By ZION DECOTEAU
On the westen edge of Brooklyn and Queens lies a waterfront overlooking the Upper New York Bay and East River. Along this stretch are several industrial/residential neighborhoods like Astoria, Red Hook, Greenpoint and Long Island City.
These up and coming neighborhoods have attracted city developers and Mayor Bill de Blasio to the idea of building a streetcar to connect them.
‘We need more mass transit and the center of gravity is moving to Brooklyn and Queens,” DeBlasio said in a 2018 press conference.
The proposed “BQX” streetcar would span 11 miles from Astoria toRed Hook, connect 13 subway lines. The plan was to break ground in 2024, start running by 2029, and cost $2.7 billion.
This would be good news to Red Hook, Cobble Hill and Greenpoint in particular which are known transportation deserts — areas with limited to no subway service.
Just how bad is their transportation? Take Greenpoint for example. It’s passengers are limited to the delay and construction prone L train and the scarce G train.
The waterfront’s transportation deserts do have bus service, but those routes have infrequent headways. According to the MTA, Red Hook & Carroll Gardens’ B 61 bus comes eight minutes apart at peak hours, 20 minutes apart off peak. Further north along the waterfront is Williamsburg and Greenpoint’s B 32 bus, arriving every 20 and 30 minutes, peak and off peak hours respectively.
Despite limited subway service and infrequent bus service along certain waterfront communities, the streetcar has met opposition from progressive advocacy groups.
“The trolley will require ripping up the roads along the route, which will cause mayhem for existing residents,” emailed Kristen Hackett, an executive committee member at the Justice For All Coalition. “The construction will take time, whereas a bus could be on the street tomorrow.”
In stark contrast, “Friends of the BQX”, the lobbying group supporting the project, refutes this common argument.
“Unlike a bus, the BQX has the ability to move the projected 50,000 daily riders along the corridor in a single, efficient route.” the website reads. “With dedicated right-of-way and traffic priority, it won’t get snarled in the traffic and congestion that often slows bus service.”
Still, The Justice for All Coalition — among other advocacy groups like ‘Uprose’ and ‘Queens Is Not For Sale’ — don’t just oppose the project for logistical reasons. Fears of exacerbated gentrification along the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront are fueling their protestation.
“The financials of the plan say a lot as well – paying for the trolley is contingent on rising land values and tax dollars,” responded Hackett. “It is not speculation that the goal AND NEED of the trolley is gentrification.”
Hackett’s claim about land value funding the project is true. The street car would increase the property values in neighborhoods along its route, and the city would collect the resultant higher property taxes to pay back the developers.
This is why friends of the BQX attests a new bus route won’t work. It claims a new bus route would leave a higher burden on taxpayers because it wouldn’t raise property values to a level that could offset the project’s cost. Moreover, a bus route would be owned by the MTA making it subject to an array of political debate from the state, that a city controlled street car wouldn’t.
On the other hand, Hackett went further to level heavier criticism 0f one of the streetcar’s notable supporters, Jed Walentas. Hackett: “In short, the BQX is a sham, and everyone knows it. It was
the brainchild of Jed Walentas, a real estate developer who is known for extorting and ripping off tenants to turn a greater profit.”
The Jed Walentas Ms.Hackett referred to is a top executive at Two Trees Management, a real estate company founded by his father David in 1968. The firm is noted for helping revitalize Brooklyn’s trendy DUMBO neighborhood. About her claim of Walentas ripping off tenants, Two Trees was sued by the tenants association of one of it’s Brooklyn properties, 125 Court Street. The 2017 suit alleged that Two Trees overcharged renters, and pushed out residents to charge newer tenants 20% more.
But de Blasio campaigned on a so-called “tale of two cities”, a reality divide between the rich and poor of New York. So why would he support something that allegedly causes gentrification?
Hackett & the Coalition insist “Mayor De Blasio supports this plan because he is getting paid by the developers with projects along the route,” an unproven assertion.
The online short documentary Gentrification Express: Breaking Down the BQX factually explains that several luxury properties owned by groups like Tishman Speyer, Brookfield Properties, and the aforementioned Two Trees Management, are directly along the BQX’s route.
Friends of the BQX has a direct response to this. The website reads that the street car won’t just benefit luxury condos but over 40,000 public housing residents to jobs, healthcare and education, while serving the 300,000 people who work along the industrial waterfront.
Further public hearings on the BQX have been postponed due to the coronavirus. The pandemic isn’t just canceling hearings, it could cancel the entire project. The city’s budget shortfall has slashed a variety of programs.
For now the fate of the BQX remains up in the air but the opposing sides are grounded in their positions. As for the waterfront, it’s up and coming neighborhoods are continuing to face higher rents and mortgages in the shadow of a New York City real estate boom.