OPINION: Brooklyn Bridge Park evolves

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a very different place, in both larger and smaller elements, since the first “American Landscape” plan in the form of a Harbor Park, sponsored by the Brooklyn Heights Association and designed by Terry Schnadelbach, was presented in 1988. Protracted struggle with the Port Authority, which had wanted to replace the piers that had been closed in 1983 with housing along the stretch below the Promenade, lasted beyond 1992 — a year in which the then Borough President Howard Golden pushed a separate Brooklyn Harbor plan calling for food stalls and other concessions on a mainly paved area. On the eve of his defeat in 1994 Governor Mario Cuomo was joined by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other elected officials and state agencies in support of a park. Fortunately the new governor, George Pataki, proved a strong park advocate, and public use of the space would be assured.

Where the park movement had been entirely a volunteer-led effort, with Tony Manheim and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition organizing it, the establishment of the Downtown Brooklyn Waterfront Local Development Corporation (LDC) in 1988 created an official agency eligible to received public funding and to commence developing a master plan for the park. In 2000 that plan was published, and it went through a series of public presentations at which modifications were offered. One needs to recall that the plan was opposed by many in Willowtown who feared that Joralemon Street would be overwhelmed by park-bound traffic and by many in Cobble Hill who thought the plan mainly benefited Brooklyn Heights (where there was also some fear of public incursion).

But then came a major snag. New structural studies and cost analyses showed in 2004 both that the piers could not support certain planned features, like an earthen amphitheater on Pier 3 and a recreational shed on Pier 5, and that the park’s annual maintenance would come to more than $15 million annually, far higher than anticipated. With Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates now as the park’s chief designers, a drastically revised plan called for luxury housing next to the newly included Pier 6 and at the Manhattan Bridge end to pay toward the park’s maintenance (a hotel and conference center had always been envisioned). Bitter opposition to private elements in a public park ensued. However, with the sale by Jehovah’s Witnesses of 360 Furman Street to a developer for conversion into the One Brooklyn Bridge Park condominiums, the issue has been somewhat finessed.

In all of this, Peter Flemming of the Heights took a pragmatic stance in support of forward-going steps to realize the park. Since last year, however, when he opposed conversion of the Tobacco Warehouse for use by St. Ann’s Warehouse theater productions, he has increasingly turned critic. In his detailed letter to this newspaper last week Flemming again argued that Brooklyn Bridge Park is not large enough for the proposed velodrome, or Fieldhouse, to replace an old equipment storage building near Pier 5, and he especially objected to “the very idea that a privately operated sports stadium be introduced into a city park.”

Ah, the contradictions! Here is an indoor recreational facility that so many have been clamoring for, its construction provided for as a $40-million gift. Even among the opponents of private housing there was strong support a few years ago when Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, blind to the charms of an actual park, advocated something like the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan — a series of piers converted for indoor recreation and eating run by private concessionaires, with no green spaces. To the extent that the park should have something for everyone, and not just be a front garden for Brooklyn Heights, the Fieldhouse proposal merits more even-handed consideration.

Last Thursday’s park tour once more impressed me that the park has lots of room and can easily accommodate the Fieldhouse. From Montague Street to Fulton Landing, with Piers 2 and 3 thrown in, the park will feel remarkably expansive; and the Fieldhouse won’t cramp enjoyment of the “picnic peninsula” by Pier 5. Granted that it will be bigger and taller than the rather decrepit warehouse now there, its design should be an improvement. The park’s president, Regina Myer, who has done such an admirable and diplomatic job in shepherding the park along, says Flemming’s concerns will be addressed, that the Fieldhouse will fit beneath the Promenade’s view plane, and that it will not provide simply for a specialized form of bicycle racing, but that its half-acre infield can be adapted to basketball, tennis, volleyball, gymnastics and other activities. As the greatly missed Dennis Holt wrote in our May 10 issue, “there is no way the city is going to snub a $40-million gift backed up by 10 years of operational subsidies. A working agreement will have to be hammered out between warring factions.”

Henrik Krogius is Editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News, where this opinion piece was published on Aug. 23.