The drama is still playing out over how to pay for the maintenance of all the young saplings, soon-to-burst blossoms, and everything else there at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Many longtime supporters continue to oppose the plan to include condos and a hotel within park boundaries, and several of them showed up to air concerns at a final hearing before the Committee on Alternatives to Housing (CAH) held on March 30.
No one argues that a 2002 memorandum of understanding signed between the city and the state requires that the park be self-sustainable. Instead, the arguments now center on how to generate the required $16 million annually for the completed park. In 2005, a General Project Plan permitted private development, which evolved into plans to build a 150-room hotel and three market rate condo towers on the periphery of the Park. One tower at John Street would stand at 16 stories while the two towers at Pier Six would stand at 15 and 31 stories. One Brooklyn Bridge Park, a 438-unit converted warehouse, already sits within the Park and contributes toward maintenance. But with tensions over new condos brewing, BBP Board of Directors established the CAH in August 2010 and commissioned a report to get to the bottom of how much money could be made from alternative funding sources.
The report came out on February 22 and the alternatives included establishing a Park Improvement District. Other options included fee-based recreation and event facilities, concessions, commercial real estate, sponsorships, increased parking revenues, and grants. The report said the alternative options could bring in about $2.5 million to $7 million, far short of the $16 million needed.
Another funding alternative was only partially examined. It’s what Councilmember Steve Levin called the “elephant in the room.” The wordy option, called “Leveraging Opportunities Related to the Expected Disposition of Watchtower Properties,” explored a property held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the area’s largest landowner with their Watchtower printing operations. The proposal suggests that a park hotel take on a smaller footprint and not block the views of a large Watchtower property. In turn, the park would receive a one-time payment of $5 million “for a share of the real estate value retained through preservation of the views.” Many in the crowd balked, including Levin. “The Watchtower properties are what we should be looking at,” he said.
With the Witnesses planning a move upstate, the plan’s detractors argued that newly taxable properties coming on the market could represent a financial windfall for Brooklyn Bridge Park, an idea promoted by State Senator Daniel Squadron. But exploring the Watchtower sale in-depth was not part of the current report. As a long-time resident and park activist, Anthony Manheim found the omission particularly jarring. “It’s a slam dunk and I don’t understand why they won’t take yes for an answer,” he said, adding that the city should play hardball to nudge the sale foreword. “It isn’t just what they’d like to do, but it’s crazy to think that a world class park serves less of a public purpose and is less worthy of the potential use of eminent domain than a commercial basketball stadium,” he said, alluding to Atlantic Yards.
Supporters of the original plan, including BBP Conservancy President Nancy Webster, feel that the proposed site locations for the hotel and condos are “wisely placed.” Other supporters argued that the properties provide “eyes on the park” for added security, to which Councilman Levin responded, “You can have even more eyes on the park with increased concessions.”
BPP President Regina Myer disagreed. “Concession funds wouldn’t add up,” she said. “We’ve been blessed that that park is safe, but we’re aware that the site is really isolated. Having One Brooklyn Bridge Park has been a huge success.” But while Myer remains preoccupied with long-range concerns about maintaining a park atop the river (the pilings have a life span of about 50 years), there are also immediate pressures coming from City Hall: “The time urgency is that the mayor has put this in his budget, but we can’t build it if we can’t maintain it.”