Brooklyn Bridge Park Opponent Speaks To Students at St. Francis

September 24, 2008 at 2:29 pm Leave a comment

The “official” version of the future Brooklyn Bridge Park, given on the web site of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, reads, in part:

“Brooklyn Bridge Park will transform this underused and inaccessible stretch into a magnificent public space filled with lawns, recreation, beaches, coves, restored habitats, playgrounds and beautifully landscaped areas. The Park will connect visitors to the waterfront and NY Harbor in extraordinary ways with floating pathways, fishing piers, canals, paddling waters and restored wetlands.”

But Tuesday, speaking before Professor Arnold Sparr’s “New York Observed: History, Literature, Culture” class at St. Francis College, Judi Francis, head of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, challenged that version – just as she has many times before.

Her arguments, especially those against the planned luxury condo towers in the park, sounded very similar to those made at a press conference last month by Daniel Squadron, now the Democratic nominee for the 25th state Senate district. While Francis did not comment directly on his primary election, she said that hopefully we will soon have new elected officials who will be able to take a fresh look at the park.

The bulk of her talk was a history of the park idea, beginning in 1984, when the Port Authority decided to “de-industrialize” the now-obsolete Downtown Brooklyn piers. Around that time, she said, the city wanted to build housing on the pier that would basically amount to “a new Battery Park City.”

But later in the decade, a group of community activists, organized as the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition (the ancestor of the aforementioned Conservancy), defeated this idea and put forward the idea of a waterfront park. Their “13 Guiding Principles” included, among other things, community planning participation, scenic views, both active and passive recreation, creation of a development corporation, and job creation. Built into their proposal was the idea that the park would have to help support itself financially – an idea, Francis said, that must be seen in context of those days, when the city was on the downswing financially. Even today, she said, less than 1 percent of city funding goes to parks.

History of the Plan

A first version of the plan was published in 2001. This plan, which would have cost $150 million in city and state funding, would rely on restaurants, parking fees, fees from an event venue and Chelsea Piers-style indoor recreation, including a swimming pool, an ice-skating rink and a “field house,” to provide funding. It would also have included a ballfields, biking, a small marina and a ferry at Atlantic Avenue.

However, she said, the newer version of the plan, unveiled in late 2004, included six high-rise condo towers and a “massive marina” twice the size of the one at Battery Park City. There was a lot more open green space, including a partially underwater “wetlands” at Pier 6 that she said “nobody ever asked for.”

Although Pier 2 would still be dedicated to ball fields and ball courts, now, the pools, rink and field house were gone, although kayaking and “seasonal (outdoor) ice skating” at the northern end of the park were provided for. The most recent estimate for the new park would be $300 million. Residents of the new condos would pay PILOTS (payment in lieu of taxes, or real estate taxes) that would go directly toward park maintenance.

Francis criticized the makeup of the board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp., a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp., saying that most of the members come from the area around the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. “Their interest should be represented, but so should the other communities near the park,” she said.

The type of park many Brooklyn Heights residents would like to see, she charged, can already be seen – at the Promenade. “It’s a lovely park, but when you go there, you see signs – no bicycling, no radio playing, no roller-skating, no roller-blading….”

Board Member Responds

In response, Joanne Witty, a longtime board member of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp., said, “Most of the members of the board are government officials, and the others were chosen because of their knowledge of planning and government.” The fact that many live in the Heights, she said, had no bearing on their being chosen.

On the subject of the 2001 plan, she said it was mainly “a concept plan, to show the government that a park was feasible.” After the development corporation was put in place, however, it hired engineers, cost estimators and other experts. They found that the piers themselves could not bear the weight for such structures, and would have to undergo extensive under-shoring.

Also, she said, “The Indoor Recreation Center [containing the swimming pool, field house and so on] was supposed to be within the shed at Pier 5. But we found that the pier shed was not suitable for this use, and that it would have to be torn down and rebuilt. The economics changed drastically. That’s why the recreation center went.” She added that the corporation never expected to get any revenue from it – “it was always revenue-neutral.”

Furthermore, she added, “In 2001, it was estimated that we needed 5 million a year to operate the park. That would come from concessions, such as a restaurant and parking.”

When the numbers were redone by the corporation’s experts, she said, the cost of maintaining the park was re-estimated at $15 million a year “It’s not just installing paving stones,” she said. “That includes just taking care of the pier structures and the pilings. There is a security budget – our park is somewhat isolated, and the NYPD is not prepared to spend any more resources on it.”

Once the maintenance cost went up, Witty said, “We went back to the drawing board.” Housing, she said, turned out to be the least intrusive way to pay for the park, as opposed to big-box stores or offices.
By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

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Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Dive In, Go Coastal, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , .

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