OPINION: The self-sustaining park
My former colleague Raanan Geberer seems to have forgotten what he knew about the history of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Back in the 1980s, even before the Giuliani and Pataki administrations, community park advocates recognized that the park would have to find a way to pay for its own upkeep if there was any hope of getting the Port Authority to allow such public use of piers that had become a drain on its resources, now that those piers were inadequate for the demands of giant container ships. The advocates knew that there wasn’t enough money in the city parks budget to pay for the piers’ maintenance, and that there was zero chance of tax hikes to increase that budget.
So the idea of self-sustainability was written into the much-touted 13 Principles that should govern the park’s creation. Most of the park advocates hoped that a hotel, some restaurants and a few other concessions would suffice to cover the park’s annual maintenance. A few of those advocates believed that some housing would also have to be included, but they withdrew their arguments so as not to imperil a united community front for what was at best an uphill fight for a park against resistant government forces.
After a master plan for the park had been developed in 2000, subsequent engineering and financial studies showed that the maintenance costs would be more than triple what the optimistic earlier projections had suggested, and a new master plan was drawn up in 2004, this one incorporating housing at the far ends and the center of the 1.3-mile park. That determination has proved contentious ever since, almost all of the objections concentrated on the southern, Pier 6, end of the park, for which requests for proposals have now gone out for two buildings, one of about 30 stories, the other for 15 stories. In the meantime the sale and conversion of the 1-million-square-foot 360 Furman Street (One Brooklyn Bridge Park) established a de facto presence of housing in the park to help pay toward its maintenance.
The comparison Raanan suggests with Central Park and Prospect Park ignores the reality that these parks were built on largely undeveloped tracts when such land was still available, and he fails to recognize how greatly they now depend on private funding from the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance for their continued maintenance. The problem isn’t just how to get a park built, but how to keep it from deteriorating once it’s there. In the case of Brooklyn Bridge Park, private donations to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy barely cover the events it sponsors; and furthermore the park sits on land that had earlier brought profit from commercial and industrial uses. That means there was nothing “free” about its acquisition for the park.
The important thing is that, under Regina Myer, available capital funds have gone into creating the maximum public use in the park before any new housing was built. A great variety of people can now be seen strolling, relaxing, jogging, picnicking, playing soccer and basketball and other games, and enjoying the new beach at Pier 4. The “pop-up” pool is a popular attraction during the months it is open; the various small children’s playgrounds are full of life, and Jane’s Carousel hums. In other words, the park has been established as an essentially free public experience, and the new housing that will contribute to its maintenance is not going to “privatize” anything so well established.
Raanan is naive in saying the “era is over” when new parks needed to be self-sustaining. On the contrary, given the lack of open urban land for easy park acquisition, future new parks will increasingly need to be self-sustaining. We are no longer living in the 19th century, nice as it might be to do so. Like it or not, Brooklyn Bridge Park will be looked at as a model.
—Henrik Krogius, Brooklyn Heights
Henrik Krogius is an Emmy award-winning news producer and served as editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press for 22 years. He is the author of several books, including “The Brooklyn Heights Promenade,” and is currently writing a definitive history on the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
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