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: