Last week, crowds gathered in Brooklyn Heights to stick a collective finger in yet another crumbling dike, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Notoriously choked with traffic, a clattery, belching, potholed sluice of despair, built for 47,000 vehicles, now used by 153,000 cars and trucks a day, the long-neglected midcentury highway is collapsing. Experts give it until 2026 — in infrastructure terms, the day after tomorrow — when big trucks may no longer be able to use it.
Serving working stiffs from Staten Island, truck drivers from New Jersey, slicing smack through tony, litigious, brownstone Brooklyn, it is a modern American parable. Having bent the continent to our will, devising bridges and dams, railroads and highways, the United States in the early 21st century has fallen conspicuously behind other countries, paralyzed by our inability to fix failing infrastructure.
We treat collapsing sewers and tunnels like trips to the dentist, procrastinating until disaster strikes, and then we have to spend a fortune on recovery. Faced with staggering costs, we squabble along partisan lines, pitting drivers against subway riders, suburbanites against city-dwellers, red versus blue — blocking change in the name of prudence, missing one after another opportunity for progress.
Summoned last week by a community group, the Brooklyn Heights Association and called A Better Way, the crowd in Brooklyn Heights assembled for a town hall at lovely old Plymouth Church to help quash two nasty plans — one painful, the other even more so — that the city’s Department of Transportation had put forth a few months back.
The plans offered alternatives for repairing the despised roadway, a crucial mile-and-a-half of which morphs into a six-lane triple-cantilever affair, clinging to the hillside beneath the Heights — a kind of bunk-bed arrangement conceived during the 1940s by prolific landscape architects Michael Rapuano and Gilmore Clarke.
The cantilever system was a victory for People Power over the Establishment. It diverted the highway from running straight through the middle of Brooklyn Heights, as Robert Moses, the city’s all-powerful planning czar back then, had wanted but community groups protested. The top bunk became the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, one of the loveliest spots in the whole city.
Saving it is now inextricably linked to the destiny of the BQE. Ideally, New York should leave the Promenade alone and probably just give up on this stretch of the expressway, the way other cities have torn down highways to create parks and flourishing neighborhoods — the way the Bloomberg administration removed traffic from Broadway where it passes through Times Square.
Drivers adapt. It’s one of the counterintuitive laws of automotive behavior. We forget that car-centered urbanism didn’t always have such a stranglehold on New York City. As late as the early 1950s, overnight street parking was illegal.
Unfortunately, politicians and traffic engineers fixate on accommodating the number of drivers we have.
And there seem to be more of them than ever, what with the subway’s decline and hordes of Uber cars and Amazon delivery trucks.
The solution, congestion pricing, may soon impose tolls to help fix the subways and reduce the number of cars and trucks on roads like the BQE. A study released recently by the Regional Plan Association — commissioned by A Better Way — suggested that congestion pricing could reduce traffic on the BQE into Manhattan by 13 percent, enough to allow the road to shrink down to four lanes. That’s assuming politicians, catering to countless constituencies, don’t exempt so many routes that congestion pricing becomes toothless.
Some years ago, a BQE proposal surfaced that imagined digging a tunnel beneath Downtown Brooklyn to create a shortcut for the highway where it connected with the Brooklyn Bridge, reducing travel times and removing the entire cantilevered stretch past the Heights. It accommodated four lanes and looked attractive on paper. City officials say it will be as cataclysmic and complicated as Boston’s Big Dig.
Which is one explanation for the Department of Transportation’s $4 billion plans. Choice A involved a decade or two of lane closings: total Carmageddon. Choice B turned the Promenade into a six-lane highway for nearly as long.
As it happened, both plans were already pretty much shelved before the town hall meeting started. Mayor Bill de Blasio, reversing himself after several months, announced a “panel of experts” would consider alternative proposals.
There are a bunch of proposals out there now. One, by a Brooklyn planner named Marc Wouters, envisions erecting a second elevated highway, a temporary parallel bypass, next to the cantilevered stretch of the BQE.
City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer has floated a plan of his own to close the BQE except to trucks, making one level of the elevated roadway a linear park. His likely opponent in the next mayoral race, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, allying himself with many transportation advocates, wants to replace the cantilevered section of highway with a more modest boulevard and spend the money that would have been used on its repair to improve public transit.
Both politicians took to the Plymouth Church podium the other evening. The crowd cheered. But the scheme that provoked the most oohs and aahs came from the architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, which has an office in Dumbo. Cunningly labeled the BQP, for Brooklyn-Queens Park, BIG’s plan has been quietly circulating among community leaders and transportation officials for a few weeks. It surfaced online and in The Daily News the day of the town hall.
The plan moves the elevated BQE down to little-used Furman Street, which runs below the highway where it skirts Brooklyn Bridge Park. Furman would be widened by cutting into the berm now shielding the park from the highway. The berm, rebuilt, would then slide back over the new road, burying it — at grade — while making room above for the so-called BQX streetcar, if that were ever to happen, and also acres of new parkland.
In essence, the elevated expressway would yield to a vast new wash of greenery extending Brooklyn Bridge Park all the way up to the Promenade.
The benefits in terms of noise, air quality and open space are abundant. BIG says the disused cantilevers could be turned into more parkland or parking lots, revenue-generating shops or apartments, whatever Brooklynites wanted.
Like the Clarke and Rapuano scheme, but for the 21st century, the BQP reframes an infrastructural headache as a civic opportunity. Back in 2011, the New York state Department of Transportation under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, clearly daunted by the challenge, simply fobbed off on the city the failing BQE— which, as an interstate, was the state’s responsibility. (The state can do that. It does this sort of thing all the time.)
De Blasio then passed along the problem to Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, who has described fixing the elevated highway as “the most challenging project not only in New York City, but arguably in the United States.”
To her credit she has now heard the outcry. She is open to other plans, BIG’s included.
There are many obstacles to the BQP and they are formidable. There is an immense sewer line that runs directly below Furman, serving much of Brooklyn.
There are venting plants and substations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that are in the way.
One part of the plan imagines moving a lobby to the third floor of an occupied apartment building because the covered highway would abut the current entrance. Joralemon Street would become a dead end without any obvious place for cars to turn around.
The list goes on.
Brooklyn Bridge Park costs some $250,000 per acre per annum to maintain. It raises operating funds through private development. Brooklynites have spent years in court contesting even the smallest private incursions into the park. Unless the new parkland were financed differently, the added acreage via the BQP would require the construction of something along the lines of a brand-new 300,000-square-foot condo or commercial development.
Moses soured New Yorkers on big change. Resistance is the default mode. Whether the challenge is public housing, Hudson Yards, Penn Station or the BQE, City Hall today doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of urban design.
The BQP sets a bar at least, which is worth pursuing. The mayor should do more than trust a panel of outside experts to judge what comes over the transom and offer quick solutions. The project needs state and federal buy-in. It requires a proper interagency master planning process, one steeped in community consultation. This takes time. And it can’t be left up to traffic engineers.
The crowd at Plymouth Church that arrived to man the barricades departed with the promise of something better.
New Yorkers deserve as much.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.