Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn Waterfront near the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights
Brooklyn, NY

Submitted by: Ethan Kent

The downtown Brooklyn waterfront could become a world-class public space serving as one of the cities great public spaces. Instead it is on track to become a suburban-style park catering mainly to upscale residents of adjacent Brooklyn Heights and ceding control to new residents of the precendent setting, private, residential development inside the public park. 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.

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Why It Doesn't Work

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 and awkward walkways 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, especially the ones that do not contribute to circulation, 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, they will not only be extremely dull but will also feel 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 and its relatively new 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 greatly complicates the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation's dubious mandate to operate a financially self-sustaining park, and the consequences are 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.

There is still a chance to return Brooklyn Bridge Park to the “13 Guiding Principles” that have been followed for most of the park's planning efforts since 1992. To begin, the entrances to the park should be completely re-designed as active, pedestrian-friendly plazas and destinations that draw people from throughout Brooklyn to the ends of Atlantic Avenue, Fulton Street and even Joralemon Street. Instead of housing, which is the most private of all forms of development and largely incompatible with great waterfronts and public park interiors and entranceways, these areas should be the site of buildings that generate revenue while serving a public purpose, like Brooklyn-based cultural institutions, food establishments, arts organizations and non-profits.

After all, the purpose of generating revenue for the park and deeding the land for park use is to promote public space goals. Why then create a park based on design and uses that conflict so directly with these goals? It seems that the vision for a waterfront to serve and reflect all of Brooklyn has been weakened by the development corporation's process, and with that, the opportunity to create a world class waterfront is disappearing.

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