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

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By Gary Buiso

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

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Reader Feedback

John from Sunset Park says:
After the US Supreme Court ruled in Kelo that the State/Private Developer can take your property with the stamp of a hack Judge, 43 State Legislatures enacted laws to protect its citizens.

New York States is one of the 7 States that did nothing.

Think about that on election day.
June 12, 2010, 2:14 am
frank from downtown says:
John, Kelo has nothing to do with it. Eminent domain to build public roads is perfectly legitimate and legal. any NY reform, which is needed, would still allow this longstanding public use.
June 12, 2010, 9:46 am
Mike from GP says:
How about a better solution:

Toll the "free" East River bridges. Demolish the BQE altogether. Replace it with an actual boulevard with light right/bus rapid transit, bike lanes, wide sidewalks with trees, and maybe a car lane or two.
June 12, 2010, 3:52 pm
Bob from BH says:
Even though the state — and the Brooklyn Heights Association — knew for years that this project would require roadway realignment, they made certain that development plans for Brooklyn Bridge Park were locked in place — "facts on the ground," as they say — BEFORE the EIS for the BQE was undertaken. Curious of conspiratorial — you decide, when they start bulldozing historic Brooklyn Heights homes.

If nothing else, the passivity of the BHA to this threat exposes the organization's bankruptcy — the abandonment by its board of the organization's core mission, which had been to protect the historic Heights from just this kind of threat.

(Some road widening could have been accomplished at the expense of the Park; whether that would have been desirable is beside the point — it should at least have been considered.)
June 12, 2010, 9:23 pm
Charles from Bklyn says:
Unless you are extremely wealthy, you are just little people. Looks like upper middle class is not protected ... just like the lower middle class and poor. Welcome to the new America: the very rich get richer, and the rest us work for nothing, or something that is taken away later anyway. (i.e. pensions, estate tax, homes, etc ...)

Of course, eminent domain was designed for exactly this type of taking, for the public good, but the abuse of eminent domain in NYS makes any use distasteful.
June 13, 2010, 1:08 pm
Brooklyn Native from Brooklyn says:
I'm puzzled by "Mike from GP", whose comment about putting the tolls on East River bridges assumes that his use of the word "free" means that no one was ever taxed for construction and upkeep. Anyhow... where would GP put the toll booths? Any standing traffic in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan would monumentally increase pollution, heat and noise. And if Mike were to say that the use of the EZ Pass would eliminate these environmental issues, I guess that not having a Pass (for some people who drive only rarely, don't usually take their cars into Manhattan) or are out-of-towners and -staters who've visited Brooklyn may find that there HAVE TO BE TOLL BOOTHS.

I'm sure that engineers have looked at the BQE and its support integrity. I can only hope that in the dust-up that is sure to ensue, that no one forgets about the supporting wall collapse on the upper West Side Highway within the last five years, and the financial devastation caused not only due to the closure of the road, but to the cooperative housing corporation on the bluff overlooking the road.
June 13, 2010, 1:42 pm
Bob from BH says:
The BQE is the only way to get between the citysides of Brooklyn and Queens; East River tolls, while not irrelevant, are tangential to that traffic.

The BQE must be maintained and improved; its use will grow even if $10 tolls were imposed, even if $20 tolls were imposed — and NO ONE is suggesting such high tarrifs.

Meanwhile, if Brooklyn Bridge Park is out of bounds for BQE work (and my bet is that this is so, and that this is one reason the EIS was delayed until AFTER Brooklyn Bridge Park came online), we should expect that IN ADDITION to possible eminent domain seizures on the north AND south ends of the Heights, there will be property confiscations or "temporary" relocations along Columbia Heights and vicinity.

For this, we'll be able to thank those who control the Brooklyn Heights Association.
June 13, 2010, 5:13 pm
Bob from BH says:
Brooklyn Bridge Park uses the water, therefore any use of pontoons would compromise the park.

I am suggesting that the BHA has opted to screw Heights homeowners (presumably the homeowners do not include BHA board members or their close friends) in order to guarantee a free ride for Brooklyn Bridge Park and its affiliated residential and commercial developments.
June 13, 2010, 9:09 pm
Sid from Boerum Hill says:
Tolls can be collected without toll booths. A combination of EZ pass and billing license plates can be done. In fact on the Port Authority bridges(which don't have barriers that open each time a car passes through the EZ pass lanes), that is what they do if you don't have an EZ pass and go through anyway.

The probability that any Eminent Domain will be used in the BQE repair is small. The cost of any land in this area will be astronomical. ED is almost never used for a temporary need.
June 13, 2010, 9:16 pm
Sid from Boerum Hill says:
the Planning for the Brooklyn Bridge park started in 1986. The two residential sites for the upland of pier 6 and behind Brooklyn Bridge Park building one-which was built there eons ago(as 360 Furman Street) You can see the footprints of these two sites if you go to the park now(they are the vacant areas just north of Atlantic Avenue).
The planning for the BQE repair is at the beginning for a repair that will not begin before 2020 or so. So Brooklyn Bridge Park and the BHA has little to do with the BQE unless you really never wanted a park there anyway.
The people who oppose the Brooklyn Bridge Park funding mechanism have never come up with a viable alternative. and history has shown that relieing on the City or the State for Park funding only works for Manhattan. The Squadron plan takes money from outside the park and dedicates it to the park- taking money away from NY City and using it for the State owned park. Taking money away from Schools and Police etc. Using pilots(payment in lieu of taxes and ground lease money from land inside the park) is new money never intended for the city. Everyone is for the least amount of development in the park to do this but unfortunately, other developments will take more park space and give back much less money.
June 13, 2010, 10:38 pm
Mary from BH says:
Mike from GP has the right idea: let's turn the BQE into a a tram line or walking/biking boulevard to accent the new Brooklyn Bridge Park! That highway is a 1950s-era mistake.
June 14, 2010, 5:24 am
Bob from BH says:
Sid from Boerum Hill's not entirely correct.

Plans for Brooklyn Bridge Park as currently being executed were NOT begun in 1986 — those plans did not include a massive amount of housing and commercial development; the payment in lieu of taxes notion is bull---t that ultimately offers no guaranteed advantage; and, finally, IT IS ABSOLUTELY FALSE OT SUGGEST THAT BQR REPAIR "IS AT THE BEGINNING" —

BQE repair was in the cards for MORE THAN 10 YEARS but implementation was delayed for various reasons. My suggestion is that one reason for this delay might have been a tacit move to avoid hindering Brooklyn Bridge Park's [non-park, commercial and residential] developers.

And protecting Brooklyn Bridge Park's [non-park] developers may ultimately mean sacrificing historic Brooklyn Heights.
June 14, 2010, 5:44 am
Moshe Aron Kestenbaum from Williamsburg ODA says:
Why not condem one of David Wallentas propeties in dumbo to rerout the BQE? Why is it always the poor man that gets condemned or for more clarity the poor man gets a CONDOM over his head
June 14, 2010, 7:58 am
j mork from p hts says:
Good news Brooklyn Native:


Friday, 15 January 2010 12:31PM

Toll Plan Could Create Smoother Ride over Henry Hudson Bridge

NEW YORK (1010 WINS) -- No backups or bottlenecking at bridges and tunnels? Sounds like a dream but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is embarking on a pilot program which may make it a reality.

Recently installed MTA chairman Jay Walder is expected to announce Friday a test at the Henry Hudson Bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx of an all-electronic toll system.

The plan would eliminate gates from E-ZPass toll lanes and instead have cameras photograph the plates of drivers.

Drivers who do not subscribe to E-ZPass would be mailed a bill.

June 14, 2010, 8:35 am
So it Goes from Sunset Park says:
It will be interesting to see the Heights crowd, grow some balls and a voice if they have to fight this. And we'll all wonder where they were when a little area just down the way was being grazed by Ratner and Eminent Domain. So it goes, and so it shall be.
June 14, 2010, 8:49 am
Boris from Bay Ridge says:
Who needs a new Robert Moses when state DOT follows his teachings and methods exactly? Expanding a highway to "standards" means destroying one of the densest urban areas in the country. Building the highway in the first place has been a mistake; this is obvious to all but the most loyal Moses believers.

Just imagine the howls of rage if anything similar (property takings, etc) was proposed for a bike lane or transit line. It is inconceivable how anyone in Brooklyn Heights can be less than hysterically against this project.

Look, people: our nearly-bankrupt state is scheduled to spend over a billion dollars in the next two decades (BQE project, Kosciuzsko Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge) in an effort to move car traffic through the city, at the expense of the livelihoods of city dwellers and virtually free to the motorists themselves. It is downright criminal that we are even considering wasting money this way while everything points to our need to reduce driving. Only New York state government can come up with such brain-dead schemes!
June 14, 2010, 9:20 am
David from BH says:
Whether we like it or not, that section of the BQE must be repaired because it is a vital route for commercial traffic between Brooklyn and Queens and it is past the end of its useful service life. Chances are that the cash-strapped state will choose the cheapest option of reconstructing the highway along its current alignment, so all of this 'eminent domain' hysteria is for nothing.
June 14, 2010, 11:14 am
Bob from BH says:
David from BH is betting on a dead horse.

Cash strapped or not, the state generally tilts in favor of its favored developers. In this case, that means paying for eminent domain condemnations of properties owned by irrelevant individuals rather than affecting the capital interests of Brooklyn Bridge Park's big-money developers.
June 14, 2010, 11:20 am
Andrew from BH says:
DOT will build a temporary roadway requiring the demolition of all houses between Hicks and Henry Streets, from Atlantic Avenue to Old Fulton Street. That's the logical thing to do.

—Robert Moses
June 14, 2010, 10:51 pm
Jerry Salinger from Park Slope says:
Wow, I almost never agree with Bob from Brooklyn Heights, but I love his anti BHA hysteria!
June 15, 2010, 12:09 am
Annette from former BH'er says:
Most people know, but just in case, St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, is between CLINTON & Court Streets, not Hicks and Court, as stated.
June 15, 2010, 8:11 am
richie rich from parkslope says:
the city adminstrators and polictians is mafia and if they want your home for useless projects, you cannot resist. why do you think the city is broke and on it way to shut down.
June 15, 2010, 9:59 am
Paul in BH says:
What am I missing here? Hardly anyone of middle or lower class owns any property in the path of potential Eminent Domain takeover (we are talking of at least hundreds of millions of dollars in property values here). Do you realize how may lawyers own property in the proposed paths? Think they're all going to sit back and just let ED happen? It was a lawyer (owner) who helped create the very first Historic District in America (i.e., Brooklyn Heights) to stop the development of brick boxes (and loss of historic homes) in the 1960's. Many of the homes in proposed jeopardy are going to reach 200 years old very soon. Will people just ignore the destruction of one of America's most historic neighborhoods? Did anyone calculate the potential loss of property taxes for the city/state once these homes are gone? What planet are ya'll from?
June 15, 2010, 1:11 pm
Bob from BH says:
Paul in BH's point is logical, but not necessarily true.

Lots of middle class people own homes in the Heights — anyone who bought property 20 or 30 years ago need not have been rich, and not everyone became rich during the ensuing years.

While the targeted areas are historic, those who control the BHA generally do not live there and are quite willing to see them sacrificed. They made this clear over the last several years in the run-up to Brooklyn Bridge Park (which I suggest is being protected in the BQE debate over the interests of ED-targeted homeowners).

When Willowtown people — some of whom may be sacrificed to the BQE — objected to aspects of Brooklyn Bridge Park development, they were basically told by the BHA board to screw themselves.
June 15, 2010, 1:27 pm
Paul in BH says:
Bob - If they own a nice piece of property in the Heights, they may have been middle class when they bought their homes but they ain't middle class now! Besides, I'm not talking about long time residents. They'll be protected by the "guns" that will be hired around them. Also, you keep bringing up the BHA as if they're the only decision making body in this drama but the potential squad of take-no-prisoner lawyers from homeowners who have a long-range stake in their property may have more to say about these decisions than anyone else. A small cadre of lawyers almost stopped the Atlantic Yards ED (and we know how much political power was defending that FUBAR because "someone" was going to make a hell of a lot of money). Since no one is going to make millions off this ED the normal cast of sleazy, political players won't be in play to try to ensure that it happens. BTW - I think I hear the wheels of the National Historic Trust and New York Landmarks Conservancy lawyers starting to turn already!
June 15, 2010, 3:06 pm
Bob from BH says:
Paul in BH — Good points.

One more consideration: All normal pressures will be pushed aside if, while the EIS percolates, a piece of the BQE collapses and the citysides of Brooklyn and Queens are disconnected.
June 15, 2010, 7:16 pm
Sid from Boerum Hill. says:
Don't you think this may be a red herring for something else that they really want to do equally as bad? You know say that they are thinking about taking scores of brownstones in a historic area as the red herring and then somewhere hidden in another plan is something which they really want to do which is worse(or as bad). When they come out with that everyone breathes a sigh of relief because they aren't cutting off part of Brooklyn Heights....just saying...
June 16, 2010, 12:01 am
Bob from BH says:
Sid, that is certainly possible.
June 16, 2010, 9:41 pm

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