People enjoy a spring day near Pier 1 of Brooklyn Bridge Park. (Photo: Emily Berl for The Wall Street Journal)
The redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, dreamed about for decades by planners, is beginning to reach critical mass.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened its first phase in 2010, is scheduled to open a new pier and a footbridge between Brooklyn Heights and the waterfront park later this year. Seven developers are vying to build a large waterfront hotel and residential complex.
So, of course, all the controversy about what should be developed along the precious slice of waterfront has been put to rest. Oh, no. Wait. This is New York.
In fact, a storm is raging in the design community over the plan for the half-completed Brooklyn Bridge Park. On one side is Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., the firm that is designing the park's outdoor spaces, staffed by disciples of the Harvard University-inspired school of planning known as landscape urbanism. Its design includes man-made wetland areas, artificial hillsides and meadows and pathways lined with non-native vegetation that resembles beach grass, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.
"We've created a calm foreground that allows you to appreciate the sublime beauty of the industrial urban setting," says Matthew Urbanski, the architect behind the park's plan.
The chief critics of this approach come from the Project of Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization that is the intellectual child of legendary New York urbanist Willam H. "Holly" Whyte. He argued that public spaces should be designed to encourage the social interactions of the people who use them, rather than for their aesthetic appeal.
These critics say Brooklyn Bridge Park represents a missed opportunity; it's little more than a handsome front lawn for the wealthy condo buyers, alienated from the surrounding community and lacking in most of the things that make public spaces dynamic and great. The park's high-minded approach to planning, they say, puts aesthetically appealing design over the everyday needs of city-dwellers.
Consider the playground that opened in 2010 on Pier 6, at the foot of Atlantic Avenue. It consists of sections, separated by gates and fences, with names such as "Slide Mountain," which features sleek metal slides on a rocky, man-made hillside; the "Sand Box Village," where children sit sifting pales of sand; and the "Marsh Garden," a small bower of bushes cut by narrow paths.
Each section is aesthetically compelling. But critics say it's better for looking than for playing. "Where in the world are playgrounds separated into different pockets surrounded by trees, and you can't see from one into another?" says Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces. "A great place creates a setting for things to go on, rather than determining what people do in that setting."
A better park, Mr. Kent says, would allow for multiple uses to be woven together in a simple, welcoming space. Elderly people would be able to sit on a bench, eat a sandwich and watch the children play on swings and slides while young couples strolled by on the promenade, waiting for the sunset over park's breathtaking view of New York Harbor.
Instead, Mr. Kent says, Brooklyn Bridge Park is "one of the deadest waterfronts ever designed," displaying a "massive disconnect between what people want to look at and do in a place and what designers impose on them."
On some counts, he's right. Pier 6, which eventually will include a man-made wetland perched at the end of the pier, effectively limiting the uses of the pier's closest points to the water to appreciating its environmental merits.
And further north, park users are isolated from a large portion of the shoreline by several tons of stone riprap, with signs warning park-goers to keep off, leaving walkers no way to interact with the water or the beautifully wrought "pile field," a collection of old wooden pilings that stick up from the water near Pier 1, tracing the outline of the A and C subway lines that run through tunnels below the water.
But in other ways, Brooklyn Bridge Park succeeds magnificently at being a space people want to make their own. Pier 1, the portion closest to the foot of the bridge that was one of the first completed sections, is an assemblage of placid meadows and grassy, sloping grades that make the perfect setting for picnicking and taking in the view.
Several other portions of the park planned for completion this fall are also good examples of people-oriented design. Soccer fields planned for Pier 5 recall Chelsea Piers, and the footbridge will make the park far more accessible.
The park's design has long been freighted with political drama. Some of the real-estate projects associated with the park—like the One Brooklyn Bridge condominium conversion completed in 2008, have been controversial, leading critics to suggest that the park was designed as a favor to real-estate developers, rather than a true public property.
Developers have countered by pointing out that part of the park's maintenance budget will be paid for with leasing fees for several condo and hotel projects planned for plots within the park.
Mr. Urbanski says the park will be, when completed, "more of a neighborhood park at the entrances, and a regional park in the middle. We never thought, from an urban design standpoint, that the park is made to support the buildings," he says. "On the contrary, we think the buildings support the park."
Wall Street Journal - April 15, 2012 - By Robbie Whelan