which would close the pedestrian walkway for about three years. The children’s beloved Harry Chapin Playground would be demolished as well. If this plan were to go through, some traffic (about 150,000 vehicles) would eventually be re-routed to the local Brooklyn Heights’ streets. The entire lifespan of this project is about six years.
The second “traditional approach” proposal includes incremental lane-by-lane closure during nights and weekends, extending the project two additional years making for an 8-year overhaul of the BQE. This plan is more expensive, costing anywhere from $3.4 – $3.6 billion.
What do people in the community want? They want to keep their promenade.
“We’re not going to tolerate a six-lane highway,” Peter Bray, the executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) said. “If the DOT built the promenade highway where we are standing right now, we’d be right in the middle of the eastbound lanes and we’d be flattened by now.”
“We reject the six-lane promenade highway. We demand a solution that does not destroy our neighborhoods,” he said. “We demand the DOT respond to the BHA alternative that we presented in November.”
The alternative plan Bray mentioned came after the BHA met with the DOT two months ago. The plan would re-route BQE traffic west to a temporary two-level structure built on Brooklyn Bridge Park’s sound attenuating berms, leaving the Promenade alive and well for pedestrians.
While the elected officials at the rally spoke against the DOT’s proposals, the protesters were not pleased with what they were hearing. The shouting started while State Senator Brian Kavanagh, who represents the area, was speaking.
“The DOT is beginning to show some signs that they are willing to more thoroughly engage,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to consider the full range of options and make the best decision that’s gonna minimize the health impacts, safety impacts and the quality of life impacts of this community.”
Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon received the most boos and chants after it seemed like she defended the DOT just for a minute.
“One of the things I was asked to convey is that the DOT needs time to do a good job,” she said. “While everybody is [legitimately] concerned… the DOT is doing the work that it needs to do in order to respond to that proposal.”
“Do more, Jo Anne!” “Find a better way!” people shouted.
“What’s more important now is for all of us to participate,” she said. “Yes, we all need to find a better way and we need to do it together. I commit to working with everybody here.”
Borough President Eric Adams then took the microphone and spoke loud and fiercely.
“Let me be very clear so there’s no misunderstanding. I walked here to the microphone, some of you had a question mark, so let me straighten that question mark to an exclamation point,” he said. “I am against the damn plan!”
He said his opposition was different from others. He’s an environmentalist, he said. He wants children to breathe in a healthy environment. “This is more than just this community. This is Bay Ridge. This is Fort Greene. This is Red Hook.”
He then blamed the State and said this is their problem. “How did we inherit this mess? How did the City allow them to just turn their backs on this important and crucial issue? The way things are done, you legislate, you communicate, and goddamnit, you agitate!”
Adams went on to defend his colleagues who were booed and shouted at, by saying “We’re not going to win this by heckling each other. We’re not going to win this by calling each other names.”
“We are all concerned,” he said. “Just because we don’t have the answers right now does not mean we have not rolled up our sleeves and dug in deep. Look under our fingernails and you will see the dirt and grind of fighting the ignorance in this government of dealing with this issue. We’re in this together. That’s how we’re going to win it!”
Hillary Jager, a member of A Better Way NYC, which is a grassroots organization with people who reject the DOT’s plan, said she rejects any plan that would cause the BQE traffic to “clog our local streets.”
“We can find a better way. A better way means genuine engagement with the community, stakeholders, and elected officials,” she said. “A better way means a BQE plan that envisions a transportation solution that is designed for the next century, not a Robert Moses plan designed for the last one.”
“The DOT and the Mayor appear committed to pushing through an ill-conceived plan without transparency and without listening to the collective voice of the community which is the voice they claim to value. They have Vision Zero. Or ‘zero vision’ for this future. But we believe a better way is possible. We know a better way is possible!”
In October, Mayor de Blasio spoke about the DOT’s plan and said both options were painful. “The BQE is one of the lifelines of the city and it has to be fixed. If we don’t get to work fixing it soon, it will be out of service and that would undermine everything,” he said.
He said he preferred the six-lane highway plan over the “traditional” option because “I think it’s the way to address the bigger problem once and for all and as quickly as we can do it.” Though he acknowledged that it would “definitely cause a lot of inconveniences” and “definitely have a big impact” on the surrounding neighborhood.
Comptroller Scott Stringer also spoke fiercely about the importance of hearing the community’s voice.
“How can the DOT consider a six-lane highway when they’re ignoring the changing transportation landscape?” he said. “How do you put in place a plan before understanding the possible impact of congestion pricing? That’s like you buy the drapes before you buy the house, it makes no sense.”
A couple of weeks ago, Stringer sent a letter to the DOT questioning the transparency and accountability behind the proposals. On January 4, he received a response.
“It is important to reiterate that this project is just beginning its formal review process and that DOT remains committed to partnering with elected officials, community leaders… to ensure that their voices are heard and their safety is prioritized,” the letter by DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg stated.
“We realize that there are immense challenges and intricacies ahead that come with rebuilding an antiquated highway structure through the heart of Brooklyn,” the letter continued. “We cannot overstate the importance of the Promenade, as well as the BQE.”
The Promenade means very much to Brooklyn Assembly Member Latrice Walker, who is running for Public Advocate seat, and she would hate to see it destroyed to build a six-lane highway.
“The Promenade was always so important for me on the Fourth of July. I’m a little girl from Brownsville, Brooklyn and this is where I came in order to enjoy the fireworks that we just couldn’t see on the other side of Brooklyn,” she said. ”
“If you feel like you can outsmart all of NYC by trying to get this highway built without adequate community involvement and you think you’re doing the right thing,” she said, “think about all of the little children across this city who will have to live with the social injustices that its city has done to them. So recognize that when we fight back against this city, we will win.”