Highway robbery! State is mulling taking Heights homes for BQE repair

Classic brownstones and other homes in historic Brooklyn Heights may be demolished by the state as part of the long-overdue effort to shore up and modernize the aging Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, state officials revealed this week.

State transportation planners are currently considering several ways to implement a $300-million reconstruction project of the triple-cantilever portion of the BQE under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, plus other portions between Sands Street and Atlantic Avenue — but one scenario calls for homes to be taken near Willow and Middagh streets to accommodate the wider highway.

Peter King, project manager with the Department of Transportation, called the possibility of an eminent domain taking unlikely, but confirmed that it is being considered.

“It is well-established that the public sector has the authority to acquire properties for public purposes,” he said. “It would be premature to rule out anything, and a violation of process to start discounting things,” he said.

That’s a problem for area residents like Beth Taubner, who lives in the shadow of the highway — and whose home would be one of those demolished.

“You feel like you’re going to feel safe in your home, and this is the last thing I thought I’d be thinking about,” she said. “This upsets me!”

Transportation officials said that they are preparing an environmental impact statement for the mega-project, and are merely mandated to look at many possible scenarios — from doing nothing to boring a tunnel under Brooklyn Heights.

The project is the first major rehabilitation of the roadway since its opening in 1954, and will seek to modernize the structure to meet the roadway realities it now faces — more than 145,000 cars and trucks rumbling along its surface each day.

The highway was designed to last 50 years — in an age when it handled far fewer vehicles, King said.

The roadway’s limitations — narrow lanes, inconsistent curves, lack of shoulders, short merge and weave distances — also makes it dangerous. From 2004 to 2007, a total of 674 accidents were reported between Tillary and Congress streets— a figure that is 10 times the statewide average.

King called it “irresponsible and unproductive” to speculate about property seizures at this time, especially considering that planners may end up sacrificing the state mandate for a truly modern, high-speed highway with shoulders and proper entrance ramps, and in so doing, spare adjacent properties.

As such, groups that are involved in the discussion were not alarmed by the threat of eminent domain.

“You just try to look at as many designs as possible,” said Jane McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “If the state didn’t do its due diligence, then everyone would be angry.”

Rob Perris, the district manager of Community Board 2, said concerns about eminent domain are misplaced. “We are talking about a 10-year process and we’re in year one. It is conceivable that there could be alignments that result in property being taken, but from the standpoint of today that seems highly unlikely.”

The irony, of course, is that master builder Robert Moses created the existing triple cantilever underneath Brooklyn Heights after neighborhood activists defeated his initial plan for a highway right through the heart of the neighborhod.

“Robert Moses isn’t here now, and if a new Moses emerges, we have practice,” said Judy Stanton, the executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “We know what to do.”

But history shows that there are no guarantees, said Columbia Heights resident Rex Roberts.

When the highway was constructed, a row of Columbia Heights brownstones— including the home of Brooklyn bridge designer John Roebling — was razed.

And February House, a “bohemian utopia” on Middagh shared by the poet W.H Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and writer Carson McCullers, was also doomed by the BQE.

“These things do happen — although you don’t think it will happen to you,” he said. “Eminent domain was used to create the BQE, so I suppose it could be used to save the BQE.”

The work will raise truck clearances, widen lanes, and reinforce the corroding steel and concrete span. A final plan isn’t due until 2015, and work won’t begin until 2020.

The next stakeholders meeting will be held at St. Francis College (180 Remsen St. between Court and Hicks streets in Brooklyn Heights) on June 23 at 6:30 pm. Details of the project can be found by visiting the state transportation Web site at www.nysdot.gov/bqedowntownbrooklyn

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