Op-Ed: A once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine the BQE

BQE triple cantilver
Brooklynites are facing a once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine the BQE, writes Kristina Naplatarski.
File photo by Susan de Vries

Communities across New York City all have defining characteristics — some good, and others not so good. Bay Ridge has Shore Road Park and Parkway; Chelsea has the High Line; Corona has the New York State Pavilion. In North Brooklyn, we have the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). As someone who has lived their whole life in Greenpoint, I know that for North Brooklyn residents, the BQE is impossible to ignore. 

For decades, this arterial roadway has been a conveyor belt of vehicles with a canyon of dark, desolate space beneath it, cutting through Greenpoint and Williamsburg. While the BQE serves a dual purpose in other parts of the borough — as a promenade and a highway — in North Brooklyn it is utilitarian, at best. This corridor is more than just an eyesore; by shuttling massive amounts of vehicular traffic through Community Board 1, it has negatively impacted the health of local residents. In an area that is no stranger to environmental justice violations – we are home to Newtown Creek, the Exxon Oil spill, and numerous waste transfer stations – the BQE is yet another major contributor to the area’s legacy of environmental toxins, contributing to high asthma rates and general poor health conditions for residents. 

But in North Brooklyn, we also have another legacy: a legacy of fighting for environmental justice and against a proliferation of polluting infrastructure. In the past, the BQE has not been spared the scrutiny of community leaders and organizations who have rallied to reimagine and re-envision the corridor as a space that works with our communities, not against them. 

Today, we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this vision a reality through the redesign slated for the BQE. In recent months, the city has convened public visioning sessions to gather input from residents who live along the BQE corridor and hear what they would like to see in its redesign. The public input process will continue in the coming months. As this process plays out, I encourage North Brooklyn residents to participate and keep three things in mind: First, the re-design process is supposed to re-envision the entire BQE corridor, including the state-owned portions in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Second, now is the time to think big; if we don’t take the opportunity now to ask for big changes, when will we? And third, if we don’t ask for the specific changes that we want to see, we are guaranteed to not get them. 

While changing big, structural impediments is possible, there are, of course, challenges to doing so – most notably, the challenge of securing funding. Currently, there is no funding allocated for the redesign of the North Brooklyn portion of the BQE. While some might see this as a reason to only advocate for minor changes, like a bike lane along the corridor, or new plantings underneath the roadway, we should not settle for measures that could and should happen separate and apart from the current BQE redesign process. Doing so would be bargaining against our interests and the interests of future generations. Instead, we should ask for what we truly deserve — a fully re-imagined BQE. 

Transformative visions for the BQE have been put forth before. One such proposal is the BQ Green, an elevated park that would be created by decking a portion of the BQE to link Marcy Green and Rodney Park. Big, structural changes like this are possible, and we need to look no further than the Bronx as an example, where a proposal to cap the Cross Bronx Expressway is currently underway. 

In planning the BQE as it is today, Robert Moses was bold, and in fact, destructive. His creation left generations of Brooklynites to endure a massive piece of infrastructure bisecting their neighborhoods. Now, more than seventy years after its creation, we have a chance to counter that destruction. To do that, we cannot settle for half measures or tweaks around the edges. 

As the process to redesign the BQE continues in this new year, I encourage my neighbors in North Brooklyn to think big, show up at visioning sessions, and speak out. We have done this before, and I know we can do it again.

Editor’s note: Though she works for the New York State Comptroller, the views expressed in this op-ed are Kristina Naplatarski’s.