The Brooklyn and Queens waterfront is in the midst of a grand transformation that’s only just begun. Newly built Brooklyn Bridge Park is already firmly established as one of the city’s most stunning public spaces. The Brooklyn Navy Yard now hosts glitzy fashion shows by international designers like Alexander Wang and Dior. Long Island City’s waterfront is a wall of glassy new condos. Many more changes are coming.
As this transformation takes place, new travel patterns are emerging, and for the better part of the last ten years, planners have floated the prospect of a new transit line along the waterfront to accommodate residential development and job growth. Most recently, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman suggested in the New York Times that the city build a streetcar along the waterfront, prompting Alicia Glen, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, to Tweet: “Love big ideas.”
Others were critical, noting that a streetcar represents a huge investment that could be better spent on other transportation priorities: using buses to connect residents with the subway, or beefing up service on the city’s busiest bus routes. Writing for Next City, Stephen Smith noted: “You cannot effectively connect waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens to both each other and the subway.” Smith also pointed out that the waterfront neighborhoods, for all their development, have relatively low population and job densities.
To plan for the future of the waterfront, however, we have to give some thought to transit. I agree that the cost of a light rail line is unnecessary (and streetcars make little sense regardless of the expense), but the city will need to forge stronger transportation links to meet the area’s full potential. The rationale for transit improvements is about the waterfront’s ultimate potential for new housing and jobs, rather than the existing conditions.
The city should begin by strengthening bicycle connections and by improving bus service with the goal of a one-seat ride from Astoria to Downtown Brooklyn. Both modes could certainly connect new residents and workers with the subway: The F train at Jay Street and the 7 train at Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue are both within reach.
But a subway connection is not the main point. A successful vision for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is necessarily oriented away from Manhattan and instead looks to stitch the waterfront communities together. Otherwise, new residential developments will be effectively cut off from each other and from new job centers in DUMBO, the Navy Yard, Williamsburg, and Long Island City.