Last Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Brewery, the Friends of the BQX, a nonprofit group advocating for the waterfront trolley, convened a panel of small business owners from Seattle, St. Paul, Kansas City and Portland, all cities that have streetcars.
The event brought together hundreds of entrepreneurs and residents who would be impacted along the 11-mile route from Astoria to Red Hook.
“I loved this idea from the day it was announced,” said Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery, who lives in Gowanus but works in Williamsburg. “I would love for a better way to get from here to there.”
The city took a step forward with the mass transit project last month when it announced that it has awarded a $7.25 million contract to engineering firm VHB to conduct an environmental impact study.
The project already has two supporters from each of the boroughs. Both Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who moderated the panel, spoke about the need to invest in transportation alternatives during the event.
“We need to think outside the box,” Katz said. “The BQX is outside the box.”
The panel discussed how small businesses should prepare for the construction of the streetcar, which could have negative impacts.
Isabel Chanslor, vice president of national and special projects and the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul, said her organization knew they would have to prepare local shops throughout their project.
They provided three years of preparation assistance to 520 small businesses, all of which made $2 million or under in sales. That included everything from examining their books to marketing efforts, shelving and windows.
They also provided forgivable loans, helped out with innovative signage and websites, and taught businesses how to save by looking at inventory and vendors.
In the four years of construction, Chanslor said St. Paul only lost four businesses during that time.
After the streetcar launched, Chanslor said the roads had fewer potholes, there were more beautiful sidewalks and all of the utilities were below ground. The city also found new ways of capturing water.
“We couldn’t be happier at the moment,” she said.
In Seattle, Aaron Barthel, founder and owner of Intrigue Chocolate, opened his chocolate shop at the end of the light rail line. They were diversified enough, with both retail and wholesale, to survive construction.
“For us, it’s still a no-brainer,” he said about the trolley. “We’re seeing major positive impact.”
As for Chris Goode, owner of Ruby Jean’s Juice Shop in Kansas City, he proactively opened a second location on the streetcar line after the project was finished in 2016.
Being on the line allowed the shop to access a larger customer base, he said. Many patrons would park their car at one end, take the streetcar and get off to go to the juice store.
Goode also said he collaborated with the streetcar company to help market his own business on social media, which had a larger following.
“If we can tap into the streetcar that has those resources,” he said, “it gives us longer arms than we have ourselves.”
In terms of traffic flow, Downtown Kansas City is more of a “pedestrian area,” he said, so car traffic wasn’t substantially affected. In Seattle, Barthel said there was some parking displacement, but they figured out a system that works for all street users.
Chanslor said University Avenue in St. Paul used to be “really busy with cars.” When the streetcar arrived, operators predicted it to reach 40,000 daily riders by 2030.
Instead, the light rail reached that benchmark within the first couple of months of operation.
“We are seeing less congestion,” Chanslor said, “but also less road damage from vehicular traffic.”
The panelists were also asked about possible displacement through gentrification due to the streetcar. In Seattle, Barthel said he didn’t see any. Neither did Rick Gustafson, strategic adviser for the urban design firm Shiels Obletz Johnsen, in Portland.
Chanslor added that they were always worried about gentrification. It took a lot of organizing and community collaboration to prevent it from happening.
“We’re really not looking to displace the community,” she said. “We’re looking to improve the community for them.”
Commercial rents did go up in St. Paul, but Chanslor said businesses made between 40 and 60 percent more than before the streetcar.
Goode said his rent was “pretty reasonable,” largely because before the streetcar, Downtown Kansas City was more of a blighted area.
All of the speakers at last week’s event advised business owners along the BQX route to stay involved in the process, rather than oppose it.
“Pushing against it isn’t going to help,” Goode said. “Change is going to happen, so going with the flow helps.
“Kansas City has gone from one tier of a city to the next,” he added, “and the streetcar was the conduit for that.”
Gustafson said the streetcar introduced a whole part of city living that Portland hadn’t experienced before. In Seattle, Barthel added that light rail “stitched together a bunch of neighborhoods that were always separate” from each other.
To continue the dialogue with small businesses, Friends of the BQX announced that it will create a Small Business Working Group to learn the best practices and pitfalls of the streetcar.
Members signed up for the group at the event. The group will be formalized in the coming months.
Adams urged the conversation to continue beyond the event.
“We’re not going to understand the complexities of this if we’re yelling and screaming at each other,” he said. “We have to talk about parking and displacement, but I can hear you if we talk to each other.”