Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Squibb Bridge has been plagued with problems since it opened in 2013, including one lawsuit, multiple structural snafus, and years of closures to address those issues. Most recently, it closed at the beginning of August after a piece of rotting wood was discovered, compromising the structural integrity of the whole thing.
But rather than implement a fix that may only temporarily solve the problem, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which manages the 85-acre green space, is taking a more drastic approach to fixing the bridge this time around: They’ll say goodbye to the old span almost in its entirety, replacing everything but the ground support structure with a new, prefabricated steel and aluminum crossing. Assuming all goes according to plan, the new bridge should open by mid-2020.
“You would never hope to have to fully replace something that you just built,” says Eric Landau, the president of BBPC. “And you would certainly never hope you’d have to replace something not only that you just built, but that you just fixed. So of course that is disappointing and unfortunate. But we are all about figuring out the path forward.”
That path was determined by an assessment of the current span by the engineering firm Arup, which BBPC brought on in 2016 to help fix its original structural problems. Arup, along with a wood specialist (Squibb is made of black locust, a typically high-density, durable lumber), concluded that the decaying piece of timber was part of a larger pattern of deterioration.
Ultimately Arup presented the park’s operators with two options: Either retrofit the current bridge with, essentially, a metal brace, or rebuild the whole thing from scratch. They chose the latter.
“We feel really, really strongly that having a functional bridge that doesn’t call into question whether or not it’s going to be open is paramount,” explains Landau. According to Arup’s assessment—which was also reviewed by Thornton Tomasetti, NYC DOT’s department of bridges, and the city’s Public Design Commission—a total replacement would be both structurally and economically better in the long run.
“We’re super focused on moving forward and figuring out, how do we have a functional bridge that serves the real purpose, which is getting people to and from Brooklyn Heights and the Park, and vice versa,” says Landau.
A brief history of the bridge, which connects the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to Pier 1 via a zig-zagging pathway over Furman Street: It was designed by Ted Zoli, the winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, and opened to the public in 2013. But by 2014, it closed for what was supposed to be a short period for repairs, which were initially estimated at $700,000. It ended up staying closed until April 2017 and costing $3 million to fix. In that nearly three-year period, the BBPC filed a $3 million lawsuit against HNTB for poor execution of a flawed design. (The case was settled “with no admission of liability on either side,” according to Landau.) But the bridge was open for only 15 months; it’s now been closed for longer than it was ever open.
The new bridge, which will be engineered and designed by Arup, will be fitted atop the current concrete pilings, and will be “a somewhat customized, off the shelf, prefabricated thing,” according to Landau. It’ll still be 450 feet long, and still hover over Furman Street.
But its bounce—once a selling point for Squibb—will no longer be a thing. “Right now we are super focused on functionality,” says Landau. “What we have learned from this is that having the bridge in and of itself, especially considering the number of people that are using it, that’s the amenity. And the truth of the matter is that when we retrofitted it previously, a lot of the bounce was taken away as a result of that retrofit.”
In terms of price, the new bridge will cost $6.5 million, which will come out of the park’s capital reserve fund. (The retrofitting option, for comparison, would cost $4 million.) That’s in addition to the original $4 million to build the original bridge, and $3.4 million to fix it. BBPC also received close to $2 million in its settlement with HNTB.
Building a new bridge is just one of several challenges BBPC is facing in the coming years: There are still two sections of the park that have yet to be finished (the Pier 2 uplands, due to open in 2020, and a currently unused portion below the Brooklyn Bridge), and construction on the Squibb Park pool, which was announced in June, is expected to kick off sometime next year.
There’s also the looming specter of the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which runs alongside Brooklyn Bridge Park. NYC DOT is currently looking at several options for overhauling the crumbling BQE, including one proposed by Brooklyn Heights residents that would put a temporary roadway in the park, where its sound-dampening berms currently stand.
“We’ve been in regular contact and coordination with DOT, and DOT has said that their project is not expected to impact our timeline,” Landau notes. That being said, he acknowledges that there’s a chance that the agency’s final choice for the roadway project could disrupt the park and its ongoing projects.
“If DOT comes in and says, ‘The only way that we can do this is to run the temporary highway through the berms,’ look, my job first and foremost is to protect the park,” Landau explains. “Having said that, the BQE project, is one of the, if not the most, one of the most critical infrastructure projects in the city. If DOT needs something from us, if they need information from us, we’re here to provide that. And if the only way to do it is through the berms, and that is feasible from an engineering, a timing, and a cost perspective, and it’s the only real option, then of course we’ll work with our partners in government.”
But right now, Landau and the BBPC are focused on figuring out what happens next. The old span is expected to be dismantled next fall; in the meantime, BBPC will be in conversation with its board, various city agencies, and community members about next steps, including picking a construction manager for the project, finalizing a design, and getting the 18-month process underway.
It’s not ideal, but Landau is optimistic about the future.
“I look at it from the perspective that so much about what makes Brooklyn Bridge Park the park, and so loved is that at every step of the way, we took numerous design risks—totally different than any other park across the city, or even elsewhere outside of the city, and 99 percent of those design risks have totally paid off,” Landau says. “This one didn’t, and we’re ready to say, ‘Okay, it’s worth moving on.’”