When the renovation of Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway is completed next spring, 15 years will have passed since parkway resident Marge Louer started a petition to restore and update the Olmsted/Vaux-designed median at the head of this old Brooklyn avenue.
With paving and benches installed by Thanksgiving, the project is nearly complete. The grand finale will be the spring tree planting.
“It is so much better. It is how it should have looked when it was changed in the 1920s to put in the subway,” said former Prospect Park Alliance President Tupper Thomas.
In 1998, Louer reached out to Thomas to take on the project. “We worked with the community to come up with a design and a cost,” recalled Thomas. “Council Member James Davis was going to fund it, but he was killed before he could,” referring to the city councilman who was fatally shot in 2003. Subsequently, the Eastern Parkway project failed to win council funding.
Cultural organizations along the decrepit Parkway took the initiative themselves to spruce up the area. The Brooklyn Public Library was renovated; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden reaffirmed its stature, with a new entrance by the former Polshek Partnership and a visitor center by Weiss Manfredi; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art likewise boosted its image as Brooklyn’s high-end community center, with a sweeping new glass entrance and public plaza, also by Polshek.
Ultimately, at the request of then-then Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg provided the $4 million needed, but the scope of the project soon expanded to include a new roadbed, significant roadway alterations, and replacement of the vintage-1880 sewer pipes. In the end, an acronym soup of agencies had their hands in the project: DDC, DOT, DPR, DEP, MTA, and the Landmarks Commission, as well as the Design Commission. The final tally came in at over $18.6 million, with funding from not only the city but federal sources, including earmarks by the now former U.S. Rep. Major Owens. Stimulus funding ultimately closed the gap.
Like everything Olmsted touched, Eastern Parkway instantly gained national significance when it was constructed in the 1870s. Along with Ocean Parkway, it was part of Olmsted’s vision of a contiguous greenway connecting Prospect Park and smaller neighborhood parks with the city’s more bucolic edges. Using the boulevards of Paris as a model, the design for the parkway would accommodate ribbons of transportation: pedestrians, bikes, and carriages that would drive under a canopy of trees. Because the roadway was predicted to be heavily used, the roadbed itself was made of durable macadam, recently invented by a Scottish engineer but still not widely used in the 1870s.
Flashing forward to present day, the new median has been redesigned to better accommodate today’s transportation choices. The service road has been narrowed and the median itself widened to allow for an ample bike lane. That path is sited at a higher elevation, setting it off from the busy roadway. A westbound lane of traffic was eliminated to allow for pedestrian islands at crosswalks. At Washington Avenue, the median has been lengthened to make crossings shorter. Pedestrian signage has also been installed at this busy intersection, where drivers are often spatially disoriented because of the wide expanse created by the service road that flanks the northern side.
In addition to transportation safety measures, historic lampposts have been installed. DDC anticipates that the benches—the Central Park Settee, designed in the style of Olmsted’s parks—and plaques commemorating fallen World War I soldiers will be in place by Thanksgiving. (At some point the 100-plus plaques were removed and some were lost. Reproductions are being installed for the missing ones.)
While the Eastern Parkway project nods to the past, its traffic improvements and landscape innovations also make it modern. Hexagonal asphalt pavers were recently installed, leaving residents concerned that the neighborhood was being returned to a “same-old/ same-old” ambiance. Specifically, the 1920s pavers put in place following local subway construction became warped and buckled, making walking, let alone pushing a stroller, treacherous.
But today’s paving system is new and improved, according to Prospect Park Alliance landscape architect Christian Zimmerman, who is the chief designer of the landscape component. A two-foot layer of structural soil was laid first, allowing for compaction; topsoil came next, to allow the tree roots to stretch out. Then came reinforced concrete, in case an errant garbage truck should one day wander onto the median.
Greenery is also on its way: Since many of the original trees have died over the years, Zimmerman and his company will soon tag a variety of trees at New York state nurseries for an April planting, including sweet gum, swamp white oak, pink oak, willow oak, and rotundiloba sweetgum.
“We are trying not to have a monoculture in hopes of preventing disease,” he explained.