Streetcar Desired – The Awl

byBrendan?

O’Connor

Lastweek,inhisStateoftheCityaddress,MayorBilldeBlasioannouncedaplantobuildsomethingcalledtheBrooklyn-QueensConnector?

—?

asixteen-mile,$2。

5-billionstreetcarlinealongtheEastRiverthatwouldconnectAstoria,Queens,withSunsetPark,Brooklyn。

TheBQX,asitwouldtheoreticallybeknown,hasthepotential“tochangethelivesofhundredsofthousandsofNewYorkers,”themayorsaid,and“togenerateover$25billionofeconomicimpactforour?

city。



TheideathatthepeopleoftheBrooklyn-Queenswaterfront(andespeciallythoseinRedHook)deserveastreetcarorlightraillinehasbeenknockedaroundfordecades,butnoonehaseverbeenabletoconvenesufficientpoliticalandfinancialcapitaltomovetheprojectforward。

Recently,however,avarietyofcommunitygroups,technocrats,andrealestatedevelopersassembledanon-profitcalledtheFriendsoftheBrooklyn-QueensConnector,whichlastsummercommissionedHRAAdvisors,arealestateconsultingfirm,toconductafeasibilitystudy。

Suchaproposalmightseemfrivolous,giventhatallfiveofBrooklyn’sbusiestbusroutes?

—?

theB46(Utica),B41(Flatbush),B35(Church),B44(Nostrand),andB6(amess)?

—?

arelocatedfarfromthewaterfront,andthatweekdayridershiponthebusroutesclosertotheriverpalesincomparison。

(Nottomentionthatanyroutethatwouldallowforbothtransferstothesubwayandaccesstothewaterfrontwouldbeabsurdlycircuitous。

)Also,theproject,whichwouldcostatleast$2。

5billion,wouldn’tbecompleteduntil(attheearliest!

)2024。

AllfiveoftheaforementionedbusroutespassthroughNewYorkCity’s45thDistrict,whichcomprisesFlatbush,EastFlatbush,Flatlands,andabitofMidwoodandCanarsie,butCouncilmanJumaaneWilliamssaidhewasonlyperipherallyawareoftheBQXproposal。

“Ithinkit’sacreativeidea,butI’mnotsurewhattheirtransportationneedsareoverthere,”hetoldme。

“Wehavesomerealneedshere,andIhopethatwecanalsogetsomeofthatcreativethinking。



Proponentsoftheplanarguethatthestreetcarwouldconnectpeopleinhigh-growthresidentialneighborhoodslikeAstoriawithhigh-growthcommercialareasliketheBrooklynNavyYardandSunsetPark’sIndustryCity。

Theoretically,itwouldalsoencouragefurtherdevelopmentinareaswhere,rightnow,publictransportationislessaccessible,likeGreenpoint。

That,inturn,willgenerateenoughtaxrevenuetoretroactivelycoverthecostofhavingbuiltthelineinthefirstplace?

—?

the7trainextensioniscitedasaprecedentforthiskindof“valuecapture”success。

“Thisdoesn’tactuallycostthecityanymoneytodo,”AlexGarvin,anurbanplanner,realestatedeveloper,andformerdeputycommissionerofhousingandcityplanningcommissionerwhohaslongadvocatedforaBrooklyn-Queensstreetcar,toldme。

“Thereareplentyofplacesthatneedmoretransit,butthemoneyisn’tthere。

WeneedtwomoretunnelsundertheEastRiver。

WeneedtoextendtheSecondAvenuesubwaylinetotheBronx。

Butthemoneyisn’ttheretopayforthose?

things。



DeBlasiospokesmanWileyNorvellsaidthattheadministration,whichisapparentlyconductingitsownanalyses,hadintendedtodiscussitspreliminaryfindingsataneventlastFridaythatwaspostponedwhenhighwindsknockedoveracraneinTriBeCa。

Norvellalsoemphasizedthat,whiletheadministrationappreciatestheFriends’streetcaradvocacy,thecityhasitsowninterestsandmotivationsinexploringthisidea。

(Itisworthnotingthatalargepartofwhatmakesbuildingastreetcarsystemanappealingsolutiontotransitissuesfortheadministrationisthatitwouldnotinvolvethestate-runMTA,andthereforealsowouldnotinvolveGovernorAndrewCuomo。

)TheBQX“alignswithourownpublicpolicyprioritiesinmeetingthefutureneedsofthecity,”Norvell?

said。

ThecityclaimsthatmorethanfortythousandpeoplelivinginthirteennearbyNYCHAdevelopmentswouldbenefitfromtheproposedroute。

Thismaybeso,buttheproposalalsoimplicitlytiesthepossibilityofbuildinganyinfrastructurethatwouldhelplow-incomeNewYorkerstobeingsimultaneouslyusefultorichpeople;theideawasn’tconsideredviableuntilthepeoplewithmoney,whostandtomakeagreatdealmore,decideditwouldbeworthpursuing。

Asrecentlyas2011,thecity’sDepartmentofTransportationdecideditwasnotfeasibletobuildashorterstreetcarlineconnectingRedHookmorereadilytotransithubsinDowntownBrooklynandDUMBO。

Itisperhapsworthconsidering,then,whotheBQX’snewestsupportersactually?

are。

Earlierthismonth,theNewYorkDailyNewsreportedthatithad“obtained”thestudyconductedbytheFriendsoftheBrooklyn-QueensConnector,whosemembersincludeDougSteiner,ofSteinerStudios,aproductioncompanybasedintheBrooklynNavyYard;FredWilson,ofUnionSquareVentures,theventurecapitalfirm;andHelenaDurst,oftheDurstrealestatedynasty。

AccordingtotheNewYorkTimes,thegroupalsoincludesJedWalentasofTwoTreesManagement。

Neitherpapermakestheirsourcingforthisinformationexplicit,andpublicinformationaboutthenonprofitislacking。

CharlesGergel,apartnerinManhattanlawfirmCullenDykman’sbankingdepartment,islistedasanofficeroncorporatefilingssubmittedtotheNewYorkSecretaryofStatelastFebruary。

ItregisteredlastfallwiththeIRSasapubliccharity,buthasnotyetfiledataxreturn。

Twodifferentnon-profittrackerslistAndrewSteininger,seniorvicepresidentandchiefofstaffattheBrooklynChamberofCommerce,asapointofcontactfortheorganization。

(Thenonprofit’sofficesarelistedatthesameaddressasthechamber’s。

)NeitherGergelnorSteiningerreturnedinterviewrequests。

Lastsummer,an“advisorycommittee”organizedbyTwoTreesManagement’sdirectorofspecialprojects,DavidLombino,wasreportedtohavecommissionedastreetcarstudyfromHRAAdvisors。

“It’sacoolidea,”Lombinosaid。

“We’reasupporter。

CouldbetransformativeforBrooklynandQueenssomeday。

We’llsee。

”CathyRought,aspokespersonforTwoTreesandvicepresidentatcommunicationsandstrategysuper-firmBerlinRosen,reiteratedmanyofthesametalkingpointsputforwardintheTimes’andtheDailyNews’storiescoveringthestreetcarproposal。

ShealsodeflectedquestionsaboutthedegreeofLombino’sinvolvement,emphasizingthatresponsibilityfortheproposalissharedamongstallthepeopleandorganizationsrepresentedonthenonprofit’ssteeringcommittee:

MicheledelaUz,FifthAvenueCommittee

HelenaDurst,NewYorkWaterTaxi/DurstOrganization

JillEisenhard,RedHookInitiative

WilliamFloyd?

Google

JukayHsu,Coalitionfor?

Queens

AndrewKimball,Industry?

City

LizLusskin,LongIslandCityPartnership

RamonPeguero,Los?

Sures

TuckerReed,DowntownBrooklynPartnership

CarloScissura,BrooklynChamberof?

Commerce

AlexandriaSica,DUMBOImprovementDistrict

DougSteiner,Steiner?

Studios

JedWalentas,Two?

Trees

PaulSteelyWhite,TransportationAlternatives

FredWilson,UnionSquare?

Ventures

TomWright,RegionalPlanAssociation

RoughttoldmethatFriendswasgoingtomaketheirstudyavailablearoundnoononWednesdaythisweek,butthathascomeandgone,andthereisstillno?

study。

Asithappens,cityplanningcommissionerCarlWeisbrodusedtobeapartneratHRA。

(HelefttojointhedeBlasioadministration。

)NYCHAchairSholaOlatoyeandFirstDeputyMayorAnthonyShorrisarealsobothformerHRAemployees。

“Yousay,‘Arewepluggedin?

’”theconsultingfirm’schairman,JohnAlschuler,toldPoliticoNewYork。

“Imean,‘pluggedin’impliesthatwe’rejustfamiliar。

Yeah,we’refamiliar。

”Alschulerisregisteredasalobbyist,buthedeniedbeingalobbyistinthesensethatmostpeoplethink。

“IonlyadvocatetothegovernmentwhenIhavedonetheworkthathasproducedafactual,financialorsubstantiveconclusionthatI’mexplainingtoagovernmentofficial。



BerlinRosenrepresentsbothTwoTreesManagementandFriendsoftheBrooklynQueensConnector。

IthasclosetiestothedeBlasioadministrationaswell?

—?

actually,theyhelpedhimgetelected,andtheyalsorepresent“CampaignforOneNewYork,”anon-profitorganizationrunbypoliticaloperativesaffiliatedwiththemayor’sadministration。

AfterreachingadealwiththecitytoredevelopWilliamsburg’sDominoSugarFactory(pastwhichtheBQXwouldsurelysnake!

),TwoTreescontributed$100,000tothenonprofit。

(Incidentally,deBlasiooncelamented,intestimonybeforetheNewYorkStateOfficeoftheAttorneyGeneral,that“shadowynonprofitorganizations”increasinglyimpose“notonlyathreattoourdemocracybutalsototheintegrityofournonprofitsector。

”)

TwoTrees’interestintheBrooklynwaterfrontextendsbeyondWilliamsburg,however。

Inhisownwords,thefirm’sfounder,DavidWalentas,is“solelyresponsible”forcreatingtheDUMBOweknowandlovetoday。

Froma2014NewYorkmagazineprofileofthe?

family:

UnlikeSohoandTribeca,wheretheclassiccityprogressionfromdecayingindustrialbuildingstoartists’loftstocondosforthesuperrichhappenedmoreorlessorganically,creatingmanyfortunesalongtheway,Dumbowasthevisionofoneman。

ItwasaplannedcommunityintheheartofBrooklyn,bohemiabythenumbers。

Aself-describeddictator,Davidorganizedeverything,providingfreerenttogalleries,restaurants,andchicshopslikeJacquesTorres。

Andhedefendedhislittleenclavefiercely。

“Ifyouwerewithme,wewerefriends。

Andifyouwereagainstme,youweremyenemy,”Davidtells?

me。

HissonJed,whoapprenticedunderDonaldTrump,isnowaprincipalatthefirm,andwasresponsibleforbrokeringtheDominodeal。

InWilliamsburg,TwoTreesalsodevelopedtheWytheHotel,anditownsthirteenresidentialandcommercialbuildingsinDUMBOandBrooklynHeights,allofwhichwouldbenefitfromtheBQX’sexistence。

While,atfirstblush,onemightfinditsurprisingthatlocal,community-orientedactivistgroupslikeRedHookInitiativeandLosSureswouldallythemselveswithambienttechnocratsfromGoogleandUnionSquareVenturesandravenousdevelopersliketheWalentasandDurstfamilies,thereisalsonodenyingpracticalrealities:RedHookdesperatelyneedsbettertransitoptions,andmiseryacquaintsamanwithstrangebedfellows。

AsFriendsonlyincorporatedasanonprofitlastyear,thereisnotyetarecordofitsfinances;however,sucharecorddoesexistforsomeofitsconstituentmembers:In2014,accordingtotaxfilings,theRedHookInitiativereceivedjustunder$1。

8millioningrantsanddonations,anditsnetassetswerejustover$2million。

(Mostofitsmoneywenttowardsprogramsforlocalhighschoolers。

)In2013,LosSures,ortheSouthsideUnitedHousingDevelopmentCorporation,tookin$343,607ingrantsandcontributions,anditsnetassetswere$5。

3million。

(LosSurespreservesanddevelopslow-incomehousinginSouthWilliamsburg。

)UnionSquareVentures,meanwhile,manages$1billionacrosssixfunds;TwoTreesManagement’sportfolioisworthsome$4billion;andGoogle’smarketcapitalizationis$475?

billion。

Whythetechindustrywouldbeinterestedindevelopingawaterfrontstreetcariscleareveninthecity’sownpressrelease:“Theroutetiesinseveral‘innovationclusters’inwhichthecityhasmadesignificanteconomicdevelopmentinvestments,includingtheBrooklynNavyYard,BrooklynArmyTerminal,andtheCornell/TechnioncampusonRooseveltIslandviaaferryconnection。

”Or,astheNewYorkTimes’architecturecriticMichaelKimmelmanwrotein2014,“OnecanimagineanotherSiliconAlleyspanningCornell,Astoria,WilliamsburgandSunset?

Park。



Kimmelmanalsowrote:“Busesareamoreobvioussolution。

Improvedbusserviceisaneasiersell,fastertogetupandrunning,andcheaperupfront。

Abuswouldbe?

…fine。

Butwhere’stheromance?

Astreetcarisatangible,lastingcommitmenttourbanchange。

Itinvitesinvestmentandbecomesitsownattraction。

”HislanguageechoesthatoftheDOT’s2011RedHookstudy,whichalsoconsideredtheeffectofstreetcarsinPhiladelphia,Portland,andSeattle。

“Portland’sstreetcarshiftedtheattractivenessofsitesadjacentornearitstracksfrommoderatetohigh,”theDOTfound。

“Streetcarsprovideahistoric,romanticappealandhavetransformedblighteddistrictsintovibrant?

areas。



Whatremainsunclear,however,iswhythepeopleofFlatbusharelessdeservingofromancethanthoseof“SiliconAlley。

”(“Urbanchange,”forthatmatter,isanawfullyahistoricalwaytodescribethevexedrelationshipbetweendevelopmentanddisplacement。

)AdvocatesspeculatethattaxrevenuegeneratedbynewconstructioninAstoriastimulatedbythestreetcarlinewillpayforthewholeproject,butthatprobablysoundsmorelikeathreattothepeoplecurrentlylivinginAstoriathanareassurance,andithardlymakesanydifferencetothepeoplelivinginFlatbushwhoneedbettertransportationoptionsnow,notadecadeormore?

later。

Still,theadministrationholdsthattheBQXwouldbegoodforeveryone。

“Youheartheargumentthatifyouincreasetransportationservice,you’regoingtoincreasegentrification。

ButpooraccesstopublictransportationisclearlynotashieldtogentrificationinNewYorkCity,andit’sclearlynotashieldtorisingrents,”Norvellsaid。

“Wehavetobeseriousabout?

equity。


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