A Bridge Too Far
The long-awaited Brooklyn Bridge Park’s maintenance will be funded by commercial and housing developments within its boundaries, which has some locals worried whether the trend toward private funding of public spaces has gone too far. Alex Ulam reports.
courtesy michael van valkenburgh
Proposed new developments
1 Proposed building
2 Unprogrammed greenspace
4 Ball courts
5 Boat launch/marina
6 Existing building (360 Furman Street)
After defeating a 1984 plan by the Port Authority to sell off the piers along the East River waterfront below the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, neighborhood groups began to advocate for a new park along the same site. Twenty years later, their efforts have begun to pay off: A 1.3 mile-long stretch of the East River waterfront from Atlantic Avenue to just north of the Manhattan Bridge is about to be developed as Brooklyn Bridge Park. New York State and New York City have committed $150 million to design and build the 85-acre park; construction is expected to begin next year.
But for some Brooklyn residents, the current master plan, which was approved in January, looks more like a pastoral backdrop for luxury coops than an urban park: Almost 10 percent of the land has been set aside for commercial development within the site. The plan allows for five new buildings within the park’s boundaries, the tallest of which could be 30 stories, and several preexisting structures will be converted into housing and commercial space. The bulk of this new development is clustered near the park’s main entrances at Atlantic Avenue and at Fulton Street, where plans call for a 225-unit hotel and a residential complex.
Brooklyn Bridge Park marks the latest stage in the growing involvement of the private sector in the financing of public spaces, especially along the waterfront, where building and maintaining a landscape is more expensive than in upland areas. Hudson River Park, for example, which is still under construction along Manhattan’s West Side, is the first public park in the state that depends solely upon commercial entities within its boundaries to pay for its maintenance and operation costs. These parks also represent a new paradigm in that they are not being developed by parks agencies but rather by quasi-public entities headed by political appointees; in this case, by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC). Brooklyn Bridge Park has expanded on this model by including housing. Through a financial arrangement called Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), the condo buildings slated for the park will, instead of paying property taxes to the city, directly pay for the park’s maintenance and operations as well as capital maintenance, which in total is estimated will cost $15.2 million annually.
Developers have not been chosen for the new development parcels. According to Deborah Wetzel, a spokesperson for the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the BBPDC’s parent organization, Requests For Proposals will be issued this fall. In addition to the new developments, legislation passed in the State Assembly in June made it possible for an existing building within the site, at 360 Furman Street, to be removed from city tax rolls and incorporated into the park. The developer of 360 Furman Street is Robert Levine, who bought the former Jehovah’s Witnesses book plant for a reported $205 million several years ago. Through a spokesperson, Levine refused requests to be interviewed for this article. But in a May 2006 article in The Real Deal, Levine was interviewed about the funding of Brooklyn Bridge Park. The municipality is no longer able to support these things,, he said. The only way it can work is with private funds..
Not everyone believes that it has to be that way: In May, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, a group formed to oppose the BBPDC’s plan, filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court against the ESDC seeking to remove the approximately 1,200 units of luxury housing from the park. The lawsuit charges the ESDC with violating state laws, which they say prohibits public parkland from being used for non-park uses. The suit also claims that the plan violates a 2002 agreement between the city and the state, which restricts development of the park to activities consistent with an earlier masterplan developed at the behest of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Local Development Corporation (BBPLDC), comprised of representatives from community organizations and local elected officials, and formed in 1998.
For the Defense Fund, the planned residential development not only compromises the current design, but also has potential create conflicts between park users and residents. Our goal is to get a real park that people can use without privatizing it for housing,, said the president of the Defense Fund, Judi Francis.
Citing the litigation, Wetzel declined requests for interviews with ESDC officials. But in a written statement, she maintained that design guidelines for the new buildings, being developed by Robert A. M. Stern Architects, will protect the park’s public aspect. The guidelines will ensure that public benefit from development is maximized, including requiring high-quality architecture and buildings that contribute positively to the life and vibrancy of the adjacent parkland and the surrounding neighborhoods,, the statement reads.
Noting the park’s relatively remote location from residential neighborhoods, the park’s landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh says that the hotel and housing will enhance the quality of the park user’s experience by establishing a critical mass of people in the park at all times. Who the hell would go to this park in the winter and at night if you didn’t have activity down there?? he asked. From Atlantic Avenue the walk to the Brooklyn Bridge on Furman Street, which is very forlorn, is about 20 minutes. You go down there today and you won’t pass a single personnwhere in New York can you walk for 20 minutes and not see anybody??
Opponents of the plan contend that the maintenance budget is unrealistic and that the park has been over-designed. They have jacked up the maintenance costs in order to justify building all of these buildings,, said Bronson Binger, a former assistant commissioner for the New York City Parks Department, who filed an affidavit on behalf of the Defense Fund’s lawsuit. My main problem is the $15.2 million maintenance costs per year for about 85 acres of park,, he said. Compare that to $23 million for Central Park’s 840 acres. Clearly, there are things in there that shouldn’t be.. But Matthew Urbanski, a principal with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, counters that the complications of maintaining the piers and a waterfront landscape justify the relatively high maintenance costs. We have massive piers three times the size of the size of the ones in Hudson River Park built on wooden piles,, he said, adding, We have to jacket the piles with plastic or concrete and then maintain them from year to year..
At the root of the controversy over Brooklyn Bridge Park are two competing visions contained within two separate plans: one is the current Van Valkenburgh plan, the other is the 2000 masterplan, commissioned by the BBPLDC from Urban Strategies (Van Valkenburgh was a subcontractor on the plan). The BBPLDC held a year’s worth of public meetings to develop the park’s program. Several years later, the BBPDC was founded and conducted a financial analysis of the Urban Strategies plan. State officials determined it was not financially feasible, and hired Van Valkenburgh to devise a second masterplan. The Urban Strategies plan featured a hodgepodge design with recreational facilities interspersed throughout the whole park. Its maintenance and operations budget was to be financed primarily through recreationally oriented commercial development as well as stores within the park. In contrast, the later Van Valkenburgh plan concentrates most of the active recreational activities on the piers. The upland areas are reserved primarily for passive recreational activities, housing and retail.
Roy Sloane, a former board member of the BBPLDC, is concerned that the interests of many neighboring communities, which have been agitating for more recreational facilities, are not adequately served by the Van Valkenburgh plan. The state threw out the community-based plan,, said Sloane. The recreational center, which we needed, was removed and replaced with 1,200 units of housing..
Urbanski argues that the current plan actually includes more opportunities for active recreation, and cites a pier devoted to basketball and handball courts and large protected areas set aside for kayaking. Furthermore, in Urbanski’s view, many elements of the 2000 plan, such as its siting of large buildings on the park’s piers, would not have worked structurally. The old plan made assumptions that were terribly erroneous,, he said, adding that studies show that the 2000 master plan’s maintenance budget was grossly inadequate.
Binger, however, maintains that the civic qualities of the park will inevitably be compromised by the current plan: When parkland abuts private land, conflicts inevitably happen.. Van Valkenburgh has responded that his design ensures that public aspect of the park will be preserved. The housing and hotel parcels back up to public streets that are not in the park,, he noted. We have used a series of devices like landforms to create discrete but precise limits between the development parcels and the park..
A case is scheduled for a court hearing on August 2.
Alex Ulam is a manhattan-based writer who focuses on environmentalism and urbanism.