Brooklyn Bridge Park Public Corporation
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.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!