After months of withering criticism from experts and residents, an internal City Hall report deeply questioning the project’s feasibility, and the daily disasters on the subway siphoning off more political capital, most observers figured Mayor Bill de Blasio’s dream of a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar was dead. But the developers behind the project appear to be trying to use the jumper cables of the mayor’s re-election, along with the municipal arms race to host Amazon’s second headquarters, to jolt the $2.5 billion project back to life.
On Monday morning, the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector hosted a press conference to unveil a $100,000 prototype of the streetcar, built by French firm Alstom, which previously supplied light-rail cars to Toronto. That night, the developer-backed group sponsored a “Beyond Amazon” discussion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard “to explore policies and actions New York can do today to position itself as the most attractive and competitive place for major employers.” Not surprisingly, the main suggestion for luring companies like Amazon was adding transportation along what the business and real estate communities are calling the city’s “Innovation Coast” — the route that the BQX aims to serve.
“I think New York is incredibly well positioned, but at the same time there’s a lot of work we could do — we’re nowhere near our potential,” panelist Jed Walentas, a principal at the Two Trees Management development company founded by his father, David, told the crowd. “And I think the BQX project — there’s a prototype outside — is an example not of a way to solve all of New York’s transit problems, but one of the ways to make a little dent.”
Walentas was one of five panelists, drawn from the worlds of business and real estate, seated on stools in the Navy Yard’s massive New Lab startup space. The panel was introduced by Michael Rudin, whose family real estate business is currently developing a $250 million, 675,000-square-foot office building in the Navy Yard.
Walentas, who oversees more than $4 billion in real estate holdings, including the Domino Sugar development, and whose company has been one of the driving forces behind the BQX, suggested that the project could mark the beginning of a streetcar renaissance in New York, paid for by “value capture,” the city’s term for kicking back added property taxes along the proposed line’s route.
“The truest value of this idea are not the however many million people get on and off it through the course of the year,” Walentas said. “It’s that it’s a replicable idea that can be used ten, fifteen, twenty times throughout the city.”
Critics of the streetcar plan have pointed out that Select Bus Service could serve the corridor just as well, without having to install costly permanent infrastructure in storm-surge zones that were inundated during Superstorm Sandy. The value capture scheme has a spotty record, most notably in Manhattan’s 7 train extension, and the plan’s reliance on skyrocketing property values led some City Hall staffers to dub it the “GX” — “Gentrification Express.” And while the mayor has promised that the streetcar fare would be $2.75, the same as a single-fare bus or subway ride, the MTA has so far refused to say whether it would grant BQX riders a free transfer.
It’s also not exactly clear who the BQX would serve. A study commissioned by the city in 2016 (that itself was a study of a study backed by developers) projected that by 2035, only 13 percent of the BQX’s 48,000 daily riders would be traveling to and from destinations along the waterfront, while 87 percent would be heading to parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn not served by the line.
One panelist, Dani Simons, a vice president for communications at the Regional Plan Association, suggested that might change as job growth shifts away from Manhattan. “The way that they’ve oriented our transportation system is to get to and from the Manhattan Central Business District,” she said. “I think that means both potentially looking at, longer-term, extending the subways. In the shorter term, innovative solutions like the BQX and other things that are faster and more flexible to implement are important.”
BQX boosters have promised that the system will pay for itself through the resulting increase in property tax receipts.
“If there is value created, that value should actually go back in to improve transportation, to improve schools, to improve local communities, so that it isn’t going back up in smoke,” Simons said.
Walentas has argued that value capture allows real estate owners who benefit from new transit to “give back more than they are now.” But no one would be “giving” the city anything — property taxes would be levied as usual, but in this case any increased tax receipts would be used to pay for the BQX instead of going into the general fund.
A previous Voice investigation found that in order for the BQX to pay its own way, the neighborhoods along the route would need to see a 17 percent increase in revenue from property taxes, solely due to the BQX’s existence. A City Hall memo leaked this past spring revealed similar concerns: “Value Capture not providing sufficient revenue to fund the entire project as originally stated.”
Asked if such a steep increase would require forcing out many of the transit-starved residents the BQX purports to serve, Walentas first disputed the 17 percent figure — “that’s not the right number, that’s nowhere near the right number” — then added, “And I don’t think that’s the right question. By that rationale, do you not improve a school or a park in a fledgling neighborhood?”
Walentas continued, “We can sit here and wish that the subways got better tomorrow, but we all wish all the time and that doesn’t happen.” A director of the Real Estate Board of New York, and scion of a real estate industry that has given $83 million to politicians and party committees since 2000, Walentas argued that the government’s approach to transportation is broken. “If you look at the way the system works — all of the systems, the political systems, the economic system, the MTA system, all of the systems, the New York City, the Albany, the Washington — and you evaluate what we’ve accomplished from an infrastructure investment over the last fifty years, the record is not so good.”
As for whether companies like Amazon would be good for New York, the panelists were mostly sanguine, though Simons did say she hoped that some of the 50,000 jobs Amazon is promising with its new headquarters “are more of the sort of manufacturing or distribution-type jobs so it really helps a broader swath of New Yorkers.”
Panelist and Urban Upbound co-founder Bishop Mitchell Taylor, who hails from the Queensbridge Houses and joked to the audience he had a “Ph.D. — Public Housing Degree,” added that he was intrigued by recent reports that Amazon might look into having residents of underserved communities start their own delivery businesses. “I thought that was a very interesting idea, and creates a platform for what I would call ‘urban entrepreneurs’ to exploit,” he said. “Why employ drones when you can have real-life people deliver packages and establish businesses?”
During a brief Q&A session, one member of the audience asked to “flip the question”: What could Amazon do for New York?
“I do think the process has been a little bit optimized to create this death match between cities,” replied panelist Serkan Piantino, a tech entrepreneur and the former site director of Facebook New York. “It might betray that Amazon’s interests are really in financial incentives than really answering that question. I hope that’s not the case. I hope whoever is in that room is looking at it exactly the way you are.”
No one else took a stab at answering.
The de Blasio administration still has not released either of its two reports originally scheduled for last spring, one on the BQX’s route and the other on value capture. Asked about the status of those reports, Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said, “We are in the midst of brass-tacks, block-by-block assessment of engineering costs and revenue projections for the innovative new streetcar. We look forward to engaging with New Yorkers as the project continues to unfold.”
After the panel, attendees sipped beers and climbed into the BQX prototype, which was actually an off-the-shelf model of Alstrom’s existing Citadis streetcar line. They posted selfies on Instagram with the hashtag #YEStoBQX to enter a contest to win a free night at Two Trees’ Wythe Hotel.
Mary Michael, a Brooklyn native who grew up in the Farragut Houses public housing complex near DUMBO and now lives in Kensington, said she supported the streetcar, saying it would be much easier for elderly and infirm residents to board than the subway. “I think Brooklyn needs as many avenues for travel as possible,” she told the Voice. “Brooklyn is on the map now — you no longer have to go to Manhattan to get the things we need.”
Michael said she expected the streetcar would accelerate gentrification of the neighborhoods it passed through. But, she added with a laugh, “I don’t live here anymore. My area’s already gentrified, so I’m OK with it.”