Long-delayed Brooklyn War Memorial renovations to start in November
After decades of delays, renovations are slated to begin this fall at the long-shuttered Brooklyn War Memorial, the city’s Parks Department told the Brooklyn Eagle this week.
Veterans and advocates are taking a wait-and-see attitude, however, as they say these improvements were promised in the past but never got off the ground. The monument has been closed for 27 years.
The granite and limestone edifice in Downtown Brooklyn was built as a tribute to the more than 300,000 Brooklynites who served in WWII. But the imposing structure, housing a memorial hall that many people don’t even know exists, has been shuttered because it is not accessible to the handicapped.
Veterans groups want the space reopened for events, displays and educational experiences. Carved on the walls inside are roughly 11,500 names of Brooklyn service members who died during the war. The hall houses a collection of military history.
Two large relief figures on the south side of the memorial, by sculptor Charles Keck (1875–1951), depict a male warrior and a female with a child, and serve as symbols of victory and family. The Brooklyn Eagle judged the memorial’s design contest in 1945. More than 243 entries were received.
The Parks Department says there have been delays, but the renovations are definitely happening.
“There are three capital projects underway” to make the memorial “more inviting and accessible,” NYC Parks Department spokesperson Charisse Hill told the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday.
Construction of an accessible ramp and elevator will begin this fall, and are slated for completion in the fall of 2020, Hill said. The ramp and elevator installation will cost $3,872,000. The Parks Department website says construction will begin in November.
The restroom reconstruction “had a minor delay during the design phase,” Hill said, but is currently in the procurement phase. Construction on the restrooms — which is priced at around $1.25 million — will also begin this fall, and will be completed in the fall of 2021.
Other sections of Cadman Plaza Park will also see improvements, Hill said. The small park house south of the War Memorial building, at the corner of Tillary Street and Cadman Plaza West, will soon be the site of a café.
The Parks Department has entered into an agreement with The Landing at Cadman LLC, operated by Frank Raffaele, to open the café in the 450-square-foot building (formerly a park maintenance building).
The Landing at Cadman “will also provide programming and visitor services on the upper level of the memorial building,” Hill said.
As part of a larger improvement project, the oval-shaped lawn at the north end of the park will be reconstructed, Hill said. Improvements to the site will include new lighting, water fountains, walkways, pavements and landscaping. The oval is currently in the design phase.
“Construction is anticipated to begin summer 2021 and will be complete in summer 2022,” she said. The cost of the oval reconstruction is $6,400,000.
Other changes coming to the park include the renovation of the Cadman Plaza East comfort station, which is currently in design stages. Construction is anticipated to start summer 2020.
Altogether, the Parks Department currently has a total of $11.9 million invested in various projects in Cadman Plaza Park, according to Hill. Further development on the interior is dependent on the completion of capital projects, she said.
Part of the Brooklyn Strand vision
That’s not the end of the plans for Cadman Plaza Park. Another concession stand has been proposed for the north side of the War Memorial Building as part of the Brooklyn Strand project, which seeks to revamp and connect parks, plazas and walkways from Borough Hall to the waterfront.
As part of the Brooklyn Strand, a new “Gateway to Brooklyn” would connect the park to the Brooklyn Bridge. It would feature a viewing platform leading directly from the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path onto regraded park space and a new shared street plaza underneath the Bridge.
The ambitious Strand concept would increase the number of bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, and add retail spaces, cafes and pedestrian plazas from Columbus Park through the Korean War Memorial, Cadman Plaza Park, Whitman Park, the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, Old Fulton Street, John Street Park and Fulton Ferry.
The plan also includes limiting vehicular traffic on Cadman Plaza East (between Tillary Street and Red Cross Place) and proposes incorporating a north-south two-way dedicated bike lane.
“We have long supported integrating the War Memorial into the Brooklyn Strand vision to reimagine the public realm in Downtown Brooklyn,” Regina Myer, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, told the Eagle on Tuesday.
“The critical projects included in our 2014 plan will greatly help to improve the quality of life for visitors, businesses and residents in our community,” she added.
“Our organizations (Brooklyn War Memorial and Downtown Brooklyn Partnership) came together around the time the plans for the Brooklyn Strand were being discussed,” Toba Potosky, president of the Cadman Park Conservancy, told the Eagle via email.
“It was initially thought that the Brooklyn War Memorial would be one of the last phases of the project, but because of our input and enthusiasm, we were able to move it to the start,” Potosky said. “In 2015 current Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Marty Maher gave us a tour and that’s what got everything started. From the moment we stepped inside this incredible building we were hooked. We were walking into history, our history.”
“Part of the Brooklyn Strand plan is to include a Visitors Center and cafe in the lower level of the memorial for the millions of visitors who walk over the Brooklyn Bridge every year to provide them with maps, Brooklyn made items, history, art and directions (in multiple languages),” he added.
Waiting for years
The city’s FY20 Capital Budget lists $9,965,000 for repairs and renovations in Cadman Plaza Park. Despite the hard numbers provided by the Parks Department, some long-time advocates for the memorial remain skeptical.
Local WWII veteran brothers Roy and Jack Vanasco have pushed to restore the memorial for more than 20 years. Roy Vanasco told the Eagle in 2012 that when he was chairman of Community Board 2 in 1987, the board signed an agreement with the Parks Department allocating $540,000 for an elevator and other improvements. Decades later, the job still hasn’t begun.
Another big push came in July 2015, when Borough President Eric Adams allocated $1 million toward re-opening the memorial. The accessibility projects were originally scheduled to be completed by July 2019.
“Nothing’s being done,” Jack Vanasco, age 92, told the Eagle on Tuesday. “They’re talking about the ramp and elevator and nobody knows nothing. There have been all kinds of donations from Councilman Levin, from Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, from [U.S. Rep.] Nydia Velázquez, from the Borough President Eric Adams. It seems like nobody knows what the heck is going on.”
He added, “Year after year — 2012, 2014 — it’s been like seven or eight years and we haven’t heard nothing at all. They didn’t even get it started. They’re talking about it, that’s it.”
Some claim the money “disappeared,” while other sources familiar with the budget say a large chunk of the funds were spent on renovating the building’s roof, with the remainder rescinded by the borough president’s office, which provided the funding.
Kristen Rouse, founding director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, told the Eagle, “I’m very disappointed in the delays in renovating the Brooklyn War Memorial. This is one of our city’s most breathtaking monuments, and a truly humbling reminder of the magnitude of sacrifice made by residents of our city in World War II — and in other wars as well.”
She added, “It would be wonderful to see WWII veterans again able to fully use this space, and to see their experiences represented in displays and events held inside the building.”
Rouse said she was disappointed that a Remembrance Ceremony planned for Aug. 25 at 5:30 p.m. as part of the Battle of Brooklyn commemoration could not be held inside the Memorial.
“We want to honor those who fell in combat, and those who died as prisoners back in 1776, and we also want to honor all those who’ve fallen in defense of our nation since 1776. We wanted to have the event inside in the auditorium, but this is something that just isn’t possible yet,” she said.
Supporters’ fingers are crossed that this time, however, the renovations may actually get started. The Parks Department has updated its website with the latest start date, and the city has awarded a contract to the café.
Updated 1:50 p.m.to clarify that some funds thought to have “disappeared” were rescinded by the borough president’s office, which provided the money, and not by Community Board 2.
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