The Brooklyn Heights Association is New York City’s oldest existing neighborhood group, and seeks to preserve the area’s historic nature and fight for positive change in the neighborhood. At the group’s annual meeting Monday night, the topic of discussion was something that was commonplace in Brooklyn when BHA was founded in 1910 and might return to the Brooklyn waterfront — a streetcar.
The panel was critical of the proposal for the Brooklyn Queens Connector, arguing new transit options are more urgently needed in areas of Brooklyn such as Flatlands and questioning its financing. The audience appeared concerned about the effect on parking and foot traffic in the Heights, their questions — prepared in advance — and outbursts indicated.
Panels included David Bragdon, executive director of Transit Center Inc.; Candace Brakewood, assistant professor of civil engineering at City College of New York; Samuel Stein, Ph.D. candidate at CUNY Graduate Center; and Benjamin Kabak, attorney and blogger at the transportation site 2nd Ave. Sagas. New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer moderated.
A little background.
The Brooklyn Queens Connector is a streetcar with the backing of Mayor de Blasio and developers that would run for 16 miles along the East River waterfront from Sunset Park to Astoria. Although it would share street space with cars and buses, it would have its own right of way if all goes according to plan. The cars would be emissions-free, connect to “transit deserts” such as Red Hook and the Sunset Park waterfront, and could potentially cut commute times on certain parts of the route in half, according to a city report. All told, the streetcar would cost $2.5 billion to build and open in 2024 at the earliest.
But the residents of Brooklyn Heights, along with some of the panelists, were not without their reservations.
Cost and backers.
“My concern is not the cost — it’s how they want to pay for this,” Stein said, referring to a plan to increase real estate taxes along the route to help fund the project. The method for taxation would be tax increment financing, which Stein said would only work if property values rise significantly, noting that they have already risen without the streetcar.
Dwyer noted the “Friends of the BQX” group that backs the line’s construction has ties to developers with real estate holdings along the line.
“You’ve got Durst at Hallets Point, Two Trees in Dumbo, Steiner Studios in the Navy Yard, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and Jamestown Properties in Industry City,” he said.
Will it be efficient?
Brakewood said three factors must be considered before any construction begins.
“You have to look at frequency, speed, and reliability. We need to consider whether this streetcar will be effective on those fronts,” he said.
Brakewood also mentioned the need for a right-of-way with the BQX, and noted it would take away street parking near Cadman Plaza in the famously parking challenged neighborhood. This drew jeers and grumbles from the near-capacity crowd at St. Francis College’s Founders Hall on Remsen Street in the Heights.
Will it cause or prevent gentrification?
The underlying issue of the discussion, however, was how the BQX would change the surrounding area. Stein said that the increase of costs along the route would not come together without some sort of gentrification process.
Kabak countered this argument, claiming “you have to improve transit if you want a chance of fighting gentrification.”
The overall tone of the meeting was calm, but had a dose of healthy skepticism on the merits of a streetcar that would, by the city’s estimates, carry only 50,000 people a day. When Bragdon said transit is more urgently needed in eastern Brooklyn, the audience applauded.
[Photos by Sean Devlin]
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