By Scott Enman
Supporters of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar say the project’s viability depends on mobilizing neighborhood businesses, and they’re looking beyond New York City for a roadmap to success.
Hundreds of residents and local entrepreneurs gathered at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg on Tuesday to hear from small business owners and advocates from across the country about the benefits and challenges of introducing a streetcar into their communities.
Friends of the BQX, a nonprofit founded to organize support for the $2.73 billion streetcar, hosted the event, dubbed “BQX Conversations: Real Impacts on Local Business.”
The discussion sought to inform attendees on the potential impact of the BQX on their neighborhoods, including benefits to small businesses — and potentially higher rents.
“We had an increase [in rents],” said Isabel Chanslor, vice president of National and Special Projects at the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, of their local streetcar program. “But we also have businesses that are making 40 to 60 percent more in sales then they did before.”
“Progress is progress, growth is growth, and with that comes rents that hike up every year, and that’s one of the reasons we develop properties in order to help newer business incubate.”
Other panelists included Aaron Barthel, founder and owner of Intrigue Chocolate in Seattle, Washington; Chris Goode, owner of Ruby Jean’s Juice Shop in Kansas City, Missouri; and Rick Gustafson, strategic adviser for Shiels Obletz Johnsen, a Portland, Oregon-based urban design and development firm.
The speakers said streetcars enhanced their neighborhoods by bringing more foot traffic, which resulted in an increase in sales. They shared anecdotes suggesting local trolleys provide an opportunity to connect and beautify disenfranchised neighborhoods and moved their cities away from a reliance on cars.
Whether Brooklyn and Queens will see those same positive impacts from the BQX remains to be seen, but the event was an apparent call-to-arms to neighbors and businesses along the streetcar’s corridor to take an active role in the process.
“There’s no question with an already built environment [like the intended route for the BQX], it will be challenging to figure out how to build it effectively, and it can only be done effectively if you’re very much involved,” said Gustafson, who is the former director at Portland Streetcar, Inc.
The panelists provided tips and advice to business owners on how they can organize and work with the city, well in advance of the project’s groundbreaking. They also shared their experiences on how best to address concerns relating to construction, including mitigation strategies like using construction fences as art exhibits.
Some drawbacks from streetcar construction, according to the speakers, included threats of gentrification, rising rents, loss of parking and displacement by construction.
“We are worried about gentrification,” Chanslor said about St. Paul. “In many of our neighborhoods, we want to be sure that this investment is really truly benefiting the people that have been there, who have loved that neighborhood.
“That’s always a challenge, but it takes an organization; it takes organizing; it takes a community working together to really, really prevent these things from happening but also finding opportunities from within, having your own ideas on how to redevelop.”
To better facilitate that discussion, Friends of the BQX announced that it would be forming a Small Business Working Group made up of business owners along the corridor. The group will be tasked with leading efforts to organize business owners and liaising with city agencies and contractors throughout the reconstruction and construction stages.
“Change is petrifying, but it’s about a conversation and a dialogue,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “We’re not going to understand the complexities of [the BQX] if we are yelling and screaming at each other. It’s a conversation. We’re not Trump — we’re Brooklynites and Queensites.”