About fifty people showed up at St. Francis College yesterday evening to speak (and a number of others showed up to listen) about the draft report issued by Bay Area Economics, the consultants hired by the Brooklyn Bridge Park board to evaluate alternatives to luxury housing and a hotel as sources of revenue to defray the Park’s maintenance and operating expenses. Robert Steel, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and chair of the Park board, got the meeting started, then turned it over to BAE’s Kei Hayashi, who served as chair of the meeting and enforced, with considerable success, the three minute time limit allotted each speaker. There was almost an even split between those who spoke in favor of going ahead with housing as a revenue source and those who opposed it, with several whose position was unclear.
Three political office holders made statements. Two of them, State Senator Daniel Squadron and City Council Member Stephen Levin (photo), said they were opposed to housing. Both urged more consideration be given to the Watchtower properties as revenue sources, and Levin also suggested other prospects such as increased film permit and event fees, parking tolls, and the creation of a Park Improvement District that would levy assessments on business and residential properties in the Park’s vicinity. On the other hand, Borough President Marty Markowitz, whose statement was read by his Chief of Staff, Carlo Scissura, said residential development was the “best fit” for the Park of the various possible sources of revenue, because it preserves the maximum amount of open space.
While we do not doubt the sincerity of Messrs. Squadron and Levin, we also note that, for them, since they are dependent on votes from those living near the Park, opposition to housing is the politically safe position. Those who oppose housing, who are concentrated in their districts, tend to be passionate on the subject, and may consider it to be the single issue that decides a vote. Indeed, it has been credited with providing the margin of victory in Squadron’s upset of thirty year incumbent Martin Connor in the Democratic primary four years ago.
Among those who spoke in favor of proceeding with the housing and hotel option were Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy chair Nancy Bowe and executive director Nancy Webster, whose remarks tracked the points made in the Conservancy’s press release yesterday. Webster stressed that the Conservancy supports the current revenue plan but “advocates the least amount of development needed.” While other sources of revenue aren’t adequate to meet the Park’s needs, she said, they could serve to reduce the scale of housing and hotel space required. She also added a note of urgency, observing that the City will not release capital funds for further construction of the Park until it is satisfied that there is sufficient revenue available for maintenance and operations. Bowe began by observing that “everyone wants to know, ‘When will the Park be done?'” She argued, as did Webster, that the presence of housing on the Park’s periphery would not result in “privatization” that would discourage visitors to the Park, noting that the existence of One Brooklyn Bridge Park for some time has had no such effect. Bowe also mentioned the oft-heard argument that residents would provide “eyes on the Park”, adding that they would make it “vibrant and lively 24 hours a day.” Tupper Thomas, now retired, said that when she became administrator of Prospect Park, considered by designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux to have been the crown jewel of their career, it had fallen into disrepair. She said if they had the foresight to include housing in the periphery of the Park to generate revenue for maintenance, this would not have happened.
Other supporters of housing generally followed these points. Some, such as DUMBO Improvement District executive director Alexandria Sica and Robert Elmes of Galapagos Art Space, stressed the benefit to local businesses from the increased population and foot traffic the new residences and hotel would generate. By contrast, Sandy Balboza, president of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, which represents businesses along that thoroughfare, opposed housing, arguing instead for a Park Improvement District as well as other alternatives. She also said she supported the “Manheim Plan” respecting the Watchtower properties. The question of the possible use of revenues from these properties, which the Watchtower plans to vacate when they move upstate, was a contentious one. Supporters of moving forward with housing argued that the possibility of realizing revenues from these properties was speculative, both as to amount and timing. Tony Manheim, Heights resident and long-term Park supporter, who opposes housing in the Park, argued that the City was in a position to take the properties by eminent domain, and could use this as the means for negotiating a favorable deal with Watchtower. Another supporter of the Manheim Plan was Roy Sloane, president of the Cobble Hill Association and a long time foe of housing in the Park.
Some neighborhoods were divided on the housing issue. Ben Bankson, president of the Willowtown Association, spoke against housing, arguing for funding through a Park Improvement District. He said Willowtown residents would gladly pay the PID assessment, which he estimated at about one dollar per day. Clint Padgett, a Willowtown Association member, argued that the planned 31 story building near the Pier 6 entrance was “excessive” and would drastically alter “a historic skyline largely unchanged since the nineteenth century.” But Willowtown resident and architect Wids De La Cour argued in favor of housing as the best way to assure prompt completion of the Park and a secure source of funding for maintenance and operations.
Several members of the Sierra Club, including local resident and former City Council primary candidate Ken Baer, argued against housing on the principle that all parks should be funded out of general revenues and, as public amenities, should not be required to be self-supporting. Another point made by Baer, and by several others, is that the design of the Park has become too “extravagant.” Doug Biviano, another former City Council, and later State Assembly primary candidate, proposed eliminating the footbridge from Squibb Park over both the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Furman Street and replacing it with a ramp and a pedestrian crossing of Furman with a stop light, as well as reducing the size of the noise-baffling berm to be built parallel to Furman Street and minimizing other planned “earthworks.” He also suggested, as did one other speaker, eliminating the “duplicate bureaucracies” of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and the Conservancy, although the Conservancy is privately funded. A particular target of some speakers who advocated cost cutting is the “perched wetland” planned for the outer part of Pier 6. Paul Thompson, principal of the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art, located near the Park, took no position on the housing issue other than to say that he wanted “the Park available ASAP” for his students. He also said he was amused by the concept of a perched wetland, and thought it might provide a good study problem for a physics class.
Written statements on the BAE Draft Report will be accepted until April 25 (note: the deadline was originally April 23), and will be given equal consideration with oral testimony given at the hearing. They should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. A PDF of the draft report, or of its executive summary, can be downloaded through the Brooklyn bridge Park website.
Within thirty days of the April 25 deadline for submission of testimony, BAE will issue its final report. This will be followed by another public meeting, after which the Park’s board will decide what recommendations, if any, to adopt.
Photo by C. Scales for BHB