Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Waterfronts

Everyone should have a son-in-law like mine. He’s a wonderful father to my grandchildren, a solicitous husband to my daughter and pays detailed attention to the public life around him which he shares over beers in his in his family’s home town, Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood.

By far the most important thing about him, however, is that he knows what his father-in-law likes when he comes to visit New York. So, during our last visit, Dan thought it would be a great idea to take the kids down to this new children’s play area on Brooklyn’s East River waterfront. This was code for 'let's go check out New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park,' now in the middle of its development, of which the terrific children’s play area was one of a handful of completed elements. I hoped to find out how this park is transforming Brooklyn’s waterfront and see what I could learn about the future of our new waterfront park which shares the same problem -- big dreams, not very much money.

There are plenty of differences between the two settings, though this day and a couple of others I spent at the site convinced me that the parks have a remarkable number of similarities.

A couple of major differences first. Our Seattle park depends primarily on the natural environment for its aesthetic, the Olympic Mountains and the crescent shaped Elliott Bay providing the religion, if you will, for the setting. The Brooklyn park’s focus is the built environment, the peerless skyline of Manhattan and the great Brooklyn Bridge sweeping across the East River are the points of reference that draw the eye --and the heart.

New York is a city of thousands of small parks, but relatively few large ones, while Seattle has many large parks and playgrounds. That means that the Brooklyn Bridge Park will commit a significant part of its waterfront to soccer, beach volleyball and other large active spaces while the tendency in Seattle is to think of somewhat more passive open spaces.

Each waterfront started life as an intense transportation center with surrounding manufacturing and warehouse storage, and each gradually gave way to superior transportation technologies. Each has major cargo handling activity nearby. However, Seattle morphed into a commercial/tourism strip while this piece of the Brooklyn waterfront became more and more isolated until it was just about completely abandoned.

Brooklyn’s abandoned warehouses were owned, mostly, by one owner, the Port of New York Authority, a state agency, while Seattle’s waterfront is a mishmash of private and public ownership.

Despite the differences, there are many tantalizing physical similarities between the new park that will emerge along our waterfront and the one now emerging in Brooklyn. The projects are nearly the same size, each one stretching along its waterfront 1.4 miles.

Each project has a steep bluff separating much of the waterfront from the uplands, meaning that the easiest access is from the edges of the park.  This results in a difficult design problem of transitioning from the high places to the low places somewhere near the center of the park. Structures on each project are mainly old, dockside warehouses perched on piling, meaning costly pile replacement, high maintenance, hazardous materials and a variety of structural issues that must be addressed before large numbers of people begin to use them.

Each park has contended with the road building legacy from the 1950s, badly placed and busy freeways that fence out the people from their waterfront. Brooklyn Bridge Park will live with its road. Seattle is tearing down the viaduct.

Each park is the result of many years of planning and an often corrosive politics that has littered each shore with the ideas and dreams of many of its citizens. But, the most important similarity of the projects is that each has endured, each has risen above the disappointments and failures and each is to the point of creating something extraordinary.

They also have in common the prospect of testing the patience of their biggest fans by adopting a slow, incremental development strategy, one that has to wait for money to come available over time because neither park has anywhere near the money to complete an entire plan. Each will adopt a ‘cathedral strategy,’ building toward a common vision over many years.

Both parks will further stress their constituents by the courting and acquisition of private partners whose private projects will help pay for the ongoing maintenance and programming of the public park. It will not be surprising that these partners will ask something for their contribution though it will be surprising and galling to a lot of Seattle citizens.

Finally, our park, like the one in Brooklyn, will likely be governed by a third party organization, a private, non-profit collection of constituencies that bring together the public and private interests for daily governance and maintenance of the long term vision.

While the Zoo and the Aquarium in Seattle and the Highline Park and Prospect Park in New York do quite well under third party organizations, some people want public places more clearly owned by public agencies and chafe at any dilution of the public right.

Walter Ciski comes to mind here. Just five feet tall or less, Walter was an older volunteer in King County Democratic politics who saw everything quite clearly. When the Seattle City Council liberalized the rules on sidewalk cafes, it outraged Walter that the restaurants were making money from their use of the public right of way. So, as he walked down a Pioneer Square Street, he would nonchalantly plow right through the tables and the diners, his eyes focused at a point on the horizon, unsmiling, but calm. The legacy of Walter Ciski still contends in Seattle as well as New York.

We arrive at the promised playground, two acres at the western foot of Atlantic Avenue, the main street of Brooklyn.

There are lots of playgrounds in Brooklyn because there are lots of kids, but this one, which opened in 2010, is special. It has several elements, including a water feature similar to that in front of the Seattle City Hall, only it’s bigger and designed not as art, but to be used by children. Other elements, swings and slides and climbing features are nicely integrated into a rolling hills design. These hills and the plantings on and around them play a vital role. Even on a clear, cool day, there is a break from the wind and it is comfortable –even warm behind them. They have not sterilized the landscape design for public safety –flat features and clear sight lines -- confident that the volume of visitors and the all day/all night programming will provide the kind public safety that most people who live in Brooklyn expect.

The sand box is an amphitheater affair with seating above for parents who are breaking out snacks and juice. My grandchildren went right to it and were two of 56 children playing in the sandbox at about 1:30 on Presidents’ day. It’s the biggest sandbox in New York City.

The path beyond the play area leads to a lighted beach volleyball complex along the pier, walking trails leading to and through a salt marsh and, at some point in the future, a restaurant with a roof top deck. This complex was closed at the end of February for repairs to its marine sub-structure but will open shortly.

The plan also calls for a free ferry to Governors Island, a military base dating back to the Revolution and just a quarter mile across the water away, now transferred to public/private ownership and developed as a park. Governors Island is part of a larger and fascinating vision by Mayor Bloomberg to create better water connections to several parks on either side of the East River.

To see the other fully functioning part of the park we need to go to the other end of the space, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and to the bridge beyond, the Manhattan Bridge, to the neighborhood reclamation project called Dumbo, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. At the beginning, Dumbo was one of Brooklyn’s first residential centers, growing eastward after the establishment of the Fulton Ferry Dock in the mid-1600s. In the last century, it grew into the center of manufacturing that Brooklyn became. Like China today, consumer products poured out of this community on the waterfront. If you would follow the supply chain of the Brillo Pad back from its humble position on a hardware store shelf, it would take you take you today to a hip, renovated loft in Dumbo.

Today’s Dumbo rises from a developer with an eye to historic preservation who created housing in the warehouses and manufacturing plants below the bridge and worked to develop the food, restaurants and other amenities that complement a major transportation amenity, a subway stop whose first stop to the west is Manhattan. Dumbo’s population exploded to 3700 people in 2010, a 218% increase over 2000. Today, it is also home to a growing technology industry sector.

Jane's Carousel
Park development underneath the Manhattan Bridge is centered around a small, gravelly beach in a half-moon shaped bay with a large lawn on the upstream side. To the left, Jane’s Carousel, a gift of the wife of Dumbo’s developer and a beautifully restored piece, placed in a magical glass box framing both bridges and the Manhattan skyline. On one of my three trips to the park that week, I watched at 10:45 on a Thursday morning as 15 or so children with their tenders hovered about waiting for the 11:00 opening time while others were killing time at picnic tables nearby and at a playground a block or so down the street.

The gravel beach serves as a launching platform for kayaks and canoes and the Fulton Street Ferry is just down river. Two events in our history crowd into this space and I have to sit down when I realize that on the very date I am standing there, 152 years previous, Abraham Lincoln got out of a horse drawn tram after hearing a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher at Plymouth Congregational Church up on the hill, the center of abolition activism in New York. His new boots are pinching and he limps toward one of the steam ferries that will drop him ten minutes later at a dock in the City of New York where he will speak the next day at Cooper Union and his words will make him president, though no one, least of all Lincoln, knows about this yet.

Along this same place in late August, 1776, just seven weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s utterly defeated army lay along this shore, the British Army above them on the heights, the shock and awe of the British Navy stuck at anchor near the mouth of the river, waiting for a favorable wind, two miles away.

Carried by a collection of small boats dispatched from New York City, Washington’s army of ten thousand silently crosses the river under a dark sky and a providential fog that rose from the river after daybreak -- America’s Dunkirk.

Further down from this magical place are two other large, undulating lawns, framed by long, shore side promenade.

Pier 1 is on camera right, Pier 6 is on the left
Brooklyn Bridge Park Public Corporation
Other elements of the park along its center are awaiting development. Piers two, three, four and five are supposed to be completed in 2016 along with construction of the upland system of trails and bike paths. A temporary swimming pool will be installed this year at the foot of Pier 2. Pier Five will be home to three soccer fields, Pier Four is a marina, Pier Three a lawn and fishing access, Pier Two hard-court play spaces, a spiral pool and tennis courts.

The cost, perhaps $350 million and likely more, is still $125 million short and no one is really sure how to cover the $16 million annual operations cost.

The search for development partners in the park has created the expected concerns. Near Pier One, One Brooklyn Park Place is a massive warehouse that has been converted to 110 loft style condos priced between $500,000 to $6,000,000. Many people don’t like its size or Soviet era bulk and it has been a tad slow to fill up, 70% full since opening in 2007. The housing crisis did not hit New York City as hard as it did Seattle, though it appears to have singled out One Brooklyn Place. It pays a ground lease to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation as well as a payment in lieu of taxes. Its 75,000 square feet of commercial space is also slow to develop and revenue to the park corporation from those leases is well below expectations.

Ultimately, the city and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation believe that 1200 condos in the area near the park will pay the tab of the annual maintenance cost. Most, like One Brooklyn Bridge Park, are high end, though a complicated set of offsets and credits required as part of the market rate housing developments may create, in the future, more affordable housing alongside. My son-in-law is not holding his breath.

Rendering of hotel site
Brooklyn Bridge Park Public Corporation
Other condos would be located down near Dumbo, only the plan calls for a hotel to be built there as well. Brooklyn has very few hotels and the views from this one would be fantastic, but the Brooklyn Observer reports that developers are leery about developing a hotel there, citing lack of great transportation – Brooklyn is not a great taxi town – and, further, a lot of Brooklyn’s really great restaurants and other attractions are in neighborhoods unfamiliar to tourists.

Seven developers proposed to bid on the development of the hotel/condo complex in Dumbo. Three now remain and are under evaluation by the Brooklyn Bridge Public Corporation.

Channeling Walter Ciski, a neighborhood activist from Cobble Hill – one neighborhood removed from Brooklyn Heights -- complained:

“This makes the park we fought for 25 years to get built into a mall.”

I came away less concerned about the housing as a means of paying for the annual maintenance – there’s some very high end housing ringing Central Park and it still attracts a full range of the city’s economic mix – and more concerned about how we explain to the public the funding of these big and complicated projects.

There are two basic explanation formats, both unsatisfactory. In the early days of Seattle’s light rail project, we applied the ‘we will never disappoint’ plan. There, you assume the worst case in construction delays, the most difficult financial environment and the worst legal problems. True, there will not be a cost overrun and no one will be surprised, but the project almost died under the weight of all that presumed bad news. 'Never disappoint' would have stopped the train before it got to the airport and kept further expansion of the system from happening.

Great management, willing to tell and manage the implications of the truth, gave Seattle’s light rail system a future.  It would be terrific if we could find and manage the truth on our waterfront.   

The other strategy is the ‘talk behind the hand’ plan. This is a Japanese term that means talking, but without the desire to be understood. That’s at play at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Everyone knows that no mayor will hardball Brooklyn Bridge Park if it is not finding enough money to make real progress year to year. If needed, everyone knows the mayor and council will step up as they have in the past. But of course, no one can say that.

While 'talking behind the hand' may disappoint, it works.  Our own example of talking behind the hand is the renovation of the Pike Place Market. No one knew the real condition of the structures until they saw them from the inside. No one knew how much time it would take and no one knew the financial implications of guaranteeing that the affordable housing in the market would stay affordable after its renovation. People working on the project got to referring to it as ‘our Vietnam.’ However unsatisfactory,‘talking behind the hand’ got the market fixed up, thirteen years in advance of the Nisqually Earthquake which would have taken the old structure down.  Thirteen years of Seattle process is a mere blink of the eye. 

We in Seattle have a feeling that we have maneuvered through the hardest part of the process, the tearing down of the viaduct, but the biggest slog may be ahead as we apply Seattle process to a potentially beautiful thing.

As we worry about how to finance the project, I hope we can see the big picture that frames the primary advantage we have over Brooklyn Bridge Park. Their park, major destination as it will become, is an 'if you build it they will come' strategy, building audiences and constituencies over time.  Our park users are already here and it is a great advantage -- 10,000,000 annual visitors to the Pike Place Market, 8,000,000 people getting on and off the ferryboats at Colman Dock and another 3-4,000,000 at the Olympic Sculpture Park and Elliott Bay Park. Having 'they' already here is a big leg up.  And if we can't shake a few dollars out of a crowd like that and apply them to the creation and maintenance of a first rate park on our waterfront, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

The Park Designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh
Brooklyn Bridge Park Website (Check out interactive map)
Battle of Brooklyn Heights
Lincoln's Day in Brooklyn, 1860


  1. Bob,

    Thanks for another astute observation of two cities close to my heart and imagination.

    Rich Berkowitz

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