The ‘drastic miscalculation’ that stalled the greening of Greenpoint-Williamsburg

65 Commercial Street. (Dana Rubinstein)
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On a hazy Monday morning, Rami Metal, a City Council aide who’d borrowed his girlfriend’s creaky blue bike to give me a tour of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, gestured to a parking lot full of white-and-blue MTA Access-a-Ride vans and said, “A beautiful park, right?”

The lot at 65 Commercial Street wasn’t beautiful. But it happens to be in a beautiful spot. Past the chain-link fence and the boxy vans flowed the East River, and the Chrysler, Citigroup, and Empire State buildings towered in the distance.

“I don’t think you could really get a better view than this,” said Metal, the legislative director for Councilman Stephen Levin, whose district includes the waterfront.

City Hall sees the site's potential, too. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration promised to find a new location for the M.T.A. facility now housed at 65 Commercial Street and replace it with a park, one of three waterfront greenswards they hoped would go some way toward relieving community concerns over a neighborhood-wide rezoning that, while reducing building height inland, would bring new Miami-style glass skyscrapers to the North Brooklyn waterfront.

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Since then, real estate developers Joseph Chetrit and David Bistricer, notorious for their stewardship of the Chelsea Hotel, have bought a drab, yellow-and-white brick building next door for $25 million, with reported plans to build residential units there. Domain Companies wants to transform the site across the street, at 1133 Manhattan Avenue, into another residential development.

But 65 Commercial Street, like the two other would-be parks, remains much as it was in 2005, when the rezoning went through.

Thirteen of the $14 million allocated toward 65 Commercial has since been redirected, while the initial $100 million for Bushwick Inlet has long since been busted, all to build only a sliver of what was promised. (Nearly $240 million has been spent on the park thus far.)

“Somewhere, somebody made a drastic miscalculation,” said Levin, in a phone interview. 

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration, which promised those parks in the first place (to, among others, Levin's predecessor), is nearing its final year.

“I certainly hope that whoever the next mayor is, honors those commitments," said Ward Dennis, a 19-year Williamsburg resident, historic preservation consultant, and the co-chair of a local activist group, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (called NAG, for short). “But I think it’s much harder once Bloomberg is out of office."

Certainly, much has changed for the better in Williamsburg, from a waterfront access standpoint. The esplanade in front of the Edge and Northside Piers is well-trafficked and much-loved. Transmitter Park at the end of Kent Avenue, though not yet finished, is in use by Greenpoint residents.

But much else has not gone according to plan.

In 2005, the mayor pushed through a rezoning of  Williamsburg and Greenpoint, allowing for significantly higher development along the waterfront, and promising a series of parks and open spaces strung like beads along two miles of the neighborhoods' shorefront.

There was 65 Commercial Street, which is held up for lack of funding, and the Department of Transportation's sudden objection to housing M.T.A. emergency response vehicles under the Williamsburg Bridge.

Farther down Commercial Street, where it intersects with Dupont Street to form a V, sits Newtown Barge Playground, next to which which the city was supposed to have created "significantly more open space" along the waterfront, according to an agreement signed by former deputy mayor for economic development Dan Doctoroff, in 2005. The park, which remains cut off from the water, doesn't appear to have benefited from an additional capital dollar in years. There’s a deterioriating basketball court, handball courts and an asphalt baseball diamond. 

But those two would-be green spaces are dwarfed by the tantalizing, as-yet unkept promise that is Bushwick Inlet Park, the 28-acre open space that would rival McCarren Park in size and was to be what Dennis calls "the jewel in the crown."

A New York Post article from 2006 reported that park "planners are proposing soccer and softball fields, a visitors center, a boathouse, a beach and a boardwalk."

A short bike ride away, at North 15th and Franklin Street, a lot that was to be folded into Bushwick Inlet Park sprouts what looks to be an incipient forest. A "no trespassing sign" hangs on a chain-link fence topped with strands of barbed wire. Birds chirp.

Next door is the Bayside Fuel site, which the city has agreed to buy for $80 million by the end of the 2015 fiscal year.

Levin’s office says it will require extensive remediation, which means, even if the money materializes, construction won't begin on the plot for the forseeable future.

Next to that is the CitiStorage building, a big blue-and-white warehouse, its only aesthetic alleviation a ground-floor maritime mural. It too must be acquired for the park to be completed, but it's believed the acquisition would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Beyond that lies Bushwick Inlet Park as it actually materialized. Thanks to a legal dispute involving the city's use of eminent domain, just one of the parcels that comprises it cost the city a stunning $95 million. Now, there's an astroturf soccer field there, and little else.

By the time Bloomberg broke ground on the field in July 2009, the mayor seemed to acknowledge the fiscal challenges inhibiting the development of the full 28 acres.

“The challenging economic times have forced us to reduce and stretch out funding for some capital projects, including Bushwick Inlet Park,” said the mayor. “But the important thing is that we are moving ahead with building it.”

Today, the Parks Department is finishing up a second phase of the park, complete with a new Parks Department facility on Kent Avenue and a gently sloping lawn connecting the soccer field to the water.

The city has also acquired the nearby, 1.8-acre 50 Kent, an unadorned hardtop, for $30 million. The city will host a concert series there this summer.

"With extensive community input and public review throughout the planning process, the City is making an historic investment—the largest in any Community Board district—in the creation, improvement and expansion of parks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg," said Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the mayor, in a statement. "Despite obstacles, including unanticipated environmental remediation, the City remains committed to expanding open space in the neighborhood. To date, the Bloomberg administration has committed $315,187,000 of NYC Parks and Recreations budget to this rezoned district."

In the seven years that have passed since the rezoning that would change the face of Williamsburg, real estate types have hailed its impact, and public officials have lamented the Bloomberg administration’s unfulfilled commitments.

"The [Bloomberg] administration made concrete promises in writing that with these large buildings would come some beautiful new parks, but three years later, we have the buildings—yet almost zero progress on the parks," former Councilman David Yassky, who helped broker the agreement with the administration, told the New York Post in 2008.

"I'm just sick and tired of the government agencies saying, 'We're going to do this, we're going to do that,' And then years go by, and it doesn't happen," he told AM New York in 2009.

Yassky now works for the Bloomberg administration as its Taxi and Limousine Commissioner and has since stopped complaining. But Levin has picked up where Yassky left off, and has succeeded in making an issue of the 65 Commercial Street imbroglio.

Levin said the city told the community to "trust us, trust us," but "then it turns out, that they didn’t know what they were doing."

He called the withdrawal of funding for 65 Commercial Street and the D.O.T.'s shifting position on siting vehicles beneath the bridge "extremely offensive to the community."

After fulminating on the phone with me a few minutes longer, he said, “If I told you what I really thought, it would be unsuitable to print in a family newspaper."