De Blasio, Channeling Cuomo, Creates his Own ‘Expert Panel’ for BQE Repairs

Photo: Regional Plan Association
Photo: Regional Plan Association

Mayor de Blasio threw his own Department of Transportation under the bus — a bus speeding on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — and has created his own “expert” panel to come up with a new design for the repair of the aging highway to ensure, as the mayor said, “we get this right.”

According to City Hall, the panel can explore all options — including not repairing the ready-to-collapse triple-cantilever section between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street and instead replacing it with any number of neighborhood- and pedestrian-friendly options, some of which have been put forward by community groups and other electeds.

The panel is expected to produce a report by this summer — a tight timeline that city officials said was chosen to avoid any delays in a project that is supposed to start next year.

“[The panel] will evaluate underlying project assumptions and review existing proposals, including those that have been generated by elected officials and community members, no-build or reduced capacity options, and other ideas as generated by the panel,” City Hall said in a statement, which was first reported by Politico’s Dana Rubinstein this afternoon. “The panel will also hear from and consult with a group of elected officials and community, civic, and business associations at key points throughout its review.”

Why the panel?

The de Blasio administration has been under fire from some Brooklyn Heights residents since the Department of Transportation unveiled two plans for the reconstruction of the roadway, which carries 150,000 vehicles a day, including 15,000 trucks. One option called for the fabled Brooklyn Heights Promenade to be torn down in favor of a temporary roadway while the work was being conducted — but would ultimately be restored and improved. This option had the benefit of being faster — a six-year, $3.6-billion build was expected — and would result in better connections to bridges and a wider Promenade.

The other option called for the tourist walkway to be retained, and the work to be done in a more traditional manner. It would take eight years, cost $4 billion and not offer as many improvements. (Curbed’s Caroline Spivack offered a great primer here.)

Mayor de Blasio was on record as supporting the first proposal, telling WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in October, “It’s the way to address the bigger problem once and for all, and as quickly as we can,”

That was then. In the months that followed, Brooklyn Heights residents used their considerable financial might to agitate for a solution to “save” the Promenade. Comptroller Scott Stringer followed by criticizing the mayor for a supposed lack of respect for the neighborhood — then issued his own plan, which called for a truck-only BQE, covered by parks.

The Brooklyn Heights Association also commissioned its own plan. And another local group, called A Better Way, has another plan, which was put out earlier this week by the Regional Plan Association. As Streetsblog reported, it calls for a narrower roadway. There’s also this incredibly gorgeous plan from the Bjarke Ingels Group that would have a price tag to match.

There are, of course, many other possibilities, including tearing down the highway entirely and replacing it with a human-scale roadway, a plan that Council Speaker Corey Johnson has hinted he favors. Such a plan would be similar to what the city did with the West Side Highway a generation ago, or what San Francisco did with the Embarcadero, Seoul did with its even-busier Cheonggyecheon Freeway and Paris did with its Georges Pompidou Expressway. Most recently, Seattle has enjoyed the results of its teardown of the Alaska Way Viaduct, which is similar to the BQE.

There’s also a pie-in-the proposal for a tunnel.

Regardless of who is on the panel (list below), de Blasio’s decision to throw out years of work by his own Department of Transportation — including planning sessions and public hearings — is reminiscent of Gov. Cuomo’s decision early this year to toss aside MTA experts and bring in his own engineers to create a new, faster plan for the repair of the L-train’s Canarsie Tunnel without a full shutdown.

Cuomo basked in the headlines — “L Yeah!” said both the News and the Post — for weeks. It is unclear if de Blasio will enjoy the same positive publicity for his move to sideline his own administrative agency with a new blue-ribbon committee whose report he can later hide behind.

For now, Brooklyn Heights residents were crowing at the clear victory for them.

“Ever since the city presented its proposals for rebuilding the BQE, the Brooklyn Heights Association has called for meaningful community involvement in the planning of this massive transportation project as part of a comprehensive and inclusive approach to involve those who will be most affected by the project,” said Peter Bray, the group’s executive director. “We are gratified that the city has now acknowledged our request by convening an outside panel of experts to take a fresh look at the project.”

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was also dutifully quoted in the mayor’s press release on Tuesday.

“Community members and stakeholders across the city have come together to propose new ideas and call for fresh thinking on the BQE,” she said. “This new panel presents an important opportunity to create the best plan possible — with community voices heard throughout the process.”

Who’s on the panel

The panel currently consists of:

  • Carlo Scissura, NY Building Congress (he will chair the committee)
  • Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk Labs
  • Vincent Alvarez, New York City Central Labor Council
  • Kate Ascher, BuroHappold Engineering
  • Elizabeth Goldstein, Municipal Arts Society
  • Henry Gutman, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp./Brooklyn Bridge Park
  • Kyle Kimball, Con Edison
  • Mitchell Moss, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
  • Kaan Ozbay, NYU Tandon School of Engineering
  • Hani Nassif, Rutgers School of Engineering
  • Benjamin Prosky, American Institute of Architects
  • Denise Richardson, General Contractors Association
  • Ross Sandler, New York Law School
  • Jay Simson, American Council of Engineering Companies of New York
  • Tom Wright, Regional Plan Association
  • Kathryn Wylde, Partnership for NYC

“Its really putting together a group of people who will hear people, listen to people, meet with community groups, civic groups, and meet with engineers and architects and contractors to really understand what is the right thing to do there, what can be built,” Scissura told Politico. “Before we do anything, we have to understand what can actually be built there.”

Or not. Here’s a reminder on how far the city has come to at least considering a tear-down option. Streetsblog spoke to Trottenberg over the summer. Here’s what she said then:

  • watcher

    the story of de blasio is that being seen as doing something is more important to him than doing something. this is that.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    Sorry Gersh, but the idea of removing the Brooklyn Heights promenade (for any length of time) in order to facilitate highway repairs should strike any rational human as repugnant.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Uh oh. The panel currently consists of:

    Carlo Scissura, NY Building Congress (he will chair the
    committee) Denise Richardson, General Contractors Association

    They want the city to overpay for the project by a factor of five. Money to pay for construction union pensions they have underfunded.

    Elizabeth Goldstein, Municipal Arts Society

    Keep the pretty cars, ban those ugly trucks. Maybe stuff will just fall out of the sky!
    Where are the representatives of the freight industry?

  • Jacob

    Agreed. Considering all the options seems like a win, but the tone of the article implies otherwise. Am I missing something?

  • Joe R.

    Isn’t that pretty much what all politicians do?

  • Lloyd Bergenson

    Since when did Municipal Arts Society argue for car-oriented design of streets?

  • Joe R.

    I’m going to pull a page out of the playbook of people who say we shouldn’t build (insert existing type of mass transit) because some new wiz-bang technology is just around the corner, be it hyperloop, flying cars, whatever.

    So here goes. Let’s not fix it and let’s not replace it with anything, even a surface boulevard, because cars and trucks will likely be obsolete in a few years as Amazon and other companies move to drone delivery. Probably not going to happen, but we can use the same idiotic reasoning as our foes to oppose major road projects.

  • djx

    He’s actually done one (1) good thing – universal pre-K.

    One.

  • Larry Littlefield

    MAS is concerned with amenities for the affluent to the exclusion of all else, and is not cost-sensitive.
    It is particularly not “opportunity cost” sensitive — not worried about what isn’t funded due to more amenities for the affluent.
    The pretty, very expensive station at WTC while the transit system collapses is an example.

  • Lloyd Bergenson

    You didn’t answer my question. And MAS has been one of the most vocal defenders of parks and public spaces, so the notion that they are concerned only with amenities for the “affluent” is absurd.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps I should use the word “were” since I haven’t interacted with those folks in a long time. But I can say from experience that was their concern.

    At least at the time, they’re view would be make it a park, or at least a parkway. They wouldn’t even think about freight. Or lets do a tunnel. They wouldn’t even think about costs. Because a “great city” can afford anything (until it can’t afford anything).

  • Fair Weather

    Im all for any panel in favor of ripping down the highway. Yes, So let’s hope the right decision here

  • Joe R.

    That’s debatable from a cost/benefit standpoint. Yes, some kids in households where the parents are too busy to interact with them regularly will benefit from the structure. Others won’t. My mother taught us all how to read before we even started school. And then some kids don’t like being put into a school environment at such a young age. I personally didn’t enjoy or get any benefit out of kindergarten. Preschool would have been even more pointless for me. From where I stand a lot of the reason pre-K enjoyed such high support was that for many working parents it was basically a taxpayer-subsidized daycare service. Any extra learning was just incidental. This article even says as much:

    https://www.air.org/resource/five-things-we-can-learn-pre-k-other-countries

    Possibly the most striking and consistent similarity across countries with high rates of preschool participation is that all children in those countries are legally entitled to it. Such an entitlement protects preschool programs from being affected by economic downturns and political shifts. Entitlements also make sending one’s child to an “official” preschool program the default child care option for working parents.

    It would be better if we focused on creating more high-paying jobs so one parent can stay home until the kids go to grade school.

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