Fixing the Ditch: Planning a Less Awful BQE Trench

BQE_Pic.pngThe BQE trench divides a neighborhood in two, spewing noise and air pollution. Photo: NYCEDC [PDF]

Between 1950 and 1964, Robert Moses gouged a path across two boroughs to build the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, the BQE slices through the urban fabric in the form of a below-grade trench, which has given many residents of those neighborhoods hope of covering that section of highway. As more people have moved to the west side of the ditch, the pressure to do something has mounted, but the BQE trench won’t get capped any time soon.

Old_Neighborhood.pngBefore the BQE trench was built, the neighborhood had a fully connected street grid. Image: NYCEDC

The damage inflicted by the highway on residents’ ears and lungs, however, could still be lessened, and some of the lost street connections can be restored. Right now, locals put up with traffic noise as high as 76 decibels —
at 80, you’re subject to long-term hearing loss — and dangerously elevated
levels of asthma-causing particulate pollution. Their neighborhood is effectively split in two. A study sponsored by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who secured
$300,000 in federal funds, offers a few partial solutions to "fix the ditch."

The project team developing the study held its first community planning session last week, and the Brooklyn Eagle reports that improved bike-ped connections across the highway, noise-reducing walls, and environmental remediation measures are the favored changes. (This is a separate project from the reconstruction of the BQE in downtown Brooklyn, which could have major implications for the local and regional transportation system.)

The NYC Economic Development Corporation is leading the study, in partnership with NYCDOT and a host of consulting firms. The goal for now is to produce a plan that can be shopped around for additional funding. After two more community meetings, the lead planners will put out a
conceptual design and engineering report in July. In the fall, they’ll issue three alternative plans for the trench. The money isn’t in place yet for the redesign itself. 

Neither is funding available for capping the trench, which could create new real estate for public space or private development. Seattle famously decked over part of I-5 to create Freeway Park, and Los Angeles is considering doing something similar where the 101 Freeway divides downtown. Though the Eagle reported that many residents near the BQE trench still hold out hope for such a bold scenario, planners don’t expect to have access to the kind of money needed for more than incremental changes.

Instead, the EDC report [PDF] calls for traffic calming and wider sidewalks along the access roads on each side of the trench, where excess street space leads to speeding cars. It also proposes bridges over the trench that are safer and more aesthetically pleasing, and structures along the highway to absorb noise and pollution. Here are a few examples of what’s on the table.

Traffic_Calming.pngPotential models for calming traffic along either side of the BQE trench. Photos: NYCEDC
Pedestrian_Bridge.pngPedestrian bridges from around the world could serve as templates for new walkways and bike connections over the trench. Photos: NYCEDC
Green_Wall.pngGreen walls would block noise, absorb some pollution, and make the highway look less awful. Photos: NYCEDC

  • Mike

    Toll the East River bridges, and then demolish the entire BQE. Replace it with a real boulevard that includes BRT/LRT, protected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, trees and attractive street furniture and yes, a few lanes for cars and trucks.

  • Karma

    It should be noted that Nydia lives in a building on Woodhull street, right where the BQE begins to go underground. She and her husband Paul purchased a multimillion dollar brownstone around 2003-2004 and spent several hundreds of thousands renovating the building, which has its south side facing the never-ending barrage of cars and trucks winding down the Gownus to the underground portion.

    I am curious as to whether Nydia would be so concerned about the noise and air pollution if she didn’t live right there and stand to benefit in increased property values from a solution to this problem.

  • Pete

    A politician whose own self-interest mirrors the concerns of her community, and not just the concerns of her large donors? I’m ok with that.

  • Karma

    I should have also noted that I am indeed a supporter of Nydia and her progressive voting record, but as with many politicians, I often find her motives suspicious.

    For example, I know that she is in favor of more funding for mass transit, but I typically see an SUV idling in front of her building for up to an hour each morning (talk about air pollution!), waiting to drive her to whatever news conference she is holding that day.

    I hope, though, that a viable solution to the BQE issue is found someday without too much unnecessary money spent on “studies”.

  • Karma

    Pete – I agree, but I wonder if she would care if she didn’t live there? Her district (NY-12) is an oddly-shaped one (, including parts of Sunset Park, Ridgewood, Queens and Chinatown. I wonder if she focuses as much of her energy on the terrible effects of highways and roads in those neighborhoods?

  • Karma, I suggest you say something to that driver about the idling, or call Velazquez and ask her to stop allowing it. Idling does real harm, and it’s illegal if done for more than three minutes, or done at all without someone in the drivier’s seat.

    I’m apprehensive about confronting random people on the street about their offensive idling, but I wouldn’t be apprehensive about approaching my congress member’s driver. And who knows, it might even do some good to bring it to her attention.

  • jsd

    The NYC EDC is on the case! Which means we’ll probably hear about this again in the late 2040’s when the BQE is turned into a subterranean Target.

  • Who cares where Nydia Velasquez lives as long as it’s within her district? My son lives on Hicks, overlooking the BQE, and would love to see these changes. Clearly Ms. Velasquez is not alone in her vision.

    Improvements such as those outlined anode will give Brooklynites better access to the Brooklyn Waterfront and the underutilized greenway. It will make the entire area much more livable for everyone who lives in, works in, or just visits the area.

  • Hmmm…

    Why not sell the air rights to a developer with the stipulation that they must be responsible for covering the entire trench? It’s probably not cost effective for a private developer to do so but with some public funds it could be fiscally viable.

    Still, then you would have to deal with all those nasty parking minimums. Oh well. Nothing is ever perfect.

  • Wouldn’t the endlessly backed up traffic sitting still on the expressway count towards the parking minimum?

  • Herzog

    Jeff, hahahahaha!

  • MRN

    I live at the corner of Sackett and Hicks – directly above the BQE. I am not for “wider sidewalks” along Hicks street. Frankly, with the noise and exhaust levels being what they are, why would anyone want to walk up and down Hicks in Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill.

    I’d rather they build some sort of cap – even if you can’t build or walk on it – that would reduce noise and perhaps funnel exhaust in a safe[r] manner than widen the sidewalks, which would just go unused.

  • I love how the baby boomers and their parents spent all this money on terrible, destructive and poorly planned infrastructure projects and then managed to create, through a combination of neglect and lower taxes, a situation in which it’s impossible to fix the damage they caused.

  • Boris


    That’s an excellent idea. There are buildings on top of the FDR and the Cross-Bronx Expressway (including a hospital, in the case of the FDR), and while I would never live in one of those there are people who would. And it’s not necessary to make the developer build an all-or-nothing project, just mandate that significant areas are covered up beyond the actual building footprint.

  • David King

    The Woodall Rodgers Freeway Deck Park is featured by the US DOT in their advertising supporting the federal stimulus funding:

  • Wow! That Columbus Ohio, project is VERY cool and intriguing!

  • John

    It should be filled in with landfill garbage. Preferably with old guzzler cars, VHS tapes, and the Wall St garbage.

    Then covered it completely with trees and bike and bus lanes. Turn it into a real greenway.

  • John- That would be idiotic to waste the space.

    Take that reactionary anti highway doctrine back to the monastery.

  • Miriam

    the columbus ohio solution looks great!

    We have the clearview expressway here in queens that to me seems so unnecessary! I believe it is underutilized, but I don’t hear of any complaints about this road probably because it goes through a sparsely populated area. There really should get rid of it!

  • Alice

    I love it how baby boomers are blamed for things that were decided, funded, and built before we were old enough to vote. It’s an interesting psychology that blames all 40 million people born betweeen 1946 and 1964 for everything including Robert Moses.

  • Vital

    It can be covered as this one in Dallas.


What It Looks Like to Walk the Length of the BQE

Here’s a project we’re glad not to be doing (but we’re thrilled someone is). Gallery owner Robert Hult is spending today walking the route of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, not on the highway but as close alongside it as possible, and posting regular photos to his Twitter account. Taken collectively, the snapshots create a real vision […]