Impatience Grows Over Promised Brooklyn Waterfront Park

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A look inside the unopened park reveals planters, benches and a unique park house. Some elements of the design fall short of initial hopes for the space.

Photo by: City Limits

A look inside the unopened park reveals planters, benches and a unique park house. Some elements of the design fall short of initial hopes for the space.

Everyone who’s gotten a sneak peak at the long-gestating Bush Terminal Piers Park, at the waterfront in Sunset Park, comes away impressed: It offers great views of Lower Manhattan, two ponds, a picnic area, a lawn and wooded zone, plus crucial recreation spaces, including a softball/baseball field and the neighborhood’s first official soccer field. A surprising sanctuary in an industrial area, the park represents the successful remediation of a brownfield site: a green, birdsong-fueled patch between 45th and 50th Streets at Sunset Park’s western flank.

With no firm timeline, however, people who’ve seen the park wonder when it will finally open, and offer relief to a teeming neighborhood that has less than one-third of the city’s standard of parkland per capita.

After all, $36 million in funding for the park—about half from the state for brownfield remediation, with the rest split between the city and federal governments—was announced in April 2006.

“Phase I construction, which may begin in late 2008, could take another two to three years to complete,” declared Brooklyn Community Board 7’s 197-a plan, submitted to the City Planning Commission in April 2008 and approved by the City Council in December 2009. Though a good walk from Sunset Park’s residential concentration, the park is expected to be linked to the emerging Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a 14-mile path, and also to local streetscape improvements.

That original construction schedule, apparently based on discussions with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC), was clearly ambitious. Brownfield remediation began in 2009. An updated timeline released in January 2013 indicated that the first phase of the park—encompassing 11 acres, not a once-promised site twice as large, with far more features—was supposed to open last fall, with the tab reaching $38.5 million.

Opening date slips

That date didn’t hold.

“They are not ready, but it’s looking spectacular,” said Community Board 7 District Manager Jeremy Laufer last November, after touring the site with several board members. At the time, he predicted a spring 2014 opening.

Since then, community members have inundated Laufer with questions. NYC EDC has been closemouthed, not responding to several queries from this reporter. (The agency is building the park, and will contribute to its maintenance after it’s turned over to the city Parks Department.)

Finally, at a meeting May 12, an answer of sorts emerged. A trio of NYC EDC staffers trooped to a Community Board 7 committee meeting to discuss their plans to revamp a pier at 58th Street, currently Sunset Park’s only place for public waterfront access.

Laufer asked for an update on the Bush Terminal Piers Park.

“We’re 95 percent complete with the construction,” responded Lydia Downing, a NYC EDC assistant vice president for government and community relations. “We have some construction hurdles and permitting that need to get completed. We are working diligently and are just as eager as everyone in the room to get that open. I hope to have a more concrete timeline to share soon.”

Laufer asked for specifics. Downing said she couldn’t be precise. “We’re not going to be open by summer?” asked a clearly frustrated Laufer.

“We are close. We are getting there,” Downing responded. “God knows it’s a huge improvement on what was there before. We have some construction issues that need to be worked out, and some conversations about how they’re going to be worked out, and how quickly that’s going to happen. As soon as I have those answers, I will share them with you.”

Downing’s cordial apologies didn’t placate everyone. One board member, Tom Murphy, sardonically suggested that the Land Use Committee should organize an “Occupy” event and take over the park.

“It’s a beautiful little spot there, even if you just want to watch birds,” said Murphy after the meeting, suggesting it might be usable now. (Photos from this past weekend show flowering plants, new benches, and garbage cans complete with liners.) The park, he added, is desperately needed to accommodate local baseball leagues, which scramble for space in nearby Bay Ridge.

“The lack of open space and environmental amenities,” said Ryan Chavez, infrastructure coordinator of the environmental justice group UPROSE, “is an exacerbating factor in our working class community of color that already faces significant environmental burdens.”

The new park, observed Maria Roca, founder of Friends of Sunset Park, should take some pressure off the neighborhood’s namesake park, where for at least a decade soccer players have dominated an area intended for passive enjoyment, making it impossible to grow grass.

Ambitious plans not yet realized

When it finally does open, the new park will be less than what was promised, thanks to budget constraints. There’s no children’s playground as planned, nor an environmental center that the original plan envisioned. Bases for lighting have been installed, but not the fixtures (a.k.a. “cobraheads”). While there’s one entrance planned, at 43rd Street, there’s no secondary egress at the south end of the park, as the community envisioned in the 197-a plan.

Also, Phase 2 of the park, part of a 23.7-acre plot, seems on permanent hold. (As of 2009, according to the 197-a plan, that second phase could cost $26 million to $34 million.) “As far as the Community Board is concerned, there is [a Phase 2],” Laufer said, “but EDC has not talked about one in two or three years.”

As described in the 197-a plan, Piers 1 through 4, part of the century-old Bush Terminal industrial complex, were actively used until 1974, when the city decided to have a private company densify the area between the piers with construction-related fill to develop a container terminal. After some 14 acres of landfill had been created, that work ended in 1978 when the company was cited for dumping hazardous waste.

Meanwhile, nature took its course, bringing grasses and vegetation to the site and turning it into something of a magnet for birds. In 1999, city officials working on port development were pushed by the community, notably UPROSE, for a new park. UPROSE helped secure the state brownfield grant.

A master plan for the park was developed between 2001 and 2003, with passive uses planned near the water in more “naturalized” areas, and playgrounds and athletic fields inland. Pier 5, part of Phase 2, was to support boat launching, food booths, miniature golf and outdoor space for community events.

“At a time when hundreds of millions of dollars are being found for the creation of the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Parks,” Board 7 said in a FY 2013 submission to the City Planning Commission regarding district needs, “it is insulting that our playground, environmental center and active pier have been taken out of the first phase of the park due to a $2 million dollar cost overrun in the environmental cleanup of the site.” After all, said the board, the environmental problem resulted from a lack of sufficient city oversight.

The park, located in an industrial section separated from Sunset Park’s main residential district by three long blocks, including the highway-like Third Avenue (itself under the BQE), won’t be easy to get to. Streetscape improvements likely will lag behind the park’s opening: a planning process with the city Department of Transportation may begin this summer, according to UPROSE’s Chavez, with implementation starting after two years.

The Community Board would like a bus running east-west to the park entrance at 43rd street. Roca points out that, without a bus, families with strollers may be deterred by the distance. (Two buses serve 39th Street.) A New York City Transit spokesman, responding to a query, said they’ve received no details about the park project, so they can’t comment on any new service for now.

Inside the park, the main structure—the administration/comfort station—was designed to be utilitarian while evoking industrial and natural context, according to Turett Collaborative Architects. They chose to repurpose surplus shipping containers, bound side-to-side, with an angled roof allowing natural light. Laufer said he’d been skeptical of a structure built from shipping containers, “but it works” and is more spacious than some feared.

To support the park, the Community Board will help set up a Friends group. For now, that’s on hold. “We are waiting,” Laufer said, “for the park to open.”