A new park design is moving forward in Southside Williamsburg, thanks to a plan to cap the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) trench running through the neighborhood. Brooklyn Councilwoman Diana Reyna first proposed the idea in 2005, arguing that building a cohesive park in the area would help remedy health issues affecting local children, including asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Early last spring, Brooklyn-based dlandstudio was selected to research strategies for building atop the trench.
“The kids who play there have to play by a six-lane highway,” said dlandstudio principal Susannah Drake. As for Southside Williamsburg’s existing park areas, Drake said, “They’re not well-equipped, they’re disconnected, and they’re often difficult to get to.” Drake and her team spent the better part of 2010 helping Councilwoman Reyna drum up support for the plan from community organizations and government agencies, relying on scientific evidence about noise and air pollution to gain public and private interest. The team is drawing upon several California studies that linked the proximity of major highways to asthma rates, and spurred state legislation prohibiting construction of schools within 150 feet of heavily trafficked arteries. According to dlandstudio, there are five public elementary schools and two junior high schools within the general vicinity of the proposed park area.
This month, the firm will begin preparing cost-benefit and health analyses while creating a design model for public presentation. Existing park spaces flank the BQE from Broadway to Borinquen Place, and the plan’s conceptual drawings show these spaces united by a tree-lined lawn, a baseball diamond, and a soccer field. By enclosing the expressway between South 3rd and 5th streets, the team hopes to significantly reduce traffic pollution and noise, which is ten times that of Park Avenue. “We’re trying to reach out to the Columbia School of Public Health to engage thesis students in research,” said dlandstudio associate Rebecca Hill. “We’re relying on data that exists, and making that data more available to more people, but if we’re going to be making more public health claims, we need to have more proof behind it.”
The structural feasibility of capping the expressway walls will also be examined. Though putting an active recreation area such as a baseball diamond over the proposed deck area is structurally easier because it requires a much thinner soil profile than a building, the BQE was not built to current Federal Highway Administration standards, and so any changes would have to comply with new regulations.
As part of a Phase 1 to be carried out over the next two to five years, the new decks require approval from the city and state departments of transportation, both of which have already expressed support. “Many of the moves we identified in the first phase can be done right now and without much money,” said Drake, who has been given an estimated budget range of $85 to $175 million for the full scope of the project. But some of the park’s components—a large community center, for instance—could be completed at a later date, once the initial groundwork has been laid and more public and private funding secured.
Beyond the aesthetic and holistic value of a BQE park, legislators and residents involved see it as way to change the neighborhood’s social dynamic. “We heard from the community that the parks were dangerous, due to gang activity—there’s this side of the BQE versus that,” said Drake. “The objective is to create a place that will bring the community together.”