News
03.22.2010
Safe Harbor
NYC and state set deal for waterfront parks as one opens
Governors Island looms about a nautical mile from Pier 1 of Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened today.
Matt Chaban

Today, after a quarter-century of planning and parsimony, Brooklyn Bridge Park finally opened. The real occasion for celebration came 12 days prior, though, when the state announced it would be cancelling its power-sharing deal with the city for the park, with a similar deal in the works just across the harbor, for the proposed park on Governors Island. When the deal is finally complete, it will give the Bloomberg administration full control over hundreds of acres of burgeoning parkland.

The deal had been more than a year in the making and will release both parks from the contentious politics of Albany and an upstate-downstate divide that has at times threatened their future. In exchange, the city is expected to relinquish its stake in the downsized expansion and modernization of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center currently underway. Roughly $50 million in city money dedicated to that project will shift to Brooklyn Bridge Park while $30 million will go toward completing the plans—finished some time last spring—for Governors Island.

“Now everything can fall into place much more quickly,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at this morning’s ribbon cutting ceremony. “This agreement streamlines oversight of planning, maintenance, and operations.” The mayor was referring to Brooklyn Bridge Park, though he just as easily could have meant the other two projects. “We’re working on a deal, and I’m optimistic it will be reached soon,” Bloomberg said.

The biggest issue still facing the parks is financing. Even when the economy was good, both Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island were proposed with the expectation that they would be self-sustaining—the city and state would put up most of the money for construction, but finding a way to fund regular upkeep and maintenance was up to the state authorities charged with creating the parks.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation came up with an innovative if controversial approach. A handful of sites along the park’s six piers would be given over to residential or commercial development, and payments in lieu of taxes would be made to the park conservancy to cover maintenance.

Because a few acres of the 85-acre park would be used for private development, it drew outcry from many local Brooklynites and civic groups and was a leading issue in a 2008 state senate race. The Bloomberg administration has now promised to set up a commission to look at alternative funding streams, which could include a tax on local homeowners, fees from vendors, and a ticketed ice rink and floating pool.

Governors Island has similar proposals in the works to develop a portion of its 150 acres, but due to an agreement with the federal government, which sold the park to the state for $1 in 2003, these cannot be profit-making institutions. Ideas such as dorms and a bioscience park have been floated as alternatives.

Now that Pier 1 has opened at Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Pier 6, which is largely a playground, is only a few weeks away, Michael Van Valkenburgh, the park’s designer said he expected “to just keep on building” now that governance issues have been solved. The next step is a pathway to Pier 2, construction of the athletic-oriented Pier 5, and a connection to Empire Fulton Ferry State Park, which is expected to include a carousel donated by the Walentas family—a big-time DUMBO developer—to be housed inside a Jean Nouvel-designed shed. These three projects, which make up phase two of the park, are expected to begin this summer.

The plans for Governors Island remain less clear, pending an official announcement, but the designers—West 8, Rogers Marvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Quennell Rothschild, SMWM, and Arup—have had a model of the park under lock-and-key at Governors Island for almost a year, awaiting resolution. One of the designers said that because the city approved the plans, which then got bogged down in Albany, they could possibly be unveiled as soon as an announcement is made.

Meanwhile, the current park will open this year on June 5, free from the last-minute wrangling between the state and city that nearly saw it shuttered in 2009, when Governor Paterson considered withdrawing the state’s share of operating funds. “It’s unfortunate the last year has been spent talking about how to run the island and not how to move the island’s redevelopment forward,” said Rob Pirani, executive director of the Governor’s Island Alliance. “When the mayor takes control, we’d love to see some progress on that front.”

Nancy Webster, executive director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, sees similar changes in her future. “Streamlining the decision-making process so it rests more with one arm of government should make operations smoother for the park and for all of us,” she said.

How does Brooklyn Bridge Park look? Take a tour on the A|N Blog.

Matt Chaban