Local residents and entrepreneurs gathered on Tuesday at Brooklyn Brewery to hear from small business owners and advocates from across the country about their experiences with the introduction of streetcar projects like the proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector into their communities.
“In order to understand the complexities of this project, we need to have a conversation,” said Adams. “We will have to talk about parking, and the concerns about displacement and business development.”
The event titled “BQX Conversations: Real Impacts on Local Business” was hosted by the Friends of BQX, a nonprofit organization founded in support of the $2.7 billion streetcar project. The evening kicked off with opening remarks from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams.
“In order to understand the complexities of this project, we need to have a conversation,” said Adams. “Yes, there are challenges: We will have to talk about parking, and the concerns about displacement and business development. These panelists are here today, because they already went through this process.”
Panelists included Isabel Chanslor, vice president of National and Special Projects at the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul; Aaron Barthel, founder and owner of Intrigue Chocolate in Seattle; Chris Goode, owner of Ruby Jean’s Juice Shop in Kansas City; and Rick Gustafson, strategic adviser for Shiels Obletz Johnsen, a Portland-based urban design and development firm.
Overall, the entrepreneurs found that the streetcars greatly benefitted their neighborhoods. They improved foot traffic and business in formerly blighted areas, and connected hard-to-reach sections through a sustainable, eco-friendly transportation alternative — benefits that the BQX will bring, too, urban development adviser Rick Gustafson is convinced.
“In a high-density are like New York City, the car will only get you so far,” said Gustafson. “And while the connection between Brooklyn and Queens has been ignored, it has been needed for a long time.”
“In a high-density are like New York City, the car will only get you so far,” said Gustafson. “And while the connection between Brooklyn and Queens has been ignored, it has been needed for a long time. This north-south connection will be golden for the communities of Brooklyn and Queens.”
Kansas City juice shop owner Chris Goode decided to seize that golden opportunity by establishing his business along the streetcar, particularly because of the exposure it would bring.
“Being along the streetcar line allowed us to access a larger population via the ridership of the streetcar,” said Goode. “That location was the biggest reason for us to actually open our spot.”
Aside from touting the clear advantages, the speakers also addressed some of the challenges the streetcar construction brings, and how to best prepare for it. Getting involved early, establishing a community and thinking outside the box is key, they said.
“Every small business owner is sensitive to change, especially when it means construction outside your storefront,” said Aaron Barthel, co-owner of Intrigue Chocolate. “In Seattle, we worked with our fellow businesses to advocate for our needs to moderate the impacts of the construction.”
Adams also probed the panelists about their experiences with gentrification and rising rents along their streetcar corridors.
“We are worried about gentrification,” said Isabel Chanslor of St. Paul’s Neighborhood Development Center. “It takes a community working together to prevent these things from happening, but also finding opportunities from within.”
“We are worried about gentrification,” said Chanslor. “It takes a community working together to prevent these things from happening, but also finding opportunities from within.”
She added that progress often comes at a cost.
“Growth is growth. With that comes rents that hike up every year,” said Chanslor. “And that’s why we, as an organization, develop properties to help newer business incubate and provide loans to long-term tenants who are ready to become owners of those properties. Because you have to secure the land.”
Goode’s strategy in Kansas City included “proactive collaboration.”
“Changes are going to happen,” he said. “Pushing too much against it is really not going to help. Our best strategy has been to collaborate with the streetcar, because their arm reaches much further than ours as small business owners.”
To get local business owners along the streetcar corridor better involved in the process, the Friends of BQX plan to launch a Small Business Working Group in the coming months. The group will be organizing business owners and collaborating with city agencies and contractors throughout the various phases of the project.
Local residents who attended the gathering seemed excited about the prospects of the BQX streetcar, especially the idea of connecting areas that are currently hard to reach.
“Right now, where I live, the only transportation is a bus that gets me to the nearest subway station — which is 31 blocks away,” said Claudia Coger, a longtime resident of Astoria. “I believe this could give us a shortcut to downtown Brooklyn and help folks of all ages to move around more easily.”
Her girlfriend Joanne Parks, a Crown Heights resident who is taking three buses to get to work in Astoria, agreed.
“While I think that rising rents will be a concern for people living along the streetcar line, I also think that this will be very useful,” said Parks. “I think, it will bring the communities together. It seems to be a good form of transportation, I’ve seen it in Baltimore. I am sure a lot of people will use it to get back and forth from Brooklyn to Queens.”
Adams concluded the evening with an appeal to the community to keep the dialogue going and to get involved.
“It is imperative to get engaged to realize the best of what the proposed BQX can mean for mobility and opportunity in our borough,” said Adams. “Don’t just be on the outside and complain. Get a seat at the table!”