Bike-path advocates race the end of Bloomberg to connect Sunset Park to Greenpoint

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Columbia Street waterfront. (Dana Rubinstein)
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In 1840, the Wilkes Expedition captured alleged cannibal chief Veindovi of the Island of Rewa, brother to the Fiji King.

A couple of years later, the Navy deposited the chief, stricken with tuberculosis, at the Naval Hospital in Brooklyn's Navy Yard, where he died. He was buried in the Naval Cemetery nearby.

Records there were poorly kept and the cemetery was a jumble and when, in 1926, many of the remains were disinterred and relocated to Cypress Hills Cemetery, hundreds of the deceased were unaccounted for, including the unfortunate chief.

Now that cemetery, described by Brooklyn Greenway Initiative co-founder Milton Puryear as “a godforsaken corner" of the Brooklyn Navy Yard between Flushing and Kent, is being eyed as the location of a new park, which would be one of three green “nodes” along a proposed 14-mile greenway running from Greenpoint through Sunset Park that would allow cyclists to ride along protected, landscaped bike paths from North Brooklyn to South.

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"You want to give people the experience of being immersed in green as often as possible," said Puryear, sitting in his storefront office on a Monday afternoon during which it rained, cleared up, and then rained again.

An investment analyst turned greenway evangelist, Puryear was describing the prospects for the greenway, an outgrowth of an idea he helped hatch in 1998, as many years ago as the proposed bike path has miles.

The idea was born from Puryear and Initiative co-founder Brian McCormick's discovery that a city-backed plan for a 4.7-mile “Brooklyn Waterfront Trail” from Red Hook to the Brooklyn Bridge had been endangered by a Department of Transportation proposal to add two traffic lanes to Columbia Street.

Neither the trail nor the D.O.T. proposal that would make the trail an impossibility materialized, but McCormick and Puryear embraced the notion of the 4.7-mile greenway and then they expanded upon it.

Today, their plan plan calls for 14 miles of bike lanes, and three adjacent green spaces, with two more under consideration.

"It was basically our idea to have a 14-mile greenway," said Puryear, a D.C.-born Brooklyn resident who likes birds and kayaking.

In the ensuing years, Puryear, McCormick and a North Carolina native named Meg Fellerath incorporated the Brooklyn Greenway Initative, raised public and private money, underwrote a traffic study by (Gridlock) Sam Schwartz, held meetings with a laundry list of community organizations along the 14-mile route and found a bastion of support with the influential planning group, the Regional Plan Association.

By the glacial standards of New York City infrastructure development, they have also found a good deal of success.

In 2005, Rep. Nydia Velazquez secured $14 million to implement the Greenway plan, and "all of a sudden people started returning our phone calls,” recalled Robert Pirani, vice president of environmental programs at the R.P.A. “It became much more real."

Five of the greenway’s 14 miles have since been built, in noncontiguous and sometimes interim form, in locations like Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, and Columbia Street, in the Columbia Street Waterfront District.

And last week, the city’s Department of Transportation issued an “implementation plan” for the greenway, the strongest indication yet that the Bloomberg administration has decided to embrace a proposal that—like the High Line before it—originated outside City Hall.

Now, the greenway, though not the accompanying open spaces, has a line in the department's capital budget, which is meaningful, from a bureaucratic perspective.

"Will there be money allocated to that project every year?" said Pirani. "We certainly hope so. It won’t happen all at once, but it exists within the city bureaucracy as a project to be funded."

Two additional miles of bike lane are now in the works, along West Street and the Navy Yard, but the remaining elements of the greenway—that's most of them—are estimated to cost between $100 and $200 million, the bulk of which remains unfunded.

That estimate does not include the proposed open spaces, two along Columbia Street, and one on the edge of the Navy Yard.

Even so, Puryear and Pirani are hopeful that two of the so-called green “nodes” will materialize relatively soon.

One of those is the aforementioned cemetery, which the Greenway Initiative and the Brooklyn Navy Yard are working to transform into a 1.7-acre expanse of native plants like brown-eyed susans and blazing stars, and "sacred grove" of trees, interlaced throughout with a boardwalk.

Its estimated cost is $3 million.

The other greenesward that Puryear and Pirani believe stands a good chance of happening in the near future is a similar-size site in the Columbia Waterfront District bounded by Kane, DeGraw and Columbia streets and abutting the Red Hook Container Port.

At the moment, the Department of Environmental Protection is using it as a staging ground for construction of the Gowanus Canal flushing tunnel, a $140 million project designed to make the waterway less putrid.

Once that’s complete, which the city estimates it will be at the end of this year, the Department of Transportation has agreed to turn it over to the Parks Department. (It's worth noting that D.O.T.'s record on such committments is mixed.)

Planners envision that park as a sloping green space, with a small amphitheater-like setting in the middle, and a dog run off to the side. Its estimated cost: $10 to $12 million.

As far as the rest of it, says Puryear he's under no false illusions about how long the implementation plan will take.

"I resist making statements about things that I have no way of knowing, because it's a function of the next administration in City Hall and the next administration after that," said Puryear, when asked about a timeline for, at least, the completion of the bike paths

Whatever the final product, Puryear’s organization will probably play a role in taking care of it.

Since the advent of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980, New York City parks, like Brooklyn Bridge, Hudson River and Madison Square parks, have increasingly come to rely for their maintenance on private funding, raised by public-private partnerships.

So too, presumably, will the Brooklyn Greenway.

"We are probably going to be doing some stewardship," said Puryear, whose organization already maintains parts of it now on a volunteer basis, including the bike lane along Columbia Street.

One revenue-generation idea he’s exploring involves an Adopt-a-Mile type program.

"We have no problem getting sponsors for things," said Puryear. "D.O.T. is amendable, and they're working through all the legal aspects of it."

D.O.T. did not respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, Puryear wants to get as much of the greenway funded before the administration switches hands.

"Our goal is to make it inevitable by getting the biggest pieces of it into the capital process," he said.