A Better Way than a Six Lane Highway

BQE

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade above. The Brooklyn Bridge is partially visible in the background.

A friend of mine who lives in New York recently took a walk on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which is threatened under the status quo by City plans to rehabilitate the expressway below it. The Promenade is a lovely pedestrian park that sits directly above a section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (The BQE), thanks to a unique “triple cantilever” whose lower two cantilevered structures carry six lanes of expressway traffic, plus two lanes on the surface-level local street below. Rather than rehabilitate the existing BQE, activists in New York should demand its full removal, and with it, the pedestrianization of the Brooklyn Bridge. The unique collection of political actors affected by these plans give socialists a unique opportunity to put together a broad coalition to address traffic congestion, build new social housing, and create the best park since the High Line. Below is the sewer socialist counter-proposal: the Brooklyn Bridge to Promenade Proposal, with a map at the link.

The BQE is in the news because the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced that its plans to rehabilitate the structure involve closing the Promenade and replacing it with a six-lane highway for at least six years. The triple cantilever is overdue for rehabilitation. There is no reason to doubt the civil engineers who have outlined the need for repairs. However, from the point of view of politics and policy, New York’s leadership has assumed that the rehabilitation must preserve all six lanes of expressway traffic throughout the duration of the project. Accordingly, DOT has come up with a complicated plan that will allow them to permit traffic to flow freely by replicating the functions of the expressway at the expense of the Promenade, rehabilitate the structure itself, and then (in theory) restore the Promenade to its former glory. In practice, cost and schedule overruns in American infrastructure (especially in New York) being what they are, it is entirely possible that the “temporary” expressway will simply become permanent.

Why should socialists care?
In the poorer and less powerful neighborhoods in the city (the ones that Moses simply bulldozed rather than accommodating with his prowess for park building), the City would simply be able to force the technocratic outcome. Brooklyn Heights, however, is a wealthy and well-connected place. The Promenade was a dream of the Brooklynite middle class for over a century before it was constructed for Robert Moses as part of the BQE’s original build-out. Unlike other neighborhoods that were destroyed to make way for Moses’ expressways, the Master Builder had to accommodate Brooklyn Heights when the neighborhood lobbied against his original plan to destroy it, resulting in the original construction of the Promenade. It’s fair to ask why socialists should make common cause with wealthy and privileged communities that, if the history of urban space is any indication, are capable of taking care of their own interests. After all, there are many urban highways through poor neighborhoods that don’t have promenades on them. Why should Brooklyn Heights get special treatment? Why should the socialist movement intervene to save a rich neighborhood’s park?

There are a number of reasons: because decommissioning highways will cut carbon emissions regardless of whether those highways are sited in rich or poor neighborhoods, because the promenade is a public space that anyone can enjoy regardless of wealth, and because left a local issue, the most likely outcome is an alternative that preserves the Promenade but rebuilds the same carbon-spewing roadway below, probably at greater expense. From a pure realpolitik perspective, decommissioning the BQE is a climate campaign that socialists can jump onto and have a decent chance at victory, because a coalition that includes the relatively well-connected Brooklyn Heights upper middle class has a good chance at beating City Hall. The task for socialists is to convince them that they must not only save the Promenade but decommission the expressway below (a source of pollution and noise), while bringing on board more socially diverse coalition partners. They would do this by expanding the scope of the local protest to encompass a broader agenda that would benefit the great majority of the city, addressing an icon as universally beloved and shared as Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, poorer, less connected neighborhoods would be able to point to the BQE decommissioning when their own expressways come due for replacement. The beginnings of well-connected resistance are on display already, as, according to my friend, windows are dotted with signs that say “We need a better way than a six-lane highway.”  For all that urbanists like to complain of “NIMBYs” blocking light rail, bike lanes, new housing, and various other urban dreams, we forget that they have their roots in good old-fashioned freeway revolts.

Accordingly, a series of proposals have been put forth as an alternative to the City’s plans. The Brooklyn Heights Association proposes a six-lane temporary structure outside the Promenade. The Regional Plan Association proposes a four-lane rather than six-lane replacement. The City Comptroller proposes a partial rehabilitation that would create a two-lane road for trucks only, probably the best of the mainstream proposals considering the freight needs. The most aesthetically exciting proposal is from architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, which understands the value of knitting together the Promenade to the new parklands being built by the city below. A similar proposal called the “Tri-Line” proposes to do the same thing, with preservation of the triple cantilever as a pedestrian space. However, both propose a new boondoggle in their place: a buried highway, almost certainly making these options more expensive. The City should carry out a version of these proposals (the Tri-Line or the Bjarke Ingels “Option A”),  minus the buried highway. The only through route should be the existing two-lane Furman Street, and as little traffic as possible should use it.

Independent researcher Alon Levy goes a step farther, saying what the institutional powers of New York cannot: that the whole thing should be torn down from the Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Despite being wrong in some details (and, in a stark example of urbanist hyperbole, making a bizarre comparison to lynching and colonialism), he’s right. The portion from Atlantic Ave to Sands St, along with the additional work at the Brooklyn Bridge and elsewhere that would be necessary to make its decommissioning successful are the focus of the Bridge to Promenade Proposal.

Brooklyn Bridge to Promenade
Decommissioning the BQE triple cantilever would allow the City to build a continuous stretch of parkland for pedestrians and cyclists all the way from the southern tip of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to City Hall via a pedestrianized Brooklyn Bridge. Decommissioning solves the basic problem of infrastructure rehabilitation. With no need to phase construction with partial lane closures or build temporary routes, it will be easier, faster, and cheaper to rehabilitate the triple cantilever, freeing up the money for other needs. There are three issues that need to be addressed with this approach, however: the problem of car traffic, the problem of freight traffic, and the problem of bus traffic (due to the redirected car and freight traffic). All three can be addressed, but not without changing the political status quo. Fortunately, there are three opportunities that arise from using this approach, that can each bring in a member of the broader coalition: more parkland, more bicycle and pedestrian connections, and more housing.

The Problem of Car Traffic
Reducing car traffic in favor of pedestrian, wheelchair, bicycle, and transit modal share should be a goal of public policy, for the sake of cutting climate emissions if nothing else. Fortunately, teardowns of urban highways actually reduce traffic, as New York learned when the West Side Highway collapsed (and was never replaced) and Seattle recently learned when “Viadoom” never happened during the temporary decommissioning of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. On balance, traffic reduces by about half, with the other half redirected to surface streets. In other words, decommissioning the BQE does half of the job in and of itself. With the entire BQE decommissioned between two major crossings into Manhattan, a large share of regional traffic would simply avoid downtown Brooklyn. To further cut down on car traffic that currently uses the BQE, two more measures would be required: closing the Brooklyn Bridge to cars, and extending the newly minted Central Business District (CBD) Congestion Zone to Downtown Brooklyn. Without the Brooklyn Bridge, another source of car traffic to the BQE is eliminated, and congestion pricing on the Manhattan side will likely cut down on the impact of the Brooklyn Bridge closure to traffic on surface streets. It follows to do the same thing on the Brooklyn side, extending the congestion zone into Downtown Brooklyn. The new zone would be bordered by a major vehicular street on all four sides to allow a free bypass: Sands to the North, Atlantic to the South, Flatbush to the East, and Boerum to the West. The CBD toll would be applied to the Manhattan Bridge in both directions to prevent “bridge shopping,” but anyone driving from within Brooklyn who stays on those four streets would not be tolled. With the elimination of the temporary highway on the Promenade, and everything outside the cantilever reduced to demolition, the Bridge to Promenade proposal would save highway transportation funding relative to current plans, while increasing congestion pricing revenue. Including this in the proposal would likely win the support of many of the members of the coalition that supported congestion pricing, fresh off a historic victory.

The Problem of Freight Traffic
With such walkable neighborhoods and so many public transit options, it is makes sense to ask motorists to pay their fair share. Trucks, however, are harder to redirect, especially for an archipelago city that lacks a rail connection to its own port, an issue that should be separately addressed with the construction of the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel. The section of the BQE proposed for demolition is the main north-south through route for trucks. Though regional north-south traffic should stay in New Jersey and only cross at the George Washington or Tappan Zee Bridge, there is still a need for a secondary through route within Brooklyn. At Atlantic Ave, the expressway structure would be replaced by an intersection, and trucks would be required to turn right and head east. A few blocks later, they would turn left onto the new north-south route: Boerum Place, the western boundary of the congestion zone, and then Sands, the northern boundary. From Sands to Park, the existing BQE would be torn down and the new truck route configured as an arterial road. As Levy proposes, the sections on either side of the decommissioned Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn sections of the BQE would be directly replaced with surface avenues. Though not the first choice of shippers compared to an expressway, ensuring a modern surface through route might allay their concerns. This would mean that the project would retain freight transportation funding sources and, ideally, ensure some measure of support from commercial interests.

The Problem of Bus Traffic
Boerum Place is currently used by buses as the southbound portion of a loop at which several services terminate. Buses coming from the bus mall on Fulton Street and points south discharge passengers near the Borough Hall, lay up on Cadman Place West, turn onto Tillary St, and then begin their new runs southbound on Boerum. With Boerum repurposed as a truck-priority arterial, the eastern portion of the bus loop (as well as the bike lanes) would be moved one block east, to Jay Street, which would be closed to cars entirely. Jay St would retain its protected bicycle lanes and turn its travel lanes into into an extension of the Fulton Bus Mall. The protected bike lanes would continue south as Jay St becomes Smith St, which would be converted to a bidirectional street at least as far as Atlantic, at the entrance of the congestion zone. Buses that currently use Boerum to approach Borough Hall from the south would use Smith instead, and either turn left into the bus loop or continue north on Jay. The portions of the bus loop made up by Cadman Plaza West and Tillary St would still be open to car traffic, but on-street parking would be removed and replaced with bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and a bus terminal with opportunity chargers for electric buses. If possible during this conversion of Boerum into a truck route, the work would be combined with a major transit expansion: the street would be torn up using cut-and-cover to build a new connection between the Borough Hall and Jay Street Subway stations, as well as a station cavern below for a Regional Rail station on the LIRR Atlantic Branch (which already has a disused tunnel under Atlantic). The station cavern would be used to stage the tunnel boring machines which would drill under the river into Lower Manhattan’s WTC/Fulton complex under Pineapple St or another candidate for an under-river tunneling approach. Even if only the bus improvements take place, they could bring in public transportation funding sources to the project and win the support of transit advocates.

The Opportunity of Park Development
The proximate reason to decommission the BQE is to save the Promenade, but the opportunity is to better connect it to the Brooklyn Bridge Park below. Only one vertical circulation connection exists now, a pedestrian bridge about a block north of the Promenade. Repairing and pedestrianizing the cantilever would more than triple the size of the Promenade, creating a High Line for Brooklyn. Simple pedestrian bridges over Furman Street would connect the to the parks below. In order to preserve maintenance access to the repaired cantilever, the City would not build any new structures on or under it, but would equip the lower levels of the Promenade for street vendors and other programming. Park expansion is what can make the proposal decisive politically. It would bring in parks funding sources and, as Robert Moses himself said, “when you’re on the side of parks, you’re on the side of the angels,” and so could win the support of everyone who likes parks. In addition, more space is freed up with the decommissioning of the BQE, because a large berm sits behind Pier 3 whose purpose seems to be to block the park from noise. One possible use for the land would be as a hotel, as the Brooklyn Bridge Park is technically zoned for manufacturing and already has a hotel on it. This would bring in economic development funding sources to the project. The City would contract with a union hotel chain to operate the hotel, receiving income from their ownership of the land and providing an aggressively marketed alternative to illegal AirBNB hotels. This might win support of the Hotel Trades Council.

The Opportunity of Bicycle and Pedestrian Connections
The pedestrianization of the Brooklyn Bridge is proposed here as a necessary step to reduce traffic in response to the BQE’s decommissioning, but it is also an opportunity to improve bicycle and pedestrian connections. The Brooklyn Bridge has six lanes: three on the southern span and three on the northern span. In addition, it has a pedestrian path, half of which is, in theory, reserved for bicycles. In practice, there are too many pedestrians to make this a usable bicycle route at all times of day, and the pedestrian areas would be crowded in and of themselves even if they had the full path. Under the Bridge to Promenade proposal, the southern span would be repurposed for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrians (closing the existing pedestrian path to bicycles). The northern span would be reconfigured for use by emergency vehicles only, as a two-lane road with shoulders. This would require reconfiguring one exit ramp each direction on the northern half (because its direction would change) but these ramps would not need to accept high traffic volumes. They should still be designed not to preclude use by buses or light rail, in case those services are added to the Brooklyn Bridge. The southern span would become bicycle and pedestrian-only, with the vehicular ramps repurposed as bicycle and pedestrian approaches, connected to protected bike lanes and crosswalks on the surface streets on either side. With the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrianized, vertical circulation between the two levels would be added at both towers, with an additional elevator and stairs added to the eastern tower, giving direct access from the bridge to the park that bears its name – and even designate the pedestrian path as a linear park for branding purposes, meaning that Brooklyn Bridge Park would stretch all the way from City Hall to the expanded Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The bicycle and pedestrian improvements would bring in streets funding sources and win the support of safe streets advocates.

The Opportunity of Mixed-Use Social Housing
Even with the expanded parkland, there would be a great deal of space created for development, including approximately ten city blocks’ worth of land in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, thanks to the demolition of the BQE in Brooklyn and unneeded exit ramps leading from the bridge to the FDR in Manhattan. More may be available with the conversion of other sections of the BQE into avenues: Hicks Ave, Park Ave, and Williamsburg Ave. Considering that they are replacing expressways, mid- or even high-rise development would not be an eyesore, and the land is already owned by the City. Rather than give city land away to private interests, socialists would use their position in the coalition to fight for city-developed mixed-use districts with retail, light manufacturing, and especially social housing. As proposed by People’s Policy Project in Social Housing in the United States, social housing is publicly-developed housing built to serve a mix of incomes, with market-rate apartments to help cover the costs of construction and maintenance, but also produce a share of deeply affordable units. Though ideally receiving federal funding under a new Green New Deal housing bill, the City could finance construction through bonds backed by the rents of the market-rate units and the retail parcels on the ground floor. Because some of these parcels are technically zoned for parkland, the new buildings would have rooftop parks that would be directly accessible to the public through elevators connecting to the rest of the parkland (while residents would have their own lobby entrance and residents-only balconies and terraces). Public housing residents elsewhere in the community board district would have the right of first refusal to the new apartments, permitting the gut rehabilitation of any public apartments in need of repair, and saving money for the embattled New York City Housing Authority as it addresses its massive capital backlog. This would bring in housing funding sources and allow the proposal to win the support of tenant activists, housing advocates, and some development interests such as the building trades, as well as everyone who pays too much rent.

Take Back the City
These are very much first-draft proposals, especially considering that planners and engineers would have to weigh in on the feasibility and implications of each of them. While it expands the scope of the BQE project, it does so alongside the money saved from decommissioning, and does so to take advantage of the likely effects of the teardown, while  proposing new funding sources and political interests that might support the additional scope. Despite the fact that it would involve working with interest groups under capitalism – the upper middle class of Brooklyn Heights, the development interests that want new buildings and new property-value boosting parkland with them, and the private contractors who would build it all – it is a socialist proposal. Acknowledging the engineering constraints and the existing balance of interests in the city is what makes it a sewer socialist proposal – the epithet originated as a criticism of Miwaukee’s Socialists by the more revolutionary wing of party. It is still a socialist proposal because unlike the capitalist status quo of balancing the exchange values of various property owners against one another, it subordinates each of those special interests to a social vision of the public interest. That public interest is defined in terms of use values for the great majority of ordinary people who lack connections to political and bureaucratic insiders. They don’t control the city, but they live in it, work in it, and use it, and they deserve a city that works for them. The people of Brooklyn Heights have a right to keep their Promenade, just as the residents of the Gowanus and Farragut Homes have a right to decent, affordable social housing. Pedestrians have a right to public recreational amenities, just as truck drivers and e-bike delivery workers have a right to safe and well-designed routes through those same areas to do their jobs. Everyone has a right to mobility, but because cars are the dirtiest, most dangerous, most socially exclusive, and most inefficient way to achieve that mobility, motorists must be secondary in plans to allocate city space, and must pay their fair share.

The people of Brooklyn Heights are demanding a better way than a six lane highway. Socialists in New York should use that demand to make it happen.

-Emil

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