BHB Exclusive: Q & A with Martin Hale & Lori Schomp of People for Green Space

BHB: PFGS has asked for financial transparency from BBPC; how much is PFGS willing to reveal about their funding?

MH: We are happy to be transparent. We have had a range of donors from small to large. Some donors wish to be anonymous, and we must respect those wishes.

It is important to note, however, that we have a different social contract than the city, which handles hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The BBPC didn’t even give out the development partners [for the proposed Pier 6 towers]. As a public organization, they have an obligation that is serious and that is being breached willfully.

BHB: When you came to Willowtown almost two years ago, how much did you know about Brooklyn Bridge Park?

LS: I’d worked for the city and knew about the so-called innovative funding structure of BBP—the idea of a park that would pay for itself.

I don’t know that the park was really on my radar screen at all [when first arriving in Willowtown]. I got to know my neighbors and they started talking to me about it. I really found out about Pier 6 and their concerns from my neighbors. When I moved to this little corner of the world, I was immediately enchanted by Willowtown, by the Willowtown Association, by the people who care about Willowtown—it’s a really special corner of the world.

The more I started to use some skills that I happen to have as a public finance person…[the more it seemed] like a ball of yarn supported this project. I began to see all these different things which became sources of concern.

There were a lot of people who had been fighting this for a decade, and they were looking for someone who could bring a new approach, a new perspective. This may not sound very modest, but I feel like they’ve asked us to play the role that we’re playing now [as the face of the Save Pier 6 movement].

Crazily enough I agreed.

BHB: What was the “Ah ha!” moment that crystallized your desire to take action about Pier 6?

LS: I look in my heart [and ask] “What’s the best thing? What’s the moral situation?” For me, the “Ah ha!” moment was seeing how quickly Brooklyn was changing, and that Wall Street Journal image of how little park space Brooklyn has… and I really wondered “Are we thinking about the future here?”

I was thinking about this one day as I was running up Atlantic [Avenue]—I love that whole stretch of Atlantic, the shops, the community. Looking at the end of that whole corridor and thinking that will not be the grand entrance to the park that was envisioned in the 2000 plan [but will] be this private place for people to live in. I think [that] was an “ah ha!” moment. Brooklyn’s going to change no matter what, but is this really the best we can do?

The message is, affordable housing is not a free pass to ignore and violate the other variables of a good city, including park space, neighborhood character, and urban design.

MH: Vincent Scully’s architecture class [at Yale] about contextuality. It started with the skyscrapers in Queens – thinking about how the entire waterfront has been built by developers.

Manhattan is filled with excellent urban design examples that are -also middle-income or low-income housing—see Phelps Plaza on Second Ave and 27th Street (now Kips Bay Court). This is 20 to 25 stories—all affordable housing, built near transit, and in the middle of Manhattan. So 25 stories looks OK here- but not on the Brooklyn waterfront. It is way too tall. And the Times soft pedaling this as if “about 31″ stories looming over a park and over Brooklyn Heights is OK is just plain ignorant.

If the Mayor wants an affordable city that ignores all aesthetic values, then he should say so. But then why have urban design and historic districts at all? If his urban planners have any commitment to both design and social variables, then they should put dense affordable housing where it belongs- on the LICH site perhaps, but not on the waterfront.

The mayor also needs to make a more serious commitment to building affordable housing than just simply slapping some additional units by fiat on every poorly conceived luxury project that pops up around the city.

First of all, the luxury projects are badly conceived. Second of all, affordable housing should be considered with other neighborhood and urban design amenities, which is what Bloomberg (hardly a social housing advocate) did in his middle-income development at Hunter’s Point. These buildings are tall—but they are tall as part of a larger urban design scheme, and there is no historic district 100 feet away.

The BBP scheme is the opposite—no urban design, just tall towers shoehorned into tiny sites looming over the park.

The message is, affordable housing is not a free pass to ignore and violate the other variables of a good city, including park space, neighborhood character, and urban design.

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  • William Schomp

    Bringing decisions about development in their community to the people of that community should be one cornerstone of a democratic society. I support the people of Brooklyn Heights in their effort to engage in democracy. Vty, William Schomp.