Time to Put the Brakes on De Blasio’s BQX Trolley Plan

According to newly released documentary, Gentrification Express, it’s time to put the brakes once and for all on the BQX trolley plan.

In 2016, Mayor de Blasio announced a proposal for an above-ground streetcar that would link Brooklyn and Queens, following the trend to use trolleys to promote tourism and real estate development from Portland to Washington D.C.  The Brooklyn Queens Connector (known as the BQX) would link 10 neighborhoods along a 15 mile route stretching from Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. De Blasio and private real estate developers, represented by the “Friends of the BQX,” extoll the trolley as a model public-private partnership that would create jobs and bridge two boroughs as they are experiencing a development boom along the waterfront.

Local elected officials, including City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer have lined up behind the Mayor: “Mayor de Blasio’s forward thinking proposal promises to provide more Queens and Brooklyn residents with a new reliable transit option,” said Van Bramer in 2016 press release. The Mayor has also recruited NYCHA tenant leaders, and most recently, the Transit Workers Union to support the plan (read our open letter to the TWC here).

But not everyone is enamored with the Mayor’s shiny new project. Still in its planning phase, the BQX is facing significant opposition from planning and transit experts, as well as grassroots organizations and residents who fear that the BQX will cause more harm than good in communities that are already facing significant displacement pressures. The Gentrification Express documentary captures these concerns through interviews and analysis, highlighting three key reasons New Yorkers shouldn’t be so quick to jump aboard the BQX:

1. The BQX is too damn expensive.

Though privately operated, the BQX would not come free to the city. The Friends of the BQX project that the trolley will cost about $2.5 billion in tax payer dollars to build. This in itself is no small sum, but according to Hunter Professor Samuel Stein, the actual construction price could be even higher. He explains that a common strategy for developers is to low-ball project costs because once construction is underway with tax-payer dollars, no one will oppose putting in the extra dollars to see it through the finish line.

The costs don’t end with construction. The Friends of the BQX claim that the project will pay for itself through a strategy called “value-capture.” This financing strategy relies on the assumption that development will spur property tax increases along the route, and that these increases can be redirected into the operations costs. However, even a leaked city memo to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen points out that value capture won’t come close to covering the high costs. In other words, tax payers would end up covering most of the operations costs—and it will be expensive, particularly since the BQX route passes through FEMA-designated flood zones. “If a disaster like [Hurricane Sandy] happens again and the BQX flops the city is going to pay for that… and that’s coming out of our tax money,” said Sunset Park resident Antoinette Martinez.

2. The BQX’s primary purpose is to spur luxury real estate development.

MTA-Underserved Neighborhoods.jpg
The MTA has identified 9 neighborhoods most underserved by public transportation and none of them are along the BQX route. Taken from: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/intro_to_brt_phase2.pdf

In a recent report, the MTA identified 9 densely populated neighborhoods that are one half mile or further from public transportation. Strangely, the BQX doesn’t run through any of these neighborhoods. According to Sam Stein, that’s because the BQX’s main purpose isn’t to fix transit deserts—it is part of a larger strategy to catalyze luxury real estate development along the waterfront. According to the documentary, there are at least 10 developers with heavy real estate interests along the route. The NY Post has found that BQX-backing developers have contributed significantly to the de Blasio campaign.

“A lot of developers see the Brooklyn Queens waterfront as the gold coast, and it is for them. They come out and say it. The Jamestown Properties owners say, ‘We want another Williamsburg waterfront in Sunset Park… they’re not hiding what they want,” said Jenny Dubnau, a Long Island City-based artist.

bqx-trolley-developers.jpg
Documentary screenshot shows 10 major developers with significant real estate interests along the BQX Route (top to bottom): Durst Organization, Alma Realty, Tishman Speyer, Park Tower Group, Brookfield Properties, Two Trees, Steiner Studios, RAL Development, Toll Brothers and Jamestown Properties.

3. The BQX will lead to displacement of renters and manufacturing businesses.

The greatest concern expressed by advocates in the documentary is the fear that the BQX will push up property taxes, which in turn, will raise rents and displace low income New Yorkers.

“We are really being pushed out of this community… And that’s not fair. Why should we have to move out of the community we was raised in to go to someplace new when we’ve been here all our lives?” said Sylvia White, a NYCHA resident and leader of the Justice for All Coalition which opposes the BQX.

Renters are not the only ones concerned. According to Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, the BQX also threatens the displacement of manufacturing jobs in communities like Sunset Park that is one of the largest live-work communities in NYC. Once the BQX is built, it will become much more lucrative for developers to choose residential over manufacturing developments.

What is an alternative to the BQX?

There’s one thing that BQX advocates and its opponents agree on: Queens and Brooklyn can benefit from improved transportation options. But according to Sam Stein, you don’t need a streetcar to have a fast moving mode of public transportation. The solution is an improved bus system that extends bus routes, and gives buses priority on streets so that they aren’t gridlocked in car traffic. While not as sexy as a new streetcar, express buses would provide the same commuting benefits, for only a fraction of the price—and no gentrification would be caused.

Watch the full documentary, Gentrification Express, for free here. This documentary is produced by NYC-based filmmakers Samantha Farinella and Amanda Katz.

Take Action:

  • Sign this petition and demand that Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer say no to the luxury trolley that would run through his district
  • Contact your local City Council Member to share your concerns and demand their opposition to the BQX Trolley. View this map to see if your district is along the BQX route.
  • Organize against the BQX. If Queens-based, contact us at queensantigentrification@gmail.com to find out how to get involved. If you are based in Brooklyn, connect with a local organization such as UPROSE (click here to view their transportation justice page).

Learn more:

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Hey MAS! What are you doing in the name of Jane Jacobs?

Last week, dozens of grassroots organizations and passionate citizens came together to demand the Municipal Arts Society to reevaluate their Jane’s Walk criteria, and halt the controversial developer-led Friends of the BQX Jane’s walk which was scheduled for Friday, May 5th.

The Queens Anti-Gentrification Project instigated a letter campaign, which was joined by Queens Neighborhood United, Queens Not 4 Sale, Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, the authors of Zoned Out, Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, UPROSE!(who also led a protest) and many others who called and sent their own letters to the Municipal Arts Society which hosts the annual Jane’s Walk celebration in NYC in honor of legendary community activist Jane Jacobs.

The Friends of the BQX canceled their walk, and the Municipal Art Society released a public statement in which they wrote: “we welcome your feedback that perhaps Jane’s Walk should be a more selective event. We are happy to discuss that suggestion with our international partners in planning next year’s festival.” This is a victory for all who believe that Jane’s Walk should be led by community organizations that live true to Jane’s philosophy of equity and social justice.

In order to get MAS to follow through on their word, we must collectively hold MAS accountable in creating a selective event that prevents luxury developers from appropriating Jane’s name. Let MAS know that if they are going to truly live up to their mission to uphold “community-based citizen planning” they MUST develop criteria to vet Jane’s walk leaders, even if it means a smaller event in 2018.

What is a Jane’s Walk?

Jane’s Walks are “Citizen-led walking tours towards community-based citizen planning” according to the official website. They are held each year in memory of community activist and writer Jane Jacobs who devoted her life to fighting community-killing urban renewal plans. Famously, when she learned that urban renewal czar Robert Moses was planning an expressway to cut through her beloved Washington Square Park, Jane did not stand by quietly: she organized alongside her neighbors, and was even arrested in a public hearing for her vocal opposition. If she were alive today, there is no doubt about what she would’ve done—she would protest the Friends of the BQX and repudiate MAS for allowing them to promote their luxury trolley in her name.

Why do we oppose the BQX?

The Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) is a luxury streetcar that would line the waterfront from Astoria to Sunset Park. According to its supporters, the system’s cost would be offset by tax revenue siphoned from an expected rise in property values along the route—in other words, through gentrification. This not only endangers working class renters, but also some of the few remaining manufacturing zones along the planned trolley route. A trolley would create significant pressure for rezonings that favor residential development which is far more lucrative than industrial companies. Express bus lanes would result in comparable improvements in commute time for a fraction of the price, according to Columbia University’s lead transportation David King—without causing gentrification.

If the BQX hurts working class people and manufacturing companies, who benefits?

A private real estate developer, Two Trees Management, conceived the BQX proposal and formed a nonprofit, Friends of the BQX, to support its realization. Its board of directors includes developers like Tishman Speyer, The Durst Organization and Rudin Management. Developers with existing or planned developments along the trolley route, like Park Tower Group, Alma Realty, Toll Brothers and Brookfield Properties, have donated a combined $245,000 to Mayor de Blasio’s now-defunct nonprofit, Campaign for One New York.

What can you do?

  • Send MAS a message demanding that they never again allow developers to appropriate Jane’s Walks for their profit-motivated schemes. MAS must develop criteria for selecting Jane’s Walks leaders, and that criteria should be informed by members of the community. Contact MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein directly at egoldstein[at]mas.org. For additional staff contacts and phone numbers, see the MAS directory.
  • Sign this petition and demand that Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer say no to the luxury trolley that would run through his district. Although Jimmy has expressed concern over the developments, he has yet to express his unconditional opposition, insinuating that it is too early in the planning phases. As vigilant community members we know that this is false. The time to fight community-killing plans is now—not when the City rams a fully baked plan through the community review process.

For Further Reading:

∙         Developers along planned streetcar route donate to de Blasio (NY Daily News)

∙         The Streetcar Hustle (Jacobin)

∙         De Blasio’s Trolley is on a Collision Course with the City’s Manufacturing Sector (Crains) 

∙         Critics say de Blasio’s proposed streetcar will do more to boost real estate values than improve transit (Crains)