Sunset Park

City plans to remove rails and cobblestones along Sunset Park waterfront

April 9, 2019 By Jaime DeJesus and Meaghan McGoldrick
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A plan to rip out a section of the Sunset Park waterfront’s cobblestones and defunct rail lines to add bike lanes and improve sidewalk safety is leaving some wondering what will happen to the area’s history if it moves forward.

Representatives from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) joined lead designers on the estimated $37 million Sunset Park Infrastructure Project at a Community Board 7 meeting Monday to discuss the plan, which would reconstruct portions of Second and Third avenues, as well as some surrounding streets, but also remove swaths of the neighborhood’s cobblestone streets and railways.

That has railroad buffs and neighborhood boosters concerned about erasing part of the neighborhood’s history.

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“The presence of cobblestone in the maritime area is iconic,” said Sunset Park resident and founder of Friends of Sunset Park Maria Roca, who was hoping to see a recovery or reuse plan that would “keep the cobblestones as part of the decorative mix.”

“I understand the issue of them on the roadway,” she said. “You have some paving that kind of looks like it, but we really want those real cobblestones that have history attached so that they’re very present. This is a maritime industrial area and nothing else so we want to keep all of that.”

The plan calls for the reconstruction of the western side of Third Avenue between 37th and 39th; 39th Street from Third Avenue to the water; Second Avenue from 39th Street down to 42nd Street and portions of 41st, 42nd, and 44th streets between Second and First avenues.

Old tracks would be removed along Second Avenue from 41st Street to just north of 39th Street. It would also be removed from 41st Street between First and Second avenues. Tracks would remain along First Avenue, and also continue up from the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal along 39th Street.

Cobblestones would be removed from the waterfront to Second Avenue along 39th Street, as well as 41st Street.

More than 120 new street trees would be added, among other proposed streetscape elements.

While opposition was scarce at the meeting — other concerns included parking, and how to properly protect the proposed new greenery — Bob Diamond, president of the Brooklyn Historic Railroad Association told the Brooklyn Eagle that ripping out rails now could make for a more expensive project down the line.

When rails are ripped out, he said, it surrenders the right-of-way to utility companies who tear up the road to place assets such as cables and sewer lines. If the city ever plans to reinstall tracks there, they have to pay for the cost to move those things — which can add significantly to the price tag.

“They should definitely preserve the cobblestones and rails for several reasons,” he said. “It’s part of the history of the area. Industry City was primarily serviced by rails, and pulling it out is like gutting the history of the neighborhood.”

NYCEDC, Diamond said, should instead look to what was done in DUMBO in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The city considered pulling the neighborhood’s tracks out, but by keeping them they’ve become a big part of the community’s draw.

“The tracks are a big tourist attraction in DUMBO. People come and they take wedding photos there where the couples pose on the tracks, I guess symbolizing the journey they’re taking together,” he told the Eagle. “If they go and remove those tracks, they’re going to make a real mess in 10 years when they want to put it back again.”

The Sunset Park Infrastructure Project is the result of a 2009 study, said Thomas Colavecchio, technical director for AKRF Environment, Planning and Engineering Consultants, the project’s lead designer.

“It was determined that there was a severe deficiency in infrastructure,” he said, “so the goal of the project was to make it safer for both pedestrians and vehicles, to improve the uneven road service and, overall, to promote businesses in the area.”

According to Colavecchio, both the design team and EDC wanted to concentrate on just a handful of intersections they felt could best be improved.

“It’s very difficult for pedestrians to walk in this area,” he said, calling the current streets “decrepit.”

Colavecchio added that removing the old tracks would improve the drainage and get rid of standing water.

“Along Second Avenue [and 41st Street], you can see there are existing decommissioned rails in the street that we’re looking to remove,” he added. “There is some ponding at the gutter line where water isn’t moving and there is a lot of illegal parking in the area that is very unsafe for pedestrians to walk in. The goal is to formalize the curb blinds and street to improve drainage and provide the community with a smooth riding surface.”

Though, since it is active, Colavecchio said, “an existing rail is going to remain crossing Third Avenue, going into the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal.”

Under the plan, new greenery and trees would also be planted along the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and around Industry City.

Additional reporting by Ned Berke

Correction (April 10 at 11:58 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misquoted Colavecchio in reference to the reason the existing rail would remain

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