Transform or tear down? The BQE reconstruction, explained

The Brooklyn Queens Expressway

A look at proposals and lofty solutions to reconstruct a
crumbling span of the interstate highway

An overhaul of a long-decaying stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens
Expressway has been described as “hell,” “miserable,” and
the “most challenging project not only in New York City but
arguably in the United States”—and that’s just according to
the commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation.

Built in the 1950s by storied city planner Robert Moses, the BQE
carries some 153,000 vehicles per day. Now, 65 years later, a
1.5-mile span of the highway between Atlantic Avenue and Sands
Street is crumbling, and city and state officials are mulling ways
to repair the roadway.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Brooklyn Heights
Promenade is perched atop the BQE’s triple-cantilever section.
The 1,825-foot esplanade, with sweeping views of Manhattan and the
East River, is structurally connected to the roadway, so any
changes that happen to the BQE inevitably extend to the promenade,
which has become a sort of communal backyard for Brooklyn
Heights.

That’s why the promenade’s proposed destruction—albeit
temporary—in renovation plans put forth by the DOT have caused
such agita. An
online petition
created by A
Better Way
, which launched in response to the city’s
tear-down-and-rebuild proposals, asks the DOT to go back to the
drawing board; to date, it’s garnered 70,000 signatures.

The chorus of community, preservationist, and urban planners’
concerns has coalesced in the form of an alternative proposal put
forward by the Brooklyn Heights
Association
, a prominent voice in the neighborhood.

Now, the DOT is in the midst of exploring other options to
renovate the BQE—such as the association’s proposal—and asks
that New Yorkers bear with the city as it undergoes “significant
engineering analysis” to determine other alternatives, the
transit agency said in a statement. But what are some of the other
options? Read on.

The Department of Transportation’s proposals

If nothing is done to reconstruct the triple cantilever the city
says it will have to issue weight restrictions and reroute
trucks—some 25,000 use the expressway per day—from the road by
2026, and close it by 2036. This would force the expressway into
emergency repairs while ushering in nightmarish commutes for
drivers. To stave off that dystopian future, the DOT has put
forward two potential proposals to renovate the BQE: a temporarily
elevated roadway or an incremental, lane-by-lane approach.

The elevated highway—what the city refers to as the innovative
approach—would dismantle the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and build
a new road in its place for at least three years, with promenade
access disrupted for six years, while contractors rebuild the
structure below. To clear the way for cars, the city would need to
get rid of the esplanade, install a new foundation and columns
along Furman Street, and lay down fresh road—just that leg of the
process could take a year and a half.


Courtesy of NYCDOT A rendering of the city’s temporary elevated
highway, or innovative, option.

Further north, the Columbia Heights Bridge would need to be
taken apart—bridge traffic would be rerouted through Willow
Street toward Old Fulton Street—so the elevated road could
continue. (It would
run over part of the the Brooklyn Bridge
.) Once work is
complete, traffic would be rerouted to the new BQE with wider lanes
and added shoulders for emergency vehicles—something the current
highway lacks—and build a new promenade 35 feet wider than its
predecessor.

The process would take some six years when all is said and done
and cost up to $3.6 billion, the DOT estimates. Transit officials
have said they favor this approach because they could pack in the
most work in what they say is the most compact timeline. It would
also allow crews to build new direct connections to the Brooklyn
and Manhattan bridges without added closure time. Improvements to
neighboring parks and pedestrian and bike connections are also
possible. Drivers would ultimately see fewer delays with this
method and less traffic would need to be diverted onto local roads
compared to the city’s alternate plan.


NYCDOT What a renovated, widened Brooklyn Heights Promenade could
look like.

Alternatively, workers could refurbish the BQE lane-by-lane and
divert traffic around construction in what the city has dubbed the
traditional approach. Work could last more than eight years using
this method and require a whopping 24 full weekend closures. (The
elevated highway option would require two full weekend closures.)
An upside to this plan is that the promenade would only close for
up to two years, but the perk of rebuilding a wider walkway would
disappear. Costs would also rise, going up to as much as $4
billion. The city would still be able to make safety improvements,
but new connections to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges would not
be possible.

Both proposals have their pros and cons, and both have garnered

fierce opposition
. Health experts
have raised concerns
about air pollution from erecting a
highway practically on Brooklyn Heights residents’ doorstep.
Preservationists, who say the project
may violate decades-old laws that protect the promenade
, have
threatened legal action if the city moves forward.


Pawel Gaul/Getty Images Homes and backyards run adjacent to the
promenade and will have the years-long construction project on
their doorstep.

“We recognize that the two construction concepts NYCDOT
presented have, understandably, raised significant community
concerns,” the transit agency said in a statement. “We ask for
your patience as we continue to study these proposals.”

The Brooklyn Heights Association alternative

In November, the BHA presented a plan developed by Heights-based
architecture and urban planning firm Marc Wouters Studios, known as the
temporary parallel bypass method. The approach would erect a
freestanding, two-tiered temporary highway a few feet west of the
existing triple cantilever.

“We noticed that there is a narrow strip of land [west of the
expressway] that is seldom visited,” Wouters explained. “By
putting the temporary parallel bypass there, and putting traffic
there, it should allow DOT to rebuild the triple cantilever more
easily while keeping the Promenade open for most of the
construction period.”


Marc Wouters Studios and Nightnurse images inc. A rendering of the
temporary parallel bypass method.

Instead of replacing the promenade with a temporary road, one
stretch would run beside the expressway, enabling the
promenade—and local businesses that depend on the foot traffic it
attracts—to remain open during the majority of construction.

The temporary bypass would run on land currently devoted to
parking lots and Brooklyn Bridge Park’s berms, but Wouters says
it would not encroach on usable parkland. He believes it could even
create improved pedestrian crossings on Joralemon Street, and other
locations, and a potential visitor parking area for the park.

Further north, a second temporary bypass would be constructed
along the stretch between Columbia Heights and the Brooklyn Bridge.
(It’s worth noting that
this plan would not run over the Brooklyn Bridge
, unlike the
city’s proposals.) The lane-by-lane approach—used in the
city’s traditional method—would be implemented for certain
parts of BQE repairs, such as for connections between the
interstate and the temporary bypasses.


Marc Wouters Studios and Nightnurse images inc. The temporary
parallel bypass plan.

At the moment, there is no cost estimate or schedule for the
plan, but Wouters believes the proposal has a comparable price tag
and timeline to the city’s options. But even if the city
doesn’t go the parallel bypass route, Wouters says collaborating
with the city on out-of-the-box thinking to limit the impact on
locals is crucial.

“Even if our option isn’t the ultimate option it enables a
discussion to take place amongst the community and DOT: What could
be other ways of dealing with this?” said Wouters. “I’m
remaining hopeful that a better solution will come out of
this.”

BHA and A Better Way will host a BQE town hall April 3 at
Plymouth Church (57 Orange Street) at 7 p.m.

What about tearing the BQE down?

That’s a question that more people are asking lately,
including City Council speaker Corey Johnson. At his March state of
the city address, Johnson called for a “fresh look at the BQE
problem.” In a more than 100-page report detailing his
plan for municipal control of the MTA
, he urged the city to
study alternatives to the roadway’s reconstruction “including
the removal of the BQE in its entirety.”

“We’re talking about spending $4 billion to rebuild a mile
and a half of highway—that’s almost two Mars Rovers,” Johnson
said. “We shouldn’t assume the best way forward is the old,
car-centric way. We can’t change the past but we can make choices
that will lead us to a better future.”

It’s not an untested concept, either. San Francisco
razed the much-reviled Embarcadero Freeway
and replaced it with
a boulevard in 2002.

The result was a triumph for the Downtown area with miles of new
public space, bike paths, and transit routes where the two-tiered
road once stood. The surrounding streets were able to efficiently
absorb traffic while the mass transit system, Bay Area Rapid
Transit (BART), experienced an annual 15 percent increase, according to The Congress For New
Urbanism
.


Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images A traffic jam on
the BQE.

New York City made a similar move when it replaced what was once
the
Miller Elevated Highway with the West Side Highway
in 2002,
after the road gave way under the weight of a cement truck. Over
the years, the city has added parkland, open space, and bike and
jogging paths along the road.

But the BQE is a crucial viaduct for the city’s manufacturing
and industrial sectors, and the DOT maintains that removing it
would present its own set of daunting challenges and implications
for the city.

“A lot of the trucks are delivering food, furniture,
goods—you name it—here in Brooklyn and Queens,” DOT
Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told Streetsblog
in November. While she admitted “a part of me would love to say I
wish we could do without this roadway,” Trottenberg said that she
doesn’t think “that’s where the city is right now.”

Urban planner Alexander
Garvin
echoed Trottenberg’s concerns, calling it “absurd”
that the city would “close itself off to the demands of the rest
of the country” by tearing down the BQE.
Michael Horodniceanu
, who served as the president of MTA
Capital Construction from 2007 to 2017 and oversaw the Second
Avenue subway, likened tearing down the triple cantilever to saying
“my arm hurts, let me cut it off so it won’t hurt.”

Still, others feel transit officials should take a bolder
approach and reconsider an expressway that contributes to the
30
percent of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions generated by
transportation
.

“The city and the state are trying to figure out climate
change, but you have to see the BQE as fossil fuel
infrastructure,” said Yetsuh Frank, the managing director of
strategy & programs at Building Energy Exchange and a
professor in the Urban Design & Architecture program at New
York University. “We’re used to seeing protestors against
pipelines, but this is every bit as damaging.”

Frank says the BQE also represents a “depressed pocket of real
estate.” He was curious how much land could be freed by
eliminating even part of the expressway, and examined the mostly
elevated stretch that runs from 65th Street in Sunset Park to the
Kosciuszko Bridge, where he looked at the street frontage running
on either side of the highway.


William Andrew/Getty Images The triple-cantilver section of the
BQE.

Not all of that space would be available for development if the
BQE were to be torn down, but even accounting for obvious
restrictions—schools, landmarked areas, and so on—there would
be 12 miles of buildable land running on either side. If that land
was, for instance, at a depth of 200 feet, that’d equate to
freeing up some 290 acres of land. Depending on zoning, that could
be put toward the creation of hundreds of thousands of units of
housing, Frank estimates.

“You could add housing, it could be mixed-use commercial, a
lot could be done with that,” he said.

If the BQE was torn down, a phenomenon known as
induced demand
—essentially, the more highway lanes you build,
the more traffic you create—would disperse traffic into city
streets, commuters would find alternative routes, and some drivers
would be siphoned from the roads altogether, said Frank. The
opposite effect would take place if traffic lanes are reduced, and
Frank points to Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct as evidence, where
the 90,000 cars that used the now-closed road each day seemingly

”disappeared”
after it shuttered in January.

What about a tunnel?

Aside from being cost prohibitive, tunnels come with a slew of
logistical challenges, according to the city.

In 2016, DOT conducted
a feasibility study
that looked closely at six possible tunnel
configurations. The survey explored the myriad issues such an
undertaking would raise, chief among them navigating the extensive
web of existing infrastructure beneath Downtown Brooklyn, including
subway lines and massive water pipes.

Of the proposed tunnels, city officials say only one would be
workable: a roughly three-mile shaft starting around 21st Street on
Third Avenue and ending near Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. It would
essentially serve as a bypass, shooting vehicles past Downtown
Brooklyn between South Slope and Williamsburg, with no direct links
to the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridges, or any of the local
connections for the neighborhoods above the tunnel.

“Those connection points are about 50 percent of the traffic
on the BQE currently, so even if we were able to build a tunnel, 50
percent of the traffic needs to go somewhere else,” Tanvi Pandya,
the DOT project manager for the BQE reconstruction, cautioned
during September’s DOT presentation on the project.


NYCDOT A diagram of a possible BQE tunnel.

Under this model, a tolled version of the triple cantilever
structure would be maintained to keep those connections, so a
tunnel would only be a component of a potential fix—and with an
estimated price tag of $8.6 billion,
according to the city’s 2016 study
, the city doesn’t see a
tunnel as a tenable option, said Pandya.

It’s not impossible, but unlikely, explained Horodniceanu, who
in addition to his tenure at the MTA served as the traffic
commissioner with the city’s DOT from 1986 to 1990.

“It’s a question like everything else, it comes down to
money,” said Horodniceanu. “You need the means and the
political will to allocate the dollars to do it.”

Horodniceanu noted that current tunnel boring technology can
create tubes with a diameter up to 54 feet, which can only
accommodate two lanes of traffic. The BQE, on the other hand, has
three lanes in either direction and still backs up with traffic.
Emergency exits, among other things, would also need to be included
in the design. To do that, the city would need access to private
property along the route—likely exerting eminent domain to
acquire those properties.

No matter what method is used to repair the expressway, one
thing is certain: There are no painless solutions. “Are you going
to please everyone? No. But what’s important here is to tell
everyone the truth,” said Horodniceanu. “It’s gonna hurt, but
in the end it’s gonna be better.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Transform or tear down? The BQE reconstruction, explained