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Red Hook is taking the streetcar. But where's it going?

A rendering of the proposed streetcar system called

A rendering of the proposed streetcar system called the Brooklyn Queens Connector or BQX, that Mayor Bill de Blasio's unveiled at his State of the City address in the Bronx on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. Credit: Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

Last week, the Department of Transportation and the New York City Economic Development Corporation held a “visioning session” for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a proposed streetcar that would run from Sunset Park to Astoria.

This time, the meeting was in Red Hook, a neighborhood on the verge of change.
A street car named development
The story of Red Hook is the story of transit.

Proximity to water made it a hive of maritime and industrial activity in the early 20th century. But the arrival of the Gowanus Expressway cut the neighborhood off from the rest of Brooklyn — the towering canyon of cars and shadowed crosswalks underneath discouraging easy back-and-forth even to this day.

What happened next is a familiar story.

When manufacturing and industrial jobs began to move elsewhere, the isolated neighborhood fell on economic hard times and experienced relatively high rates of crime.

But as crime decreased citywide into the 2000s, artists and other newcomers began making their home in the area, enjoying its salty bars, vibrant community, and wind-battered but apart-from-the-city feel. Utilitarian Fairway and Ikea took the place of shipyard work where well-attended soccer and baseball games had long been graced by foodcarts, pre Smorgasburg.

The next chapter, of course, will be high-end development.

To see the early indications of it, look no further than the April 2016 issue of real estate firm Douglas Elliman’s magazine, whose Red Hook feature warns not to “spoil” this “mysterious and authentic neighborhood,” where “many of the neighborhood’s nonprofits actively keep an eye on those living in the Red Hook Houses, the second largest housing project in NYC” — just making sure the condo buyer knows what he or she is getting into. NYCHA property close to potential luxury spots.

Enter the streetcar, proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in his state of the city address this year.

The streetcar would travel along the waterfront and connect neighborhoods that are either unserved by mass transit or poorly connected to anywhere but Manhattan. This would include 13 NYCHA developments. The new mode of transportation could potentially be a link to jobs: Travel times from Red Hook to DUMBO or the Brooklyn Navy Yard would be dramatically cut if the planners’ work comes to fruition.

But the true marvel of the streetcar proposal is its funding system, which sets it apart from other failed or discarded proposals like it — the city wouldn’t have to pay for it.   
Gentrification is the tax man’s best friend
The idea here is that the city could raise money through bonds on the promise of increased tax revenue from property taxes along the route — not that property taxes would go up, but that those vacant waterfront lots and lightly used plots of land might become big business or big housing, which would fill the coffers of the tax man.

Representatives for the city are quick to note that this doesn’t mean increased taxes for homeowners or people already there, though naturally neighborhoods along the route could get more expensive as they get more connected.

In this way the plan banks on gentrification, with all its effects, good and bad.

The plan originally came from the “Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector,” which includes developers and business interests along the route. They stand to benefit more from a sleek streetcar than from increased bus service, which might serve transit needs but wouldn’t reshape neighborhoods as quickly.

So it’s the usual difficult story of NYC — neighborhood change and turmoil, as well as shiny new additions that hopefully are worth their weight in promises, including the worthy goals of more jobs, more links, safer streets. The change is most worth it for those who can afford to stay and enjoy the view.

The streetcar is still years away, and the city promises another round of community sessions in the fall to lay out possible routes and other more concrete details.

After last week’s meeting at the Red Hook Recreation Center, a crowd of young men coming out of the rec center’s weight room said they hadn’t heard of the idea yet though they lived nearby. They liked the idea of being able to move around better from their transit-starved neighborhood. Who wouldn’t? “Better than the G train,” one said.

“Anything would be good.”

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