Erie Basin Park

Erie Basin Park

All Images: Colin Cooke
The park’s recurring motif of crisscrossing lines (top and above) was inspired by shadows cast from the rigging of ships that once filled the harbor.

Erie Basin Park
Designer: Lee Weintraub Landscape Architecture
Red Hook, Brooklyn

When the Swedish furniture company Ikea took over the 22-acre Todd Shipyard property along Brooklyn’s Erie Basin, it inherited piles of ropes, winches, a forgotten shipyard log, and a hefty chunk of Red Hook history: a Civil War–era dry dock renowned as one of the harbor’s most important maritime sites.

The precise value of that history—its social meaning, its salutary grit—became a kind of currency in the tug-of-war over this freshly post-industrial swath of land. Zoned for heavy manufacturing, the site could not accommodate a retail use without planning commission approval, which allowed Ikea’s blue-and-yellow building only if the retailer returned to the public the very history it was about to displace.

The result, six years later, is Erie Basin Park, a nearly mile-long stretch of newly accessible public waterfront. Built and paid for by Ikea, the park is both a tribute and a tombstone to the industrial past—and a surprisingly optimistic statement about Brooklyn’s future.

The rezoning called for an esplanade keyed to the shipyard’s maritime flavor. “Whatever we could save, we tried to save,” said Lee Weintraub, principal of Lee Weintraub Landscape Architecture, the park’s designer. Most spectacular are four monumental gantry cranes, stationed around the site (two others collapsed into the basin, and were deemed too difficult to preserve). Also incorporated were sundry artifacts—cleats and bollards, heaps of rope—while concrete blocks, once used to stabilize ships, are inscribed with the names of vessels repaired there. A motif of crisscrossing lines recurs throughout, inspired by shadows cast from masts of ships.

All this texture is in some sense mitigation for the loss of other historic elements, notably the more than 700-foot-long dry dock, known as Graving Dock No. 1, filled in by Ikea for a parking lot. Amid the asphalt, the dock has been outlined in Belgian-block paving stones, while a small segment has been preserved near the water’s edge.

In its complicated role as the private owner of a public park, Ikea found an apt partner in Weintraub, who had worked on an early design for nearby Valentino Pier, and helped design Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City. For his part, Weintraub credits the support of planning commission chair Amanda Burden, as well as his team, including Anderson deMoraes, who together specified 558 trees, plus wildflowers and grasses—all of which Ikea must maintain. The store’s safety team also patrols the park, which is open from dawn to dusk.

Essential to the scheme was the separation of the 346,000-square-foot store from the park. “We were very insistent that we wanted this to be a public esplanade,” said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth. Even the crane lighting, designed by Fisher Marantz Stone, avoids turning the industrial past into a blue-and-yellow Ikea logo. Meanwhile, Parks Department–style benches at the esplanade’s approaches signal the open-space fabric of the city. (The site also links with the route of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway.)

Opened in June, the park is still being discovered by New Yorkers with their own opinions about public-private trade-offs. “You have to make a judgment,” as Weintraub said, “whether Brooklyn has gotten equal value for the zoning change that yielded the blue box.” With its views of Erie Basin’s barges and wharves—enhanced by a new dock for free water-taxi service—Brooklyn’s maritime heritage, while it lasts, is in many ways more public than ever.

The landscape architects designed rugged site furniture (top), to complement the industrial vernacular of the preserved gantry cranes (above).