With its walkable streets, bustling retail districts, and mix of both small and mid-rise scale, Brooklyn is a world-class example of what makes urban living enjoyable. New York’s most populous borough is also blessed with an abundance of great parks and cultural destinations. Many people consider Prospect Park to be one of the world’s best, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Coney Island, and other important places give Brooklyn a critical mass of cultural assets that any city would treasure. However, the inner core of Brooklyn is not performing anywhere near its potential.

Borough Hall Plaza is one of the critical public spaces in downtown Brooklyn that could be much better.

In downtown Brooklyn, major streets function mainly as “storage capacity” for traffic feeding into the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges or the Flatbush-4th Avenue-Atlantic Avenue intersection. (That intersection is undeniably the worst in Brooklyn, unfriendly to vehicles and a true nightmare for pedestrians.) The central business district, bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, Court Street, and Tillary Street, is nearly bereft of quality streets and public space. In addition, the extensive waterfront near downtown has been lying fallow for decades, poorly connected to adjoining neighborhoods and the central business area. The principal connections to the waterfront–such as Atlantic Avenue–are designed for vehicle traffic and very unfriendly to pedestrians.

Two major projects in the works–Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Atlantic Yards development–now present a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-shape Brooklyn’s inner core around a truly vibrant public realm. As currently envisioned, both of these projects will be tragic missed opportunities, because they are not designed as compelling places that people will enjoy using. With a thorough re-evaluation and re-design of these proposals, however, we can do what’s best for Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

The downtown Brooklyn waterfront could become a world-class public space serving people from throughout the five boroughs. Instead it is on track to become a suburban-style park catering mainly to residents of an ill-conceived high-rise residential development. The current plan simply does not match up to other world class waterfronts, nor does it display a sound grasp of the principles of good waterfronts.

The park’s site promises an unprecedented opportunity to create a great new public space that will be Brooklyn’s face to the world. Unfortunately, the current plan by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates calls for little more than a passive recreational park dominated by luxury housing. The concept for the park has been radically degraded from the ideas that emerged from a successful community-based process in 2001, during which an extensive and much admired series of public hearings yielded a master plan laid out by Ken Greenberg Associates. What remains now is basically a huge developer-driven residential real estate project tacked on to a series of isolated one-dimensional uses — either large-scale recreation or passive parks and walkways — that will effectively prevent Brooklyn residents from getting the most out of their prime waterfront.

To start with, the plan’s many rigid features will preclude the park from supporting a range of activities and responding to user demands. Narrow piers and pathways throughout the park offer great views but a limited sense of amenity, intrigue or destination. Without real attractions to draw people, many of the piers will quickly become magnets for negative activity. Another deadly touch, the large berms in the middle of the plan, will suffer a similar fate. Meant to act as sound attenuating devices, the berms hide secluded pathways, void of any reason for human use, that will not only be extremely dull but also unsafe.

Then there are the residential towers, sold as bringing a built-in constituency to the park, which will inevitably house a small, well-heeled population intent on keeping any other constituencies out of the surrounding public spaces. The towers themselves and the large open spaces that surround them will also go a long way towards enforcing exclusionary goals. The fact that the buildings are placed at the entrances to the park and are surrounded by highly-trafficked roads, car-dominated entrances and large swaths of passive green space ensures that these crucial areas will clearly belong to the high-rise residents and not the people of Brooklyn. (The marriage of luxury high-rises and elaborate design has played out just as predictably in other parks, including Barcelona’s Diagonal Mar development, Toronto’s new highrise waterfront, and Battery Park City’s Teardrop Park, also designed by Van Valkenburgh.)

No matter what you think of the Brooklyn Bridge Park design, it will be very expensive. This is completely unjustifiable. Many great waterfronts have been created with much lower budgets, using compatible and publicly beneficial revenue streams to support the public goals of the project. In Düsseldorf, for instance, a tightening budget proved to be a blessing in disguise because it forced planners to focus on lower-cost design and inexpensive programming. The result has been a simple yet astoundingly successful public space. Vancouver’s Granville Island breaks even and serves as the city’s number one destination for both locals and tourists. It has achieved success by constantly evolving and finding ways to attract and maintain new user groups, despite being even more isolated and inaccessible than Brooklyn Bridge Park.

All the needless expense complicates the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation’s dubious mandate to operate a financially self-sustaining park, and the consequences are proving to be disastrous. The inclusion of luxury housing, for instance, is basically a crutch to prop up the park’s revenue stream. The irony here is that the proposed design and management approach makes it nearly impossible for the park to sustain itself. The park is literally designed to prevent the kind of use, ownership and participation that would make it both revenue generating and valued by the larger Brooklyn community.

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