by Brendan O’Connor
Last week, in his State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to build something called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector — a sixteen-mile, $2.5-billion streetcar line along the East River that would connect Astoria, Queens, with Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The BQX, as it would theoretically be known, has the potential “to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” the mayor said, and “to generate over $25 billion of economic impact for our city.”
The idea that the people of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront (and especially those in Red Hook) deserve a streetcar or light rail line has been knocked around for decades, but no one has ever been able to convene sufficient political and financial capital to move the project forward. Recently, however, a variety of community groups, technocrats, and real estate developers assembled a non-profit called the Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, which last summer commissioned HR&A Advisors, a real estate consulting firm, to conduct a feasibility study.
Such a proposal might seem frivolous, given that all five of Brooklyn’s busiest bus routes — the B46 (Utica), B41 (Flatbush), B35 (Church), B44 (Nostrand), and B6 (a mess) — are located far from the waterfront, and that weekday ridership on the bus routes closer to the river pales in comparison. (Not to mention that any route that would allow for both transfers to the subway and access to the waterfront would be absurdly circuitous.) Also, the project, which would cost at least $2.5 billion, wouldn’t be completed until (at the earliest!) 2024. All five of the aforementioned bus routes pass through New York City’s 45th District, which comprises Flatbush, East Flatbush, Flatlands, and a bit of Midwood and Canarsie, but Councilman Jumaane Williams said he was only peripherally aware of the BQX proposal. “I think it’s a creative idea, but I’m not sure what their transportation needs are over there,” he told me. “We have some real needs here, and I hope that we can also get some of that creative thinking.”
Proponents of the plan argue that the streetcar would connect people in high-growth residential neighborhoods like Astoria with high-growth commercial areas like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park’s Industry City. Theoretically, it would also encourage further development in areas where, right now, public transportation is less accessible, like Greenpoint. That, in turn, will generate enough tax revenue to retroactively cover the cost of having built the line in the first place — the 7 train extension is cited as a precedent for this kind of “value capture” success. “This doesn’t actually cost the city any money to do,” Alex Garvin, an urban planner, real estate developer, and former deputy commissioner of housing and city planning commissioner who has long advocated for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, told me. “There are plenty of places that need more transit, but the money isn’t there. We need two more tunnels under the East River. We need to extend the Second Avenue subway line to the Bronx. But the money isn’t there to pay for those things.”
De Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell said that the administration, which is apparently conducting its own analyses, had intended to discuss its preliminary findings at an event last Friday that was postponed when high winds knocked over a crane in TriBeCa. Norvell also emphasized that, while the administration appreciates the Friends’ streetcar advocacy, the city has its own interests and motivations in exploring this idea. (It is worth noting that a large part of what makes building a streetcar system an appealing solution to transit issues for the administration is that it would not involve the state-run MTA, and therefore also would not involve Governor Andrew Cuomo.) The BQX “aligns with our own public policy priorities in meeting the future needs of the city,” Norvell said.
The city claims that more than forty thousand people living in thirteen nearby NYCHA developments would benefit from the proposed route. This may be so, but the proposal also implicitly ties the possibility of building any infrastructure that would help low-income New Yorkers to being simultaneously useful to rich people; the idea wasn’t considered viable until the people with money, who stand to make a great deal more, decided it would be worth pursuing. As recently as 2011, the city’s Department of Transportation decided it was not feasible to build a shorter streetcar line connecting Red Hook more readily to transit hubs in Downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO. It is perhaps worth considering, then, who the BQX’s newest supporters actually are.
Earlier this month, the New York Daily News reported that it had “obtained” the study conducted by the Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, whose members include Doug Steiner, of Steiner Studios, a production company based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Fred Wilson, of Union Square Ventures, the venture capital firm; and Helena Durst, of the Durst real estate dynasty. According to the New York Times, the group also includes Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management. Neither paper makes their sourcing for this information explicit, and public information about the nonprofit is lacking. Charles Gergel, a partner in Manhattan law firm Cullen & Dykman’s banking department, is listed as an officer on corporate filings submitted to the New York Secretary of State last February. It registered last fall with the IRS as a public charity, but has not yet filed a tax return. Two different non-profit trackers list Andrew Steininger, senior vice president and chief of staff at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, as a point of contact for the organization. (The nonprofit’s offices are listed at the same address as the chamber’s.) Neither Gergel nor Steininger returned interview requests.
Last summer, an “advisory committee” organized by Two Trees Management’s director of special projects, David Lombino, was reported to have commissioned a streetcar study from HR&A Advisors. “It’s a cool idea,” Lombino said. “We’re a supporter. Could be transformative for Brooklyn and Queens someday. We’ll see.” Cathy Rought, a spokesperson for Two Trees and vice president at communications and strategy super-firm BerlinRosen, reiterated many of the same talking points put forward in the Times’ and the Daily News’ stories covering the streetcar proposal. She also deflected questions about the degree of Lombino’s involvement, emphasizing that responsibility for the proposal is shared amongst all the people and organizations represented on the nonprofit’s steering committee:
- Michele de la Uz, Fifth Avenue Committee
- Helena Durst, New York Water Taxi/Durst Organization
- Jill Eisenhard, Red Hook Initiative
- William Floyd, Google
- Jukay Hsu, Coalition for Queens
- Andrew Kimball, Industry City
- Liz Lusskin, Long Island City Partnership
- Ramon Peguero, Los Sures
- Tucker Reed, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership
- Carlo Scissura, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce
- Alexandria Sica, DUMBO Improvement District
- Doug Steiner, Steiner Studios
- Jed Walentas, Two Trees
- Paul Steely White, Transportation Alternatives
- Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures
- Tom Wright, Regional Plan Association
Rought told me that Friends was going to make their study available around noon on Wednesday this week, but that has come and gone, and there is still no study.
As it happens, city planning commissioner Carl Weisbrod used to be a partner at HR&A. (He left to join the de Blasio administration.) NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye and First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris are also both former HR&A employees. “You say, ‘Are we plugged in?’” the consulting firm’s chairman, John Alschuler, told Politico New York. “I mean, ‘plugged in’ implies that we’re just familiar. Yeah, we’re familiar.” Alschuler is registered as a lobbyist, but he denied being a lobbyist in the sense that most people think. “I only advocate to the government when I have done the work that has produced a factual, financial or substantive conclusion that I’m explaining to a government official.”
BerlinRosen represents both Two Trees Management and Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector. It has close ties to the de Blasio administration as well — actually, they helped him get elected, and they also represent “Campaign for One New York,” a non-profit organization run by political operatives affiliated with the mayor’s administration. After reaching a deal with the city to redevelop Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory (past which the BQX would surely snake!), Two Trees contributed $100,000 to the nonprofit. (Incidentally, de Blasio once lamented, in testimony before the New York State Office of the Attorney General, that “shadowy nonprofit organizations” increasingly impose “not only a threat to our democracy but also to the integrity of our nonprofit sector.”)
Two Trees’ interest in the Brooklyn waterfront extends beyond Williamsburg, however. In his own words, the firm’s founder, David Walentas, is “solely responsible” for creating the DUMBO we know and love today. From a 2014 New York magazine profile of the family:
Unlike Soho and Tribeca, where the classic city progression from decaying industrial buildings to artists’ lofts to condos for the superrich happened more or less organically, creating many fortunes along the way, Dumbo was the vision of one man. It was a planned community in the heart of Brooklyn, bohemia by the numbers. A self-described dictator, David organized everything, providing free rent to galleries, restaurants, and chic shops like Jacques Torres. And he defended his little enclave fiercely. “If you were with me, we were friends. And if you were against me, you were my enemy,” David tells me.
His son Jed, who apprenticed under Donald Trump, is now a principal at the firm, and was responsible for brokering the Domino deal. In Williamsburg, Two Trees also developed the Wythe Hotel, and it owns thirteen residential and commercial buildings in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, all of which would benefit from the BQX’s existence. While, at first blush, one might find it surprising that local, community-oriented activist groups like Red Hook Initiative and Los Sures would ally themselves with ambient technocrats from Google and Union Square Ventures and ravenous developers like the Walentas and Durst families, there is also no denying practical realities: Red Hook desperately needs better transit options, and misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
As Friends only incorporated as a nonprofit last year, there is not yet a record of its finances; however, such a record does exist for some of its constituent members: In 2014, according to tax filings, the Red Hook Initiative received just under $1.8 million in grants and donations, and its net assets were just over $2 million. (Most of its money went towards programs for local high schoolers.) In 2013, Los Sures, or the Southside United Housing Development Corporation, took in $343,607 in grants and contributions, and its net assets were $5.3 million. (Los Sures preserves and develops low-income housing in South Williamsburg.) Union Square Ventures, meanwhile, manages $1 billion across six funds; Two Trees Management’s portfolio is worth some $4 billion; and Google’s market capitalization is $475 billion.
Why the tech industry would be interested in developing a waterfront streetcar is clear even in the city’s own press release: “The route ties in several ‘innovation clusters’ in which the city has made significant economic development investments, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the Cornell/Technion campus on Roosevelt Island via a ferry connection.” Or, as the New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in 2014, “One can imagine another Silicon Alley spanning Cornell, Astoria, Williamsburg and Sunset Park.”
Kimmelman also wrote: “Buses are a more obvious solution. Improved bus service is an easier sell, faster to get up and running, and cheaper up front. A bus would be … fine. But where’s the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change. It invites investment and becomes its own attraction.” His language echoes that of the DOT’s 2011 Red Hook study, which also considered the effect of streetcars in Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle. “Portland’s streetcar shifted the attractiveness of sites adjacent or near its tracks from moderate to high,” the DOT found. “Streetcars provide a historic, romantic appeal and have transformed blighted districts into vibrant areas.”
What remains unclear, however, is why the people of Flatbush are less deserving of romance than those of “Silicon Alley.” (“Urban change,” for that matter, is an awfully ahistorical way to describe the vexed relationship between development and displacement.) Advocates speculate that tax revenue generated by new construction in Astoria stimulated by the streetcar line will pay for the whole project, but that probably sounds more like a threat to the people currently living in Astoria than a reassurance, and it hardly makes any difference to the people living in Flatbush who need better transportation options now, not a decade or more later.
Still, the administration holds that the BQX would be good for everyone. “You hear the argument that if you increase transportation service, you’re going to increase gentrification. But poor access to public transportation is clearly not a shield to gentrification in New York City, and it’s clearly not a shield to rising rents,” Norvell said. “We have to be serious about equity.”