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New York Newsday

A Breached Trolley Rebirth

New York Newsday
Aug 10, 2003
By Joshua Robin
Staff Writer

 
 

 
   

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A Breached Trolley Rebirth

New York Newsday
Aug 10, 2003
By Joshua Robin
Staff Writer

Clang, clang, clunk went the Brooklyn trolley.

A year after the borough toasted a plan to roll street cars on the Red Hook waterfront, the projectis dead, halted by red ink and legal controversy.

Once roundly praised for merging nostalgia with mass transit for far-flung Brooklynites, the trolley fell victim to a cash shortfall amid infighting, rivalry among trolley groups, charges of greed, and a struggle that even broke up best friends.

Bob Diamond, the force behind the quixotic venture, now faces a swarm of problems of his own, not the least of which is a possible $1,000 fine for trespassing into a manhole, as well as how to dispose of 16 trolley cars he bought.

"I think we've hit the rock bottom right now," said Diamond, the 43-year-old Brooklyn Heights trolley fan who for the past 12 years labored to bring street cars back to Brooklyn after a 43-year absence.

A rival railcar group, meanwhile, which recently splintered from Diamond's Brooklyn Historical Railway Association is proposing to build a separate line on the other side of the Gowanus Expressway, using tracks near Borough Hall last used in 1930.

To succeed, the group will need to avoid the same mistakes that prompted its founders to quit Diamond's line.

"His way did not seem to work out. We hope our way does," said co-founder Arthur Melnick of Midwood.

The group Diamond founded in 1993 once had federal and city officials dishing out hundreds of thousands in seed money, but in the end, he managed to lay track on only two streets at the tip of Red Hook's gentrifying peninsula.

Those who followed the sputtering end of the trolley plan say two factors caused the failure.

First, Diamond, who also manages a New Jersey apartment building, didn't do enough private fund-raising to supplement the $310,000 in public funds he got, said Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the city Department of Transportation. In June, the agency revoked its consent to allow him to build the line.

"We stand that at this point in time, Mr. Diamond hasn't shown us the ability to get private money, to raise private money," Cocola said.

Second, according to Diamond's critics, his distrust and unwillingness to delegate power among his volunteers cost him.

By Diamond's own admission, he fired his second-in-command, Greg Castillo, who was also his childhood best friend, and watched passively as other volunteers deserted him.

"Everybody was viewed as a potential enemy," said one former volunteer, who did not want to be named. He said Diamond once even asked him to sign a loyalty oath, but never followed through.

Diamond acknowledged his shortfall in fund-raising, but pointed out that he raised about $500,000 in grants and private funds. It still wasn't enough, because unlike his competitors' plan, he had to lay his own tracks. He said he spent the private money to purchase insurance and to buy and restore 16 trolley cars, cars he now seeks to sell.

Diamond also dismisses complaints from those who fled the organization, saying his management style became necessary when volunteers became "greedy," — thinking the project could make money.

"I think I wasn't controlling enough," Diamond insisted.

Told that, Jan Lorenzen, a former volunteer who founded the new trolley organization with Melnick last year, said money was never the motivation. "We do this because we like trolleys," Lorenzen said.

Despite the downward trajectory of Diamond's streetcar project, its founder maintains his nonchalant, folksy manner — even as he faces legal hurdles and duels with the city officials and former allies who left him.

Last Wednesday, Diamond was given a $1,000 city ticket for removing a manhole cover on Atlantic Avenue, attempting to visit an old subway tunnel where he hoped the Red Hook trolley would eventually run en route to Downtown Brooklyn.

"I was really insulted when they told me I looked like a terrorist," Diamond said, vowing to fight the ticket.

In another brush with the law, Diamond is refusing city orders to remove tracks laid down along Conover and Reed streets in Red Hook.

"For BHRA to dismantle the project based on 'orders' from CDOT [the city Department of Transportation] may in fact be tantamount to destruction of public property, and open BHRA personnel to criminal prosecution or other civil liability," Diamond argued in an open letter posted on his Web site.

Meanwhile, the 16 trolley cars Diamond bought now sit in storage at a Red Hook warehouse and at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Diamond wants to sell them and use the proceeds to revive his dream.

Greg O'Connell, who is converting the property where five of the cars are stored into a Fairway supermarket and lot, has sued Diamond to force the removal of the trolleys, but the two men are negotiating to resolve the problem.

Diamond, meanwhile, has filed claims against the city's Department of Transportation, alleging that when city crews trucked away old rail tracks in May, workers took not only equipment bought with tax dollars — but also $616,000 worth of equipment belonging to the organization, including some that Diamond said he bought with his own money.

Cocola denied those charges. "I guess he's doing all he can to spice up the story," he wrote in an e-mail.

While Diamond's project is kaput for now, he hasn't abandoned the dream of bringing trolley cars back to Brooklyn (a place that, after all, inspired the Dodgers — shorthand for Trolley Dodgers.)

As for the rival trolley project — which Diamond dismisses as a "copy cat" of his own — that group is proposing two main trolley lines, saying they would cost $15 million to build.

Cocola, of the Department of Transportation, said the agency would consider any proposals submitted. To date, none has been.

One of the proposed lines, the Park Line, would hug the Brooklyn waterfront south of the Brooklyn Bridge along a route that travels through a planned city park. The other, the Street Line, would haul riders along routes from Borough Hall along Washington Street to the trendy neighborhood dubbed DUMBO — or "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass."

"Not only can they serve as a tourist thing. They can also be practical," said Lorenzen, of Williamsburg, whose day job is working on airplane interiors.

Added Borough President Marty Markowitz: "Trolleys make just as much sense today as they did 100 years ago."


Copyright 2003, New York Newsday

 

 

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