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08.05.2014
A Berm Grows in Brooklyn
Michael Van Valkenburgh finds a sloping solution to noise problems at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Courtesy MVVA

Brooklyn Bridge Park has evolved in the past 15 years from a landscape of abandoned piers and fenced off concrete parking lots to a spectacular 84-acre greensward along the East River. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the owners of the site, once planned to build 3 million square feet of residential towers on the land that would likely resemble the current Williamsburg waterfront wall of residential skyscrapers. Fortunately the powerful and politically connected Brooklyn Heights Association opposed the 1986 plan and instead proposed a “harbor” park, which has, in many respects, been realized by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). The park is a stunning template of a 21st century open space in a dense urban site. The park is divided into various sections, each with its own formally programmed landscape, hardscape, and pier play areas.

 

However, the central area near Pier 3 (the park runs from Atlantic Avenue to Jay Street) is not only a narrow area, but is squeezed between the river and busy Furman Street. Overhead, is the double stacked and always-busy Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), which sits beneath Clarke & Rapuano’s Brooklyn Heights promenade.

The area of the park beside Pier 3 has been a no-mans land since it opened due to the noise emanating from the BQE—which directs the sound of traffic away from the heights and toward the water. It was so intense park goers could barely hold a conversation, let alone relax on the park’s future green grass.

 
 

Brooklyn Bridge Park officials and MVVA came up with an ingenious idea that has dramatically transformed this once inhospitable landscape into an oasis. Labeled Pier 3 Greenway Terrace, the new area has a south-facing landscaped sloping lawn and a walkway that is part of the 14-mile Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. The walkway is outfitted with 30 benches made of long-leaf yellow pine salvaged from warehouses on site and is bordered by stacked blocks of recycled granite that rise 6 to 8 feet. Plantings of flowering shade trees and evergreens provide shade for the seating areas.

 

Behind the terrace is a 30-foot-high berm planted with trees and meadow grass that hides the BQE from the park and acts as a sound attenuating barrier, reducing noise pollution in the park up to 75 percent (or from above 80 decibels to below 68 decibels). The granite blocks, all of which were salvaged from the reconstruction of the Roosevelt Island Bridge and demolition of the Willis Avenue Bridge, act as the foundation of the berm.

This summer, visitors to the area will also encounter Dahn Vo’s: We the People, a new sculptural installation sponsored by the Public Art Fund, which is inspired by the Statue of Liberty. The berm runs along the entire length of the Pier 3 Greenway Terrace. Michael Van Valkenburgh has said that contemporary parks are not escapes from the city but are escapes in the city. To make this space an urban escape it was necessary to create a man made hill that may not look natural on this flat waterfront site (in fact it effectively replaces the escarpment that was cut down when Robert Moses built the BQE) but works perfectly.

William Menking