Environmental Coalition Demands Community-Led Change of BQE

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso speaks at a rally in Sunset Park on April 10, 2024. Photo: Christopher Edwards

By: Christopher Edwards

A large coalition of community organizations, residents and elected officials rallied Thursday in Sunset Park near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) to call for changes to the major highway that cuts through several Brooklyn neighborhoods.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Environmental Justice Coalition, a group that is comprised of more than a dozen community organizations, is calling for a “corridor-wide transformation” of the expressway to address the negative environmental and health impact the highway has on nearby communities.

Completed in 1964, the BQE stretches 11 miles along western Brooklyn and runs through Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Red Hook and Williamsburg. For decades, the roadway has divided neighborhoods and left residents suffering from the health impacts of constant car pollution.

“The BQE has dropped tons of toxic emissions into the lungs of generations of Black and brown people while violently displacing the most vulnerable,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a nonprofit. “Changing this injustice requires the smarts and political will that recognizes we are living in the age of climate change and that justice demands the transformative action necessary to create and invest in infrastructure that moves us away from harm and centers the health and safety of frontline communities.”

In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved a $5.6 million grant to redesign the BQE’s north and south corridors. The DOT said two proposals, one for the northern and another for the southern portion of the highway, will be considered for the redesign.

The coalition is pushing for the approval of community-led plans such as BQGreen, which would create more green space near the expressway in Williamsburg.

“We need a comprehensive corridor plan that centers environmental justice. We need a plan that envisions a future that promotes safer streets, cleaner air and helps us meet our climate mandates,” said Kevin Garcia, senior transportation planner for the nonprofit New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul need to fund our ideas and not ideas that widen highways and allow for more cars.”

Elected officials, including Borough President Antonio Reynoso, Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, and Councilmembers Alexa Avilés and Lincoln Restler attended the rally to express their support and each offiicial emphasized the importance of community-led plans.

“We don’t want corporations or conglomerates or groups that have never been along the corridor of the BQE to come into our communities that tell us what they think is right,” said Reynoso. “Any organizing, any planning that happens along the corridor must run through the coalition.”

Residents who live near the BQE who spoke at the rally detailed a lifetime of dealing with traffic and health issues.

“Cars, traffic, and dirty air were just a normal part of my childhood,” said Raisa Lin Garden-Lucerna, a Williamsburg resident. “I remember some of the first times I realized, as a kid, that when I traveled outside of my neighborhood to places with less cars, the difference in air was drastic.”

Earlier this year, the federal government rejected an $800 million proposal from the city to rebuild the crumbling triple-cantilever section of the BQE. Activists said the rebuilding of this section in Brooklyn Heights is just the tip of the iceberg of the corridor’s issues.

The problems of the BQE are so much more than the structural integrity of the triple cantilever, according to Laura Birnback, executive director of the nonprofit Brooklyn Heights Association.

When Mayor Adams comes to Assemblymember Simon and I and asks for our approval on the triple cantilever project, we have one message for him, said Councilmember Restler.

“It’s not just about Brooklyn Heights, it’s about the whole BQE corridor,” he said.

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