Could A Major Fix for the Prospect Expressway Be On “Deck”?

NYU-Wagner grad students pitch a transformation of the below-grade trench.

The Prospect Expressway cuts a 2.3-mile scar between Windsor Terrace and Park Slope. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The Prospect Expressway cuts a 2.3-mile scar between Windsor Terrace and Park Slope. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Robert Moses built the Prospect Expressway for a few million dollars in the 1950s, cutting a scar between Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. Now, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is championing a plan to spend upwards of $100 million that to heal the wound.

On Monday, Adams released “PX Forward,” a report [PDF] commissioned from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service that called for transforming the mostly below-grade highway from a blighted trench to create space for new parks, new development and better transportation infrastructure.

“Windsor Terrace and Park Slope were ripped apart by this trench,” Adams said. “We must reunite these neighborhoods physically and emotionally. This is a canyon through two communities…not a canyon made by nature, but by Robert Moses.”

As PX Forward planners spoke, truck traffic was omnipresent. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
As PX Forward planners spoke, truck traffic was omnipresent. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The 69-page report, written by NYU-Wagner graduate students, offers 11 recommendations. Some are quick fixes, such as altering light timings, re-routing trucks or adding a four-way stop at Seeley Place and 19th Street, while other mid-priced changes include closing some entrance ramps and opening new ones.

But the big-ticket items include megaprojects such as decking the entire expressway or filling the trench to create an at-grade boulevard modeled on the Embarcadero in San Francisco or the West Side Highway below 57th Street in Manhattan.

Both of those last proposals would cost tens of millions. So as a fallback, the NYU-Wagner planners offered something dubbed, the Prospect Path, “a cantilevered linear park running along the below-grade length of the expressway.”

The unused space along the roadway could be used for public-use buildings. Photo: PX Forward
The unused space along the roadway could be used for public-use buildings. Photo: PX Forward

“[It would] both extend the sidewalk and improve user experience by creating height and distance from vehicular traffic,” the report says. “The Prospect Path could also incorporate elements such as dedicated walkways for pedestrians, bike lanes for cyclists, passive seating, and planters.”

Another proposal calls for using some of the currently inaccessible shoulder space on the highway for public buildings such as libraries that can be accessed from the raised sidewalk.

But by far, the two most radical proposals — decking the roadway or turning it into a wide boulevard — are the eye-catchers. Let’s unpack them:

Decking the halls

Covering over the two-mile below-grade portion of the highway would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if other cities’ experience, and other proposals in New York, serve as a guide. New Jersey spent $150 million on a short deck over Route 29 to create “Riverwalk,” a park linking the city to the Delaware River. But the presence of the park led to a surge in local real estate values that partially offset the cost.

Dallas spent $60 million to build a park over a three-block stretch of the open-trench Woodall-Rodgers Freeway, connecting the city’s downtown and arts district to its Uptown neighborhood. Condo towers are proposed for each side, with one developer gushing to the Dallas Tribune that the park “will be a fabulous amenity to [my] building.”

Dallas before (left) and after a decking project downtown.
Dallas before (left) and after a decking project downtown.

Indeed, the only way to make decking work is apparently to have private developers involved from the state.

“As in other cities, innovative partnerships between federal and local governments and private parties may present a unique funding opportunity,” admitted the PX Forward planners, echoing several prior studies.

In 2008, for example, a city study on fixing trench highways deadpanned, “Decking over a transportation corridor can be very expensive.”

“The cost of decking could mean that either public subsidies or high densities would be needed in order to make such a project economically feasible,” the report continued. “As a result, privately built buildings constructed over transportation rights-of-way are often large and tall in order to minimize the cost of footings and decking and to provide sufficient revenue to justify the level of investment required.

“Such proposals,” the report concluded, hinting at neighborhood concerns about skyscrapers, “need to be evaluated in the context of the communities in which they would be built.”

More recently, a 2016 proposal to deck over and beautify an even shorter below-grade portion of Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through Williamsburg was priced at $100 million. That proposal, called “BQGreen,” is still on a drawing board.

The $100-million BQGreen has not gotten off the drawing board. Photo: DLANDstudio
The $100-million BQGreen has not gotten off the drawing board. Photo: DLANDstudio

Decking is so daunting that a 2010 study of the below-grade portion of the BQE between Atlantic Avenue and Summit Street through Carroll Gardens did not even address the possibility.

Instead, the proposal offered piecemeal treatments such as planting more street trees, installing acoustic barriers, adding pedestrian bridges or even building a “Green Canopy” of vines and solar cells over the exposed highway.

As a result, the proposals ranged from $10 million to $50 million.

A new Brooklyn Boulevard?

The report’s other high-cost option calls for filling in the trench and raising the roadway to street level — then “reducing the number of vehicle traffic lanes and introducing new paths for cyclists and pedestrians.”

“Adding medians, traffic signals, dedicated bus lanes and pedestrian crossings would create a safe and attractive space for multiple modes of transportation,” the report added, citing examples such as Rochester and San Francisco’s torn-down Embarcadero Freeway, now a grand boulevard along the bay.

“Boulevarding would enhance mobility for pedestrians and cyclists by providing more points of connectivity across and along the Expressway,” the report says. “Converting the Expressway into a multi-modal thoroughfare would also calm traffic, thereby enhancing safety. The addition of pedestrian green space would promote opportunities for recreation.”

One proposal calls for filling the Prospect Expressway trench and building an at-grade boulevard like this one.
One proposal calls for filling the Prospect Expressway trench and building an at-grade boulevard like this one.

The Regional Plan Association pushed such a proposal in 2017 over costlier decking schemes that the group preferred for several other open trench highways in the city. The RPA boulevard proposal was more radical than the current student white paper, saying the expressway should “be narrowed to one lane in each direction, opening up land for a new bicycle ‘highway,’ residential development, and public spaces.”

PX Forward’s boulevard plan hints that the expressway would retain at least two lanes for cars.

On Monday’s unveiling of the study, Adams declined to say what plan he would push for, or how he would get state and local authorities to commit funding.

This study is a call to action,” he said.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I live in the area and would supposedly benefit, but it is hard to imagine, given that funds are not unlimited, that the “opportunity cost” of these proposals makes them worth doing. On what would less be spent to make it happen?

    The idea that these things pay for themselves has proven to be suspect, at least on the short run, even on the Far West Side of Manhattan, where huge buildings are being built. And the locals would probably howl like crazy about anything over three stories.

    A park just for the locals that people elsewhere has to pay for? Gee, great to be pandered to and all, but wouldn’t those who don’t already have Prospect Park nearby merit a higher priority? Those who already have more shouldn’t be expecting more still — although that’s the way politics seems to work.

    And cripes, the city can’t even fix the crumbling handball/paddleball wall in the Greenwood Playground adjacent to the expressway, or replace the door on the chain link fence into the courts. Adding a level of chance to the game and getting a little more exercise chasing balls that go out the door is OK I guess, but still.

    Any serious politician — federal, state and local — at this point ought to be talking about who is going to be forced to accept what share of the pain in what form. Not proposing goodies that don’t cost anyone anything, the way all those retroactive pension deals “cost nothing” and all those MTA debts “cost nothing.”

    So, no thanks. Let’s talk about the $4 billion per year in excess of what has already been spent for the MTA capital plan, and why it’s $4 billion and not a lower number. And what taxes are going up when the stock market corrects to normal and it is suddenly discovered that even more money is needed to pay for the pension deals Adams voted for while he was in Albany.

  • AstoriaBlowin

    Close the highway and sell off the land, zone it for residential with high FAR allowed and let the developers fill in the trench. Decking it is another enormous give away to car culture, there’s no change in the amount of driving with that option. I know this is not going to happen but reports like this are a chance to move the Overton Window a little and plant the seed of reducing not just car use but the amount of road itself.

  • Joe R.

    Looking at a map, it’s basically just a spur which goes about 10 blocks to Ocean Parkway. As such, I doubt it saves motorists much over 2 minutes travel time compared to a surface boulevard. Best thing is to get rid of it and replace it with parks and surface streets. If it was a major thoroughfare then decking it over would make sense.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s actually very heavily used, all the time.

    A large number of cars from Ocean Parkway, Fort Hamilton Parkway, and other areas funnel into it.

    And it is part of the only through truck route across Brooklyn south of Atlantic Avenue, along with Church and southern Flatbush Avenue.

  • Boris

    It’s too bad transit wasn’t a consideration. Ocean Parkway needs light rail or BRT, and setting aside some of the right-of-way on the Prospect Expressway for transit would enable a new link between Coney Island and downtown Brooklyn (or Manhattan via the BBT) through a densely populated area.

  • kevd

    its 2 miles, far more than 10 blocks but certainly not espceially long.
    I could see de-mapping the section from Ft Hamilton to Church, and returning Ocean Parkway to its original route. Perhaps that would just push the awkward intersection of Church/Ocean Parkway/Prospect Expressway a bit north to Ft. Hamilton & Ocean Parkways.

  • kevd

    its the only highway in NYC on which I’ve never been stuck in traffic. which would suggest it has more capacity than it need.

    while it is “heavily used” by American standards, by NYC standards it sees relatively low traffic.

  • Joe R.

    My bad. It’s 13 blocks on the map, but those are 13 very long blocks, not the 250′ blocks one typically sees along the Manhattan Avenues. OK, so 2 miles starts to offer significant time savings, especially for commercial traffic.

    BTW, I personally don’t have an objections to the existing expressways in the city. I don’t think any more should be built, but the ones we have are vital for commercial traffic. My only beef is every expressway should also have a parallel non-stop bicycle superhighway.

  • Andrew

    I’ve been stuck in traffic on it, but only spillover traffic from Ocean Parkway or the Gowanus Expressway/BQE.

  • kevd

    yes, merging onto the BQE, a few times backups from BB Tunnel / BQE split have gone all the way back the PPE merge.
    I also haven’t driven much in the 16 years I’ve lived within a mile of 1 end of the PPE, so grain of salt.

  • YueLao

    These people are nuts!

  • Cgold

    As someone who lives just a few blocks south of this freeway on the Greenwood Heights border of this I dont think we should turn it into a boulevard. 5th,. 6th and 7th Ave all crossover the expressway easily, and judging from the amount of people that are hit by cars in the crosswalk crossing ocean parkway I prefer it how it is.

    That said, reducing the speed limit to 25 mph would really help with the noise, there are a ton of small parks that run along it that are ruined by the sound of cars traveling at 65 mph.

    Also, the windsor terrace section needs new pedestrian bridges that are level, the one that exists now makes you basically walk up and down two flights of stairs just to cross the street, which is rediculous.

  • opafiets

    A highway in NYC with more capacity than it needs? We’ve got to put a stop to that! It should be congested like all the others!

  • JW Mason

    As someone who lives in the neighborhood, I would be thrilled to see the expressway repalced with a surface boulevard.

  • ohnonononono

    People talk a lot about replacing expressways with “at-grade boulevards” — can someone cite an example of one of these that’s actually a nice place for pedestrians, and not a barrier? I think people confuse the issues. We could have theoretically built the Hudson River Greenway with its bike and ped paths while repairing the West Side Elevated Highway as it stood. The current iteration of the West Side Highway/West Street is not actually a great street– it’s still a large barrier between the city and the water, and pedestrian crossings are few. Same for the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

  • qrt145

    The West Side Highway sucks and is a pain to cross, but at least you can cross it at almost every block. Still much better than the parkway where you need to go a mile out of your way just to get to the other side.

  • cjstephens

    The original Westway plan was more like what you’re describing. It got killed by environmentalists. Go figure.

  • cjstephens

    It’s a shame that the neighbors of this scar are so afraid of density that they would rather live next to an ugly highway than ever consider a decking plan that got paid for with developer-driven housing and commercial construction. It’s a model that, broadly speaking, has worked in the past (think Park Avenue) and continues to work today (Hudson Yards). The scale would be smaller than either of those projects, but the fear of change (and of the occasional 20-story apartment building) will probably keep the cars and their exhaust running through these neighborhoods for decades to come. Cue the NIMBYs in three, two…

  • Andrew

    Excess capacity beyond the roads it feeds into accomplishes nothing.

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