Sunset Park residents unleashed a torrent of criticism against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $2.5 billion proposed streetcar at a community board meeting last night, reiterating their complaints that the developer-driven project would accelerate gentrification without providing any real benefit to the community.
“Why is it that the EDC cannot work with the city, the MTA, and improve bus transportation and train transportation?” resident Pat Ruiz asked Adam Giambrone, the man the mayor has tapped to lead the creation of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, along with the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “If you’re not connected to the MTA, that means it’s not a transfer, it’s an additional fare. How can the people in this community who are barely making it afford to take your transportation when they can barely make the transportation of the MTA?”
Giambrone acknowledged that “there are huge needs at the MTA,” but that the BQX was designed to exist outside of state and federal control, and that the funding mechanism to pay for it — using rising property values through a measure called tax increment financing — had only been used to create new infrastructure.
“TIF as its been used, there’s been no use across the U.S. in order to do it for improvements to existing stations,” Giambrone said. Notably, he did not dispute Ruiz’s contention that there would be no transfer. During his presentation at the beginning of the meeting, Giambrone said that as the MTA starts to phase in new MetroCards in 2018 “we will stay in contact and figure out how these two systems interact so that you can have easy flow between the systems.”
Much of the questioning during Giambrone’s two-hour grilling concerned the funding for the project.
“I have a really big problem with how this project is being financed,” said Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer and member of CB 7. “Sunset Park has already been gentrified, there’s already speculation on the rising properties values that then affects the tenants of this neighborhood. So you proposing this type of transportation is just gonna bring on a wave of gentrification and accelerate what’s already happened.”
Giambrone replied, “We are mindful that [in] this community particularly, although across the corridor, there are pressures both for individuals as well as businesses, and we are looking at that.”
Mitaynes continued: “Sunset Park doesn’t need this, if anything we would prefer better bus service, better train service. It feels like you’re not listening.”
Asked after the meeting if Giambrone adequately addressed her concerns, Mitaynes said, “No.”
“We really feel like this is funded for developers who are in the process of developing luxury housing as a result of this connector. This has nothing to do with us,” Mitaynes told the Voice, adding that the city’s failure to conduct BQX planning meetings in different languages was “insulting.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of the environmental justice group UPROSE, also questioned the city’s decision to hold the meetings when many Sunset Park residents couldn’t attend them.
“People work two or three jobs; they have children; they come home; they’re tired. This is not Park Slope, where the nanny can take care of the kids so they can come to the meeting. The nanny lives here in Sunset Park.”
At times, Giambrone seemed to admit that the BQX may not be the most attractive idea for a neighborhood with three subway lines and several bus routes.
“It won’t be a time savings for every trip, like for example from Sunset Park to maybe Downtown Brooklyn, it might actually not represent a travel savings,” Giambrone said.
“Then it’s pointless!” shouted a man in the crowd.
“But you have to figure out where people want to go, and put the track in these patterns,” Giambrone continued.
According to the city’s own estimate, the Brooklyn Heights stop would be the most popular with riders originating from the Sunset Park and Sunset Park Terminal stations.
Pressed about a report in the Daily News in which Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen admitted that it’s “true” that Bus Rapid Transit is cheaper than the BQX, Giambrone argued that Glen’s comments were taken out of context.
“What she said is that BRT is cheaper overall, but when you’re looking at moving large volumes of people, 90 percent of your cost is salaries, so as you’re moving large volumes of people your cost per rider is lower in a streetcar.”
Giambrone urged the residents to wait until March, when the city would release a more comprehensive BQX study.
“You’ll have to wait and judge us on how we do that report. Hopefully you’ll be happy,” he said. “And I can commit to you as director for the BQX, I would never say that this meeting was a mixed bag. We heard very loudly and clearly that the great majority has expressed many different oppositions to this project on a number of different fronts.”
Ya-Ting Liu, the executive director for Friends of the BQX, the group that commissioned the original study for the streetcar before the mayor announced the plan, said in a statement that the BQX “will connect Sunset Park residents to the thousands of new jobs along the waterfront at places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City.”
Liu also cited a survey of 701 voters commissioned by her group showing that four in five Sunset Park residents support the streetcar.
“This proposal was brought up with the idea that the sweetener for the greater public is that it would serve communities that were low income, because that’s where these people live on the waterfront,” CB 7 member Daniel Murphy said at the meeting. “But all you have to do is scratch the surface of that and you’ll see….This is another stroke of the reinvestment on the waterfront for market-rate housing and for market-rate commercial uses, and it’s just so obvious.”
Referring to Friends of the BQX, Murphy noted that “the BQX came out of almost nowhere, but they already had a full standing 501c3. And if you scratch the surface of that, you’ll see names like Walentas, and Industry City, and so it’s kinda obvious.”
To his neighbors who told Giambrone that the city should stop the BQX before it reached Sunset Park, Murphy voiced caution: “Don’t assume they should stop in Gowanus, or they should stop in Red Hook. Those communities are up against it as well, and they’re watching this, and they’re taking notes from this meeting.”