Tunnel vision! Railway legend, Bob Diamond, sues city over trolleys

FDNY’s ‘tunnel’ vision! Agency kills underground film series
Photo by Tom Callan

The city broke its promise to let a railway enthusiast build a trolley service from Downtown to Red Hook that would have passed through a shuttered subway tunnel under Atlantic Avenue, a bombshell $160-million lawsuit charged last week.

Bob Diamond — who has led tours of the long-abandoned Long Island Rail Road tunnel between Court and Hicks streets after “discovering” it in 1980 — says that the city Department of Transportation gave him the rights to bring classic streetcars back to Brooklyn, but then scuttled the plan after he spent $1.5 million to get the visionary project started.

“The city let me spend money to get the project off the ground and now they’re saying, ‘Thanks for doing the ground work, but get lost,’ ” said Diamond, who filed the suit in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Dec. 6. “That’s not going to happen.”

Diamond also claims that the Department of Transportation illegally canceled the tunnel tours in 2010 after the FDNY declared the space a fire hazard.

The suit is a last-ditch stand for Diamond, a one-time city ally who was showered with money and support before falling out of favor with transportation officials who bickered with the contrarian trailblazer before finally evicting.

The passageway was built in 1844 as part of a train line linking New York to Boston, but was closed in 1861 and abandoned until the then-19-year-old Diamond discovered the space beneath an Atlantic Avenue manhole.

The City Planning Commission gave Diamond’s Brooklyn Historic Railway Association a renewable 10-year contract to use the tunnel for tours in 1986, and re-upped the deal twice before ending the agreement last year, one week after the Fire Department canceled an underground film series in the tunnel citing safety concerns.

Diamond began laying down tracks for the streetcar line that was slated to run from Beard Street to the subway nexus at Borough Hall via Columbia Street and Atlantic Avenue in the late 1990s, and received approval from the planning commission under the city’s lengthy land-use review process to complete the project in 2000.

But Diamond alleges that transportation officials changed their minds and removed his rights to develop the project, known as a “revocable consent,” in 2003, after deciding to sell the right-of-way for the route to the highest bidder.

That never happened, as the city derailed the proposal in 2011 when the Department of Transportation found that the $176-million system would serve just 1,822 riders each day. Diamond says he could have built the 6.8-mile loop for $102 million.

Regardless, Law Department spokeswoman Connie Pankratz said the lawsuit should be derailed because the city had the right to stop the tunnel tours.

“The city withdrew its consent owing to serious public safety concerns cited by the FDNY,” Pankratz said in a statement that did not address the streetcar project.

Reach reporter Daniel Bush at dbush@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow him at twitter.com/dan_bush.