Two projects, one on each side of the East River, made news last week. The bigger news concerned the Brooklyn side — a startling $40-million gift to build an enclosed field house with a bicycle track on the upland near Pier 5 of Brooklyn Bridge Park. The other, on the Manhattan side, was to replace South Street Seaport’s Pier 17 with glassed-in, major new retail spaces.
The Brooklyn project, a gift of the low-profile philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz (he doesn’t even want his name on the facility!), looks to be pretty much welcome — even enthusiastically so — all around, although it will of course have to go through an approval process. In addition to the velodrome (from velocipede, an early name for a bicycle — velocity + ped, or foot), which reflects Mr. Rechnitz’s passion for bicycle racing, the field house will include a 22,000-square-foot infield that can be used for basketball, tennis, volleyball and gymnastics, with the possibility of seating as many as 2,500 spectators. This facility will replace an expansive and unlovely storage building now there (even as it will also provide storage for park maintenance equipment).
The new field house will answer a long-held desire for an enclosed, year-round recreational facility within Brooklyn Bridge Park. Early proposals for that included an enclosed ice skating rink on Pier 5 back in 1995, but subsequent engineering studies ruled out weighty structures on the piers, and requests for proposals last year to create a light enclosure on Pier 5 failed to bring bids from developers. So, until Mr. Rechnitz came along (after having checked possibilities elsewhere in the city and New Jersey), there didn’t seem to be either the money or a suitable site for such a project.
Across on the Manhattan side, separated by a short ferry ride or, for the more energetic, a walk across Brooklyn Bridge, South Street Seaport has never lived up to its hopes as a popular and profitable tourist destination. The original plans for preserving there a bit of “little old New York,” which had the since-departed Fulton Fish Market as part of its gritty marine ambience, were compromised by office building encroachment and insufficient development of its museum potential. The Rouse Company was unable to replicate the success of its Faneuil Hall historic marketplace in Boston. The Pier 17 pavilion, opened in 1985, was hoped to draw tourists to eating places and small shops for souvenir items and clothing accessories. Its rambling, open-shed design was initially hailed as an instant landmark, but, as the fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City ruefully reconsiders: “a ‘festival marketplace’ by serious architects and developers soon degenerated into a soulless shopping mall, full of cheap novelties and fried food.”
Pier 17’s current owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation, now wants to replace that 19th-century-evoking structure with rectangular, starkly modern, elongated boxes in hopes of attracting a pair of major retailers — a wished-for attraction as a shopping place for Lower Manhattan residents and not just tourists. SHoP, the talented architectural group who also reworked the design of the Barclays Arena, contends that the new design is “more historically correct” than Pier 17’s existing post-Modern one, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission was reported in the April 18 Times to seem receptive. However, Commissioner Frederick Bland (an architect and former Brooklyn Heights Association president) was quoted as wondering, “Do people shop on piers?”
This could be another false step for South Street Seaport. Last year the Museum of the City of New York began a process, still in the works, to take over the seaport museum. There’s no guarantee that this will lead to greater success. Still, South Street would seem to hold out more hope as a cultural and tourist destination than as a local shopping district. Also, much as one respects SHoP (Barclays Center is a truly interesting structure), the idea of looking across at those boxes instead of the rather romantic Pier 17 shed next to the Peking and Wavertree lacks appeal. Better food and higher quality small shops and boutiques might better promote what remains of the vision of South Street Seaport.
On this side of the river we will still need to see what the park’s new field house will look like, and how tall it will be. An indisputable blessing will be the replacement of the present storage building, whose great flat roof below the Promenade seems to exist mainly for the purpose of collecting festering pools of unevaporated rainwater.
Where one looks with eager hope to our new velodrome (which may revive a once popular sport), the prospects for what will happen across the river look much less surely promising.
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News
April 26, 2012 - 12:01am