Sward into playgrounds: What all the fuss over Brooklyn Bridge Park is actually about

The park. (Michael van Valkenburgh & Associates.)
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Nancy Scola

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Earlier this month, the mayor agreed to a deal with two state legislators that is supposed to resolve one of the most contentious issues surrounding the long-awaited, painstakingly planned Brooklyn Bridge Park: The development of luxury condos inside the park, which the mayor wants in order to guarantee a source of recurring revenue to pay for the park’s maintenance in the future, and which the two lawmakers (and a vocal coalition of park activists) oppose.

Actually, the deal provides an incentive for condo opponents to put off a binding decision on housing until 2014, in the form of a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline for rezoning properties on Columbia Heights (Brooklyn's "most expensive street") for high-end residential development. This in turn makes it extremely likely that the park plan won't be completed until after the mayor leaves office.

Asked whether condo opponents saw the agreement as a way to wait out the current administration in anticipation of the installation of a potentially more sympathetic mayor, Regina Myer, the president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, said: “Sounds right.”

Nothing to do with the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge Park has come easily to anyone working on the project. Not for the mayor, who may now be denied the opening of a park on his watch even though it was he who authorized the funding for it nearly a decade ago; not for the park's designers, who have endured a consistent series of brickbats from other architects and urban planners who are philosophically opposed to their plans; and not for local residents, who have watched the endless back-and-forth push the completion date of its park further and further.

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This endless fussiness over what Brooklyn Bridge Park will be is a function of the perceived stakes: Everyone involved with the park knows that the end result of their planning, haggling, and political deal-making will be with New York City for decades, and will influence park projects in other cities as well. They’re playing for keeps.

WHAT EVERYONE AGREES ON IS THAT BROOKLYN BRIDGE Park is going to be spectacular.

Sitting on a river-facing wood bench along the park’s DUMBO-adjacent lawn, South Street Seaport looks like something you could lean forward and touch. To the right, the Brooklyn Bridge soars overhead. Turn left, and the Statue of Liberty stares out over your head.

“It’s so beautiful there that it would be hard to fail in that space,” said Ethan Kent, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that does research and advocacy on public spaces in cities.

And yet. There is seemingly no element of the park plan that isn’t up for discussion, and which hasn’t been fiercely contested since the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first signaled in the 1980’s that six piers from Atlantic Avenue to Fulton Street had reached the end of their useful industrial lives. (The 85-acre park will eventually use five piers: the currently open Piers 1 and 6, and eventually, 2, 3 and 5. Pier 4 has sunk into the East River.)

Bringing Brooklyn Bridge Park into being involves a series of interlocking debates. What should cities do now with their post-industrial spaces? What does “public space” mean today? What makes a "public" park public?

All of these questions figured into that deal signed at the beginning of August between Mayor Michael Bloomberg, State Senator Dan Squadron and State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, to resolve the question of whether to locate high-end residential housing inside Brooklyn Bridge Park, in the form of two much-contested condo developments at Pier 6, the park’s southern end. The mayor had been compelled to come to an agreement with Squadron and Millman because they had previously won themselves veto power over housing development—a concession they extracted from the administration last year.

What jumps out about the deal they eventually struck is its sell-by date: Properties currently owned by the Watchtower Society (better known as Jehovah's Witnesses) can be rezoned and sold to offset the construction of Pier 6 housing, as long as it happens by December 31st, 2013. That New Year’s Eve also happens to be the day that time runs out on Bloomberg’s third, and presumably final, term.

Squadron was careful when he talked about the implications.

“I believe the memorandum of understanding will be followed in good faith,” he said. “And that the next mayor will ensure that it has been.”

Dorothy Siegel, co-chair of the Brooklyn chapter of the Working Families Party and a Brooklyn Heights resident, was less careful.

“The next day, the mayor can issue a request for proposals for Pier 6 housing,” she said, and then laughed. “Only he won’t be mayor anymore.”

NOTWITHSTANDING THE GRANULARITY OF THE HOUSING DEBATE, WHICH has sounded at times quite a lot like any of a thousand other NIMBY-driven disputes about zoning and news construction, most of the arguments about the park have been deeply philosophical, if not class-driven. The housing dispute, for example, has roughly divided middle-class and wealthy white people who are concerned that a virtual wall of luxury housing around the park will have the effect of excluding poorer Brooklynites from, well, middle-class and wealthy white people who are even more concerned that without the housing, the park will have to turn to garish concessions and paid amusements to pay for its own upkeep.

Such a divide is evident in conversations about the park's design as well: there are people who see the park as a waterfront playground for Brooklynites in need of outdoor recreational activity, while others see it as a nice place for harried city-dwellers to relax and commune with a sliver of nature.

(Siegel, attempting to put the raging design-debate into perspective, described it as "the Harvard elite doing landscaping for each other.”)

"Landscape urbanists," whose focus on park building is less about forcibly returning urban spaces to nature than reclaiming post-industrial landscapes and turning them into integrated components of the urban experience, have won; it is they who were awarded the contract by the city to formulate plans for the park, while their philosophical opponents, the "new urbanists," who see themselves as the inheritors of Jane Jacobs, have been left to decry what they consider to be the most consequential blown opportunity in recent memory.

That the city could award the contract in the first place is a result of the mayor's deal to transfer control of the site from the state. And it was to get that deal done that the city granted Squadron and Milman their extensive veto power over rezoning there.

At Pier 1, I met up with landscape architect Matthew Urbanski. His firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, designed the park, and he’s led the creative and outreach effort for them.

Van Valkenburgh is considered a leading figure in the landscape-urbanist school of thought, intellectually rooted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which argues that cities are more than collections of buildings and other often-private objects arranged in ways to maximize the supposed new-urbanist virtues of pedestrianism, intermingling, and density. Instead, they believe that city-makers should engage aggressively with landscapes, creating park space that promotes the things that humans actually want to do when they live in cities. James Corner, who designed the High Line, is another prominent landscape urbanist.

“My definition of landscape urbanism is that it’s a recognition that the landscape had a role in city-making,” Urbanski said.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is, in some ways, designed to prove that point. New urbanism embraces a walkable, human-scaled city that encourages humans to mix and mingle with their fellow man. Urbanski dismisses the very idea as hopelessly nostalgic, an attempt to turn every city space into the quaintest corners of Park Slope. Landscape urbanists like Urbanski argue that urban designers are called today to read what humans have done to the city, whether they've abandoned an elevated train line or evolved past a large-scale shipping economy, and build new landscapes the way people would want to use them. If new urbanism treated parks as mere “accoutrement,” said Urbanski, landscape urbanists see shared public park spaces as central to the urban experience.

Even in its unfinished state, it's evident that the park was clearly conceived and executed along these lines. What were once industrial shipping piers will become soccer fields and kayak launches; and the parts meant to accommodate this sporty activity are located, quite logically, on the piers in the middle of the park, since athletic people won’t mind making the trek.

Urbanski, who is in his late 40s, had shown up to our meeting on a yellow Schwinn, and was wearing a red-checkered shirt and khaki slacks. He’s been working on the project since the late ‘90s.

He led me past copses of trees and onto one of the handful of lawns that make up Pier 1.

It seems like the parks at Pier 1 and Pier 6 have sprouted up seemingly overnight. In a 2010 book, architecture critic Witold Rybczynski wrote of his observation of Brooklyn Bridge Park's early progress: “Although demolition of the old pier sheds is complete, it’s hard to imagine this place as a park, though [Van Valkenburgh] assures me that it will be largely complete in four years."

Urbanski explained that they’d since piled tons of crushed granite on top of the old flat pier. On top of that, a soil mantle had been laid down. Summer nights now mean viewings of Ghostbusters, Breakfast at Tiffany, and Basquiat on Pier 1’s undulating lawns as Manhattan hovers in the background. The tourist-magnet pizza shop Grimaldi’s is steps away, but the park can seem a world apart from it. This is a different Brooklyn. A Brooklyn that is one with its river. A Brooklyn that is deeply engaged in reimagining what it means to be a city. A Brooklyn that has killer, killer views.

The park is 1.3 miles long on the land side, and two miles on the water, owing to the jutting landscape created by its piers. Running nearly the full length of the park along its eastern edge is the noisy Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the product of a New York urbanist of an era gone by, Robert Moses.

That Urbanski is in a position to show off even a half-completed park is due to the fact that Bloomberg and former governor George Pataki first committed funds to the notion of a Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2002. It was in 2010 that the city took it over entirely from the state. The mayor has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the park, including $55 million to build both Pier 2 and a housing development on Dumbo’s John Street that was provided for in this month’s agreement.

Bloomberg trusts developers. He gets them. In the mayor's relationship with them, there's a built-in trade-off for your average New Yorker. You get amazing bike paths, scenic greenways, the High Line. All you have to do is swallow the idea that real-estate developers and some other very, very wealthy people get the government’s blessing to shape our city. If that’s Bloomberg’s legacy as a city builder, the debate over paying for Brooklyn Bridge Park serves as almost a perfect microcosm.

Insofar as this attitude has informed the administration's positions on the park, Urbanski said, the mayor is simply being more pragmatic than his critics about how things get done.

At one point, shortly after Urbanski pointed out a gorgeous little salt marsh and accompanying rain-water cistern system that has become home, he says, to muskrats, dragonflies and all manner of birds, I asked him whether the community anti-housing purists might have a point. Doesn’t having private housing in a public park somehow undercut the very idea of a public park?

He answered with a question: “Do you know why people object to housing?"

Then he answered it.

"Envy and greed," he said. "They’re envious of people who have better views of the park than they do. It’s human nature, but it’s also two of the deadly sins.”

Urbanski said he hears what people say they want.

“But I’m the designer," he said. "We’re not an instrument of the community. This park is so responsive to their needs, even if they don’t know it."

He also said, with a hint of guilt: “This isn’t for amateurs. We pretend it is, to be nice, but it’s not.”

The Watchtower deal was, to Urbanski, a sign that most people in the area are finally willing to get on with things. When it was written up in a local publication, he told me, he "copied the article to several colleagues and said, ‘Are people finally growing up?'”

THIS QUESTION, WHETHER OFFICIALS WHO WENT along with the administration on the park-housing issue were growing up or selling out, generated sufficient passion among local voters to launch the career of one young politician and end the 30-year career of another.

Squadron was elected to office in 2008 (at the age of 30) in a district that includes parts of Lower Manhattan, Carroll Gardens and other parts of Brooklyn, including the area around Brooklyn Bridge Park. He ran against, and beat, Marty Connor, a Brooklyn Heights Democrat who had been in the Senate longer than Squadron had been alive. Squadron made Brooklyn Bridge Park a central part of his campaign, particularly his opposition to that Bloomberg-backed proposal to build towers at Pier 6.

I met Squadron at P.J. Hanley's, a Carroll Gardens tavern, on a Friday afternoon just after the Watchtower deal came through. Wearing rimless glasses, a button-down shirt with a blue felt-tip marker in its check pocket, and sipping a non-alcoholic beverage, he explained the deal’s logistics.

The Watchtower Society is relocating its headquarters from Brooklyn to Warwick, N.Y., an hour and a half northwest of the city. The dozens of properties they own in Brooklyn Heights would be a boon to the city if they were turned over to a private interest, since they would lose their religious tax exemption and be brought online to pour tax revenue into the city’s general-fund coffers.

The deal between Bloomberg and the legislators makes a trade by which every three square feet of Watchtower space that is rezoned and sold as residential housing before Bloomberg leaves office reduces any eventual building of Pier 6 housing by one square foot. It would be possible, if all of the Watchtower space is rezoned, for the Pier 6 building to be eliminated entirely. The revenue that would be realized from the Watchtower housing going market rate—up to $6.3 million a year—would go toward the annual maintenance requirements of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Under the agreement, the city would also throw in some new amenities, including a year-round recreation “bubble” and a temporary swimming pool along the piers for the next five summers. The deal identifies $750,000 in added recreation fees, event rentals, and concessions that could help pay for the park. In return, Bloomberg would get the go-ahead to pursue a pared-down development of the John Street space (depending on what happens with the Watchtower housing) which, the thinking goes, could be turned into housing in the next couple of years.

“People call it ‘the housing deal,’” Squadron said, sounding genuinely disappointed. “That’s a failing. It’s a ‘diversifying the funding’ deal.”

In other words, for Squadron and his allies, the housing was the unfortunate part; the funding stream was the important thing. He's not wrong, if you consider the size of the maintenance budget for the park: $16 million a year. By comparison, Central Park’s annual budget is about $37 million a year, for a park that is nearly ten times as big.

“The admission and recognition is that the waterfront is an expensive place to have a park,” said Myer, the president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, the entity that oversees the park’s build-out and operations.

Myer and I met the afternoon of my tour with Urbanski. It was a hot summer day, and she was wearing dark business clothes. (“It’s interesting being a park lady,” she said, noting that her job requires her to dress for everything from construction sites to City Hall.)

She explained that upkeep for the park costs so much, in part, because it's situated on a river that's getting cleaner. By way of providing an example she talked about marine borers, the tiny insects that are attracted to clean water and like to eat the wood of pier pilings. Those worm-attracting piers, though, are also an enormous asset, big enough to house not only rolling hills but soccer fields, part of a reimagining of of the use of space that was originally claimed for industrial use.

In 1902, The Brooklyn Eagle reported that the New York Dock Company had begun extending its piers from Fulton Ferry Landing, newly quiet after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, down to Hamilton Avenue. Foreshadowing contemporary debates over their disposition, then-governor Teddy Roosevelt had objected to the New York Dock Company expansion as, wrote the Eagle, "it had the effect of effectually disposing of the contention of the public ownership of the water front under the Dongan charter," which granted New York City its right to exist. By the 1950s, around the time that Moses’ B.Q.E. went up, shipping on the Brooklyn waterfront was in decline. Finger piers were aggregated into the big expanses we see today. But waterfront landings in New Jersey, connected to the rest of the United States by rail and road, were better able to handle the large shipping containers then in widespread use. The Port Authority took over the piers, but by the 1980s, the distinctive blue sheds on the piers were little used. The agency began to try to figure out what to do with them. The community organized, drawing up principles and plans, eager to play a role in shaping what came next for the piers.

Back then, this wasn't idyllic open space, Urbanski said. It was an industrial site.

“Nobody was dropping condos in Prospect Park,” he said.

“We were asked to design a park, create an urban design plan, figure out what the maintenance costs would be, and then figure out the design to pay for it," he said, trying to explain just how challenging the assignment had been. "You had three balls in the air," chuckling, “and you were doing it in public.”