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Seattle and Brooklyn: a tale of two waterfronts

(Top) Brooklyn Bridge Park, (Bottom) Seattle Waterfront Park Credit: Bob Royer

Everyone should have a son-in-law like mine. He’s a wonderful father to my grandchildren, a solicitous husband to my daughter, and he pays detailed attention to the public life around him, which he shares over a beer at his home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

Most importantly, he knows what his father-in-law likes. So, during our last visit, Dan thought it would be great to take the kids down to the new children’s play area on Brooklyn’s East River waterfront. This was code for “Let’s check out  New York’s new Brooklyn Bridge Park,” now in the middle of its development. I hoped to find out how this park is transforming Brooklyn’s waterfront and see what I could learn about the future of our own waterfront park in Seattle, which shares the same basic problem — big dreams, not very much money.

A couple of major differences first. Our Seattle park depends primarily on the natural environment for its aesthetic, with the Olympic Mountains and the crescent shaped Elliott Bay providing the religion, if you will, for the setting. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn park’s focus is the built environment, the peerless skyline of Manhattan, and the great Brooklyn Bridge sweeping across the East River are the points of reference that draw the eye.

New York is a city of thousands of small parks, but relatively few large ones. Seattle has many large parks and playgrounds. Therefore, the Brooklyn Bridge Park will commit a significant part of its waterfront to soccer, beach volleyball, and other large active spaces, while the tendency in Seattle is to think of more passive open spaces.

Each waterfront started life as an intense transportation center with surrounding manufacturing and warehouse storage, and each gradually gave way to superior transportation technologies, though each still has major cargo handling activity nearby. However, Seattle’s waterfront morphed into a commercial/tourism strip while this piece of the Brooklyn waterfront became more and more isolated until it was completely abandoned.

Brooklyn’s abandoned warehouses were owned mostly by a public agency, the Port of New York Authority, while Seattle’s waterfront is a mishmash of private and public ownership.

Despite the differences, there are many physical similarities.

Both projects are nearly the same size, each one stretching about 1.4 miles. Each has a steep bluff separating the waterfront from the uplands, meaning that the easiest access is from the edges of the park, resulting in a difficult design problem of transitioning from the high places to the low places at the center of the park. Structures on each project are mainly old, dockside warehouses perched on piling, meaning costly pile replacement, high maintenance, hazardous materials, and a variety of structural issues that must be addressed before large numbers of people begin to use them.

Each park has contended with a road building legacy from the 1950s, which has resulted in badly placed freeways fencing out people from their waterfront. Brooklyn Bridge Park will live with its road. Seattle is tearing down the viaduct. Both places have been subject to corrosive politics and long stretches of time devoted to planning.

Despite all the time and politics, however, each has endured. Each has risen above the disappointments and failures, and each is on the brink of creating something extraordinary.

Both projects will test the patience of even their biggest fans by adopting a slow, incremental development strategy, one that has to wait for money to come available over time because neither park has anywhere near the money to complete an entire plan. Each will adopt a ‘cathedral strategy,’ building toward a common vision over many years.

Constituents will undoubtedly be perturbed by the courting and acquisition of private partners, who are necessary to help fund ongoing maintenance and programming. It will not be surprising that these partners will ask something for their contribution, though it will be galling to a lot of Seattle citizens.

These private partners, along with a collection of non-profits, will govern the park and bring together the public and private interests for daily governance and maintenance of the long term vision. While the Zoo and the Aquarium in Seattle, and the Highline Park and Prospect Park in New York do quite well under third party organizations, some people are still dubious, and want public places more clearly owned by public agencies.

Back in New York, my son-in-law, family, and I arrive at the promised playground, two acres at the western foot of Atlantic Avenue, the main street of Brooklyn.

There are many playgrounds for kids in Brooklyn, as there are many children, but this one, which opened in 2010, is special. It has several elements, including a water feature similar to the one at Seattle City Hall, only bigger, and children actually use it. Other elements — swings and slides and climbing features — are nicely integrated into a rolling hills design. These hills and the plantings on and around them play a vital role. Even on a clear, cool day, there is a break from the wind and it is comfortable, even warm behind them. They have not sterilized the landscape design for public safety — flat features and clear sight lines — confident that the volume of visitors and the all day/all night programming will provide the kind public safety that most people who live in Brooklyn expect.

The sand box is an amphitheater affair with seating above for parents who are breaking out snacks and juice. My grandchildren went right to it and were two of over 50 children playing in the sandbox at the time. It’s the biggest sandbox in New York City.

The path beyond the play area leads to a lighted beach volleyball complex along the pier and walking trails to and through a salt marsh, and, at some point in the future, a restaurant with a roof-top deck. This complex was closed at the end of February for repairs to its marine sub-structure but will open shortly.

The plan also calls for a free ferry to Governors Island, a military base dating back to the Revolution and just a quarter mile across the water away, now transferred to public/private ownership and developed as a park. Governors Island is part of a larger vision by Mayor Bloomberg to create better water connections to several parks on either side of the East River.

To see the other fully functioning part of the park we need to go to the other end of the space, past the Brooklyn Bridge and to the bridge beyond, the Manhattan Bridge, to the  evolving neighborhood called Dumbo, “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.”  At the beginning, Dumbo was one of Brooklyn’s first residential centers, growing eastward after the establishment of the Fulton Ferry Dock in the mid-1600s. In the last century, it grew into the center of manufacturing that Brooklyn became. Like China today, consumer products poured out of this community on the waterfront. If you would follow the supply chain of the Brillo Pad back from its humble position on a hardware store shelf, it would take you today to a renovated loft in Dumbo.

Today’s Dumbo rises from a developer with an eye to historic preservation, who created housing in the warehouses and manufacturing plants below the bridge and developed the food, restaurants, and other amenities that complement a convenient transportation amenity, a subway stop whose first stop to the west is Manhattan. Dumbo’s population exploded to 3,700 people in 2010, a 218 percent increase over 2000. Today, it is also home to a growing technology industry sector.

Park development underneath the Manhattan Bridge is centered around a small, gravelly beach in a half-moon shaped bay with a large lawn on the upstream side. To the left, Jane’s Carousel, a gift of the wife of Dumbo’s developer and a beautifully restored piece, placed in a magical glass box framing both bridges and the Manhattan skyline. On one of my three trips to the park that week, I watched at 10:45 on a Thursday morning as 15 or so children with their tenders hovered about waiting for the 11:00 opening time while others were killing time with their snacks at picnic tables nearby and at a playground a block or so down the street.

Other elements of the park along its center are awaiting development. Four piers at the center of the project  are supposed to be completed in 2016 along with construction of the upland system of trails and bike paths. Pier Five will be home to three soccer fields, Pier Four is a marina, Pier Three a lawn and fishing access, Pier Two hard-court play spaces, a spiral pool and tennis courts.

The cost, perhaps $350 million and likely more, is still $125 million short and no one is really sure how to cover the $16 million annual operations cost.

The search for development partners in the park has created the expected concerns. Near Pier One, One Brooklyn Park Place is a massive warehouse that has been converted to 110 loft style condos priced between $500,000 to $6 million. Many people don’t like its size or Soviet era look and it has been a tad slow to fill up, 70 percent full since opening in 2007. The housing crisis did not hit New York City as hard as it did Seattle, though it appears to have singled out One Brooklyn Place. It pays a ground lease to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation as well as a payment in lieu of taxes. Its 75,000 square feet of commercial space is also slow to develop and revenue to the park corporation from those leases is well below expectations.

Ultimately, the city and the not-for-profit Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation believe that the 1,200 condos in the area near the park will pay the tab of the annual maintenance cost. Most, like One Brooklyn Bridge Park, are high end, though a complicated set of offsets and credits required as part of the market rate housing developments may create, in the future, more affordable housing alongside. My son-in-law is not holding his breath.

Other condos would be located down near Dumbo, only the plan calls for a hotel to be built there as well. Brooklyn has very few hotels and the views from this one would be fantastic, but the Brooklyn Observer reports that developers are leery about developing a hotel there, citing lack of great transportation — Brooklyn is not a great taxi town — and, furthermore, a lot of Brooklyn’s really great restaurants and other attractions are in neighborhoods unfamiliar to tourists.

Seven developers proposed to bid on the development of the hotel/condo complex in Dumbo. Three now remain and are under evaluation by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.

A neighborhood activist from Cobble Hill — one neighborhood removed from Brooklyn Heights — complained, “This makes the park we fought for 25 years to get built into a mall.”

I came away less concerned about the housing as a means of paying for the annual maintenance — there’s some very high end housing ringing Central Park and it still attracts a full range of the city’s economic mix — and more concerned about how we explain to the public the funding of these big and complicated projects.

There are two basic explanation formats, both unsatisfactory. In the early days of Seattle’s light-rail project, we applied the “We will never disappoint” plan. There, you assume the worst case in construction delays, the most difficult financial environment, and the worst legal problems. True, there will not be a cost overrun and no one will be surprised, but the project almost died under the weight of all that presumed bad news. “Never disappoint” would have stopped the train before it got to the airport and kept further expansion of the system from happening.

Great management, willing to tell and manage the implications of the truth, gave Seattle’s light-rail system a future. It would be wonderful to see that happen on our Seattle waterfront. 

The other strategy is the “talk behind the hand” plan. This is a Japanese term that means talking, but without the desire to be understood. That’s at play at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Everyone knows that no mayor will hardball Brooklyn Bridge Park if it is not finding enough money to make real progress year to year. If needed, everyone knows the mayor and council will step up as they have in the past. But of course, no one can say that.

While talking behind the hand may disappoint the public, it works. Our own example is the renovation of the Pike Place Market. No one knew the real condition of the structures until they saw them from the inside. No one knew how much time it would take and no one knew the financial implications of guaranteeing that the affordable housing in the market would stay affordable after its renovation. People working on the project got to referring to it as “our Vietnam.” None of that was really clear to the public,  but talking behind the hand got the market fixed up, 13 years in advance of the Nisqually Earthquake which would have taken the old structure down.

We in Seattle feel we have maneuvered through the hardest part of the process — the tearing down of the viaduct — but the biggest slog is ahead, when the notorious “Seattle process” comes into play.

As we worry about how to finance the project, though, I hope we can see the big picture that frames the primary advantage we have over Brooklyn Bridge Park. Their park  employs  the “If you build it they will come” strategy and it will succeed by creating its new park over time. Our park users are already here and it is a great advantage — ten million annual visitors to the Pike Place Market, eight million people getting on and off the ferries at Colman Dock and another three to four million enjoying the Olympic Sculpture Park and Elliott Bay Park. 

Having “they” already here is a great advantage. And if we can’t shake a few dollars out of a crowd like that and apply them to the creation and maintenance of a first rate park on our waterfront … well, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

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