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History and Context
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) represents the paradox of famed highway builder Robert Moses’ legacy. The roads, parks, bridges, and housing he constructed that reshaped New York City and Long Island to serve the public resulted in the displacement of thousands of families, destruction of tight-knit neighborhoods, and overall were built at the expense of innumerable people and communities of color. The BQE is no exception. Today, as the aging highway crumbles, New York City needs to decide if there’s a better way forward.
The current path of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), at least the portion in Brooklyn Heights, was built out of compromise. To the south, Robert Moses built a tall elevated highway directly through the working-class Red Hook neighborhood, separating it from the rest of the borough. It then cuts a wide trench through Cobble Hill. Moses originally intended the highway to continue straight through Brooklyn Heights, but community protests against this plan prevailed. Instead, the BQE skirted the edge of Brooklyn Heights in its current form as a multi-level cantilevered roadway that forms an effective wall between Brooklyn and its waterfront. The popular Brooklyn Heights promenade was also built as part of this compromise.
Because the Brooklyn Heights section is in dire need of repair and immediate action, planning for the future of this part of the road has received the majority of attention as of late. In particular, a plan to temporarily transform the Brooklyn Heights promenade into a highway while the BQE below it was repaired over several years drew a lot of ire and raised questions about how best to go about rebuilding the road. While that plan was halted through efforts by several area organizations, the developments also sparked conversations about what to do with the remaining ten miles of the BQE that run through some of the densest parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
It is clear that the highway has a detrimental effect on every neighborhood that it passes through, although some are more seriously affected than others. In particular, the wide footprint of the viaducts through the Navy Yard and Greenpoint neighborhoods have facilitated the design of auto-centric streets underneath them that are dangerous for pedestrians to cross. The trenched portion in Cobble Hill can only be crossed at a limited number of access points. And the entire highway subjects thousands of nearby residents to the concentrated exhaust of over 150,000 vehicles per day, many of which are funneled to the BQE to travel the toll-free Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
To remedy these issues, a wide variety of organizations have put forward alternate visions for the future of the BQE, some of them limited to particular neighborhoods and others more wide-sweeping. The Cobble Hill Association has called for a cap over the trenched part of the highway in their neighborhood. Marc Wouters Studios’ has proposed a relatively low cost series of public terraces that would extend the promenade over a reduced-width highway. New York’s Institute for Public Architecture focused its Fall 2020 residency on what could be built in place of the BQE if the highway was removed altogether. These are just a handful of the ideas that grapple with the problematic BQE.
While these plans differ in scope and scale, they share a single principle: they all seek to repurpose the space the highway occupies in ways that improve the quality of life for residents along the corridor. As New York City and State consider what to do with the outdated expressway in Brooklyn Heights, they should follow this lead and make sure to prioritize all neighborhoods along the corridor before they develop future plans. The transformation of the BQE offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a more livable Brooklyn and Queens and should be seriously considered.