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The rise of New York’s new leisure waterfront

How all of this looks and feels—whether it’s clever or profane—depends on how you feel about the deindustrialization of the waterfront

Hunter’s Point South
© Albert Vecerka/Esto

One sunny afternoon about a year ago, I rendezvoused with two old friends for a beer. Each of us arrived on a CitiBike from our respective neighborhoods. We convened at a newly opened outdoor bar—really, just a line of picnic tables—in front of the swank hotel near the Old Fulton Street entrance to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Afterward, I biked home along the Brooklyn waterfront with one of my friends. As we parted ways on the edge of Red Hook, we commented on how different this version of New York City is, how much more good-natured it is than the one that existed when we first lived here back in the 1980s. The New York City of the 21st century, I thought, is not half bad.

This observation, born of sunshine, endorphins, and beer, is a loaded one. It’s an admission—rare for me—that the New York City we live in, with its inexorable gentrification, soulless condo towers, stultifying chain store incursions, and dearth of rough edges, might, in some way be preferable to that city of legend, the one in which parks belonged to drug dealers; bikes could not be shared, only stolen; and the water’s edge was something you accessed by shimmying through a hole in a fence.

Of course, that old New York City, all disinvestment and squalor, still exists. Read, for example, the recent report by the Center for an Urban Future about New York City’s aging public parks, which are starved of funds for both capital improvements and maintenance. “A significant share of the city’s public parks are several decades old, years behind on basic maintenance, and increasingly at risk of infrastructure failures,” the report asserts.

Even marquee destinations like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, underwritten by an Alliance that takes in over $10 million a year from a variety of sources, including private donations, doesn’t have the money to address persistent problems. “We have incredible flooding. … Our drains are old and broken and need to be fixed. It’s debilitating, and we can’t keep up,” Prospect Park Alliance President Sue Donoghue notes in the report. The situation is infinitely worse for parks that can’t draw on deep-pocketed benefactors.

Compare these struggling parks to the 21st-century nirvanas that have transformed what was once a working waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens into a coastline—a destination for volleyball players, sunbathers, roller skaters, strollers, and more. These parks are well-equipped, pristine, and thriving. Much of this is due to the fact that the new parks rely on alternative sources of funding, often tied directly or indirectly to real estate development.

The commingling of public and private interests is a common thread linking the three major park openings along the East River that have made 2018 a banner year for the recreational waterfront. In early June, there was the debut of Domino Park, occupying a quarter mile of the Brooklyn waterfront and part of a massive development that is itself just one component of the wholesale reinvention of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. A couple of weeks later, the second phase of an 11-acre park that’s part of the jumbo Hunter’s Point South development was inaugurated in Queens. And finally, in early July, Brooklyn Bridge Park launched Pier 3, the last of the landscaped piers on which most of the 1.3-mile park’s activities take place.

What these parks represent is a comprehensive reimagining of a once-neglected waterfront. What’s begun to emerge is a distinct place, different in texture than the city directly inland (or upland, as the people who make these places like to say). Much of New York is still dominated by buildings and design ideas from centuries past, but the transformation of the waterfront is largely a 21st-century enterprise, one that’s taken on a life of its own since 2007, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg released PlaNYC 2030, a vision for a greener city that cast waterfront development as a moral imperative. While Mayor Bill de Blasio has embraced the vision to the extent that it offers opportunities for his affordable housing agenda, the waterfront that’s emerging—the pleasurable city where conspicuous affluence underwrites the common good is—for better or worse, Bloombergian.

Hunter’s Point South
Albert Vecerka
Hunter’s Point South
Bill Tatham
Hunter’s Point South
David Lloyd

Take, for example, Hunter’s Point South. Once home to gasworks and other heavy industry, it was first targeted for redevelopment in 1983 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the state of New York. Later the site became a focal point for one of the Bloomberg administration’s big dreams: a bid for New York City to host the 2012 Olympics. The site then known as Queens West was to be the Olympic Village, as rendered by Morphosis, with quarters for 16,000 athletes and support staff; after the games were over, it would have housed 18,000 New Yorkers. When London instead snagged the games, Bloomberg decided the site, purchased by the city in 2009, would be the place to put thousands of apartments for New Yorkers earning between $60,000 and $145,000—his administration’s answer to Stuyvesant Town.

Now under the auspices of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and nearly built out, Hunter’s Point South will soon have 5,000 units of housing, mostly rentals, 60 percent of which should be available at less than market rate. It also has schools, a library (a much-delayed branch designed by Steven Holl), and a big, glorious waterfront park operated and maintained by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The 11 acres of parkland, including the newly opened 5.5-acre section and adjacent infrastructure, cost $160 million. It was paid for by the EDC and the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency, not the parks department.

I recently biked twice to the new park from Brooklyn, pedaling across the Pulaski Bridge and along Jackson Avenue in the older part of Long Island City. That thoroughfare’s once-sleepy commercial district was, on both my trips, intensely congested, its bike lanes rendered useless by double-parked cars and trucks. As I rode west, toward the waterfront high rises, that familiar New York intensity drained away. I was suddenly in a different town, one featuring widely spaced high-rise apartment towers and populated by joggers, walkers, parents, and nannies pushing baby carriages. No one in this version of New York City appeared to be in a hurry to go anywhere. I felt a gentle breeze off the river and noticed locals lounging on swooping wooden chairs; the vibe was that of a sleepy resort town that happened to be directly opposite the UN. Depending on your frame of mind, it was either heaven or the setting for an episode of Black Mirror.

Of course, I’ve been to Hunter’s Point South before. I had previously visited Gantry Plaza State Park, the northernmost and earliest section of waterfront park completed in 1998 and designed by landscape architect Thomas Balsley, who also designed the new Hunter’s Point South parks, along with the firm Weintraub & di Domenico. It was a phenomenal place back then, sensual and strange, with industrial leftovers—the big cranes that once moved rail cars onto barges—as its symbols.

When the late Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic, reviewed Gantry Plaza in 1998, he noted: “The curse that reduced New York’s landscape architects to creating Disney versions of Central Park has been at least temporarily lifted.” The contemporary example I call to mind would be the Battery Park City Esplanade, completed in 1996, which was both formal and historicist—trying its best to look like it had always been there.

When Gantry Plaza opened, only one of 11 projected residential towers in the area had been completed; the park felt more like an novelty than a harbinger, a spot for an exotic day trip rather than the focal point of a community. I’m not sure that anyone quite understood that this oddball patch of greenery, accompanied by an isolated 42-story apartment building, would eventually expand to cover 30 acres of waterfront, and that miles of the East River would be redeveloped in similar fashion. It wasn’t until late 2009, when the EDC presented its plan for the area that the vision became clear: a cluster of towers built out by non-profit developers such as Phipps Houses and commercial firms like Related Companies and TF Cornerstone; a number of public facilities like schools, and a verdant, gently meandering waterfront.

Balsley, now the managing principal of SWA/Balsley, also saw his Queens breakthrough as “an alternative to the Battery Park City model.” The Queens West Development Corporation, a state agency, initially hoped to enlarge the Long Island City site by filling in the East River, but environmental regulations (see the Westway lawsuit) forbade dumping more fill in the river. But the developer’s loss was the designers’ gain: “We’re going to actually celebrate this diverse kind of crazy shoreline that we were given,” Balsley remembers thinking. “We had four piers; we had these peninsulas going in and out. We leveraged that into the opportunity for an extraordinarily different kind of waterfront experience, one that allows people to wander in and out, go closer to the water, back from it, shifting perspectives … all that really comes with that kind of a diverse shoreline.”

When it came time to design the rest of the Hunter’s Point South parkland, a team that included Balsley, plus the architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, was organized by the engineering firm Arup. The first phase, five acres that opened in 2013, is all wonderfully unnatural and abstract; an oval-shaped field is the dominant feature, cradled on one side by a shade pavilion, which ascends skyward on V-shaped pillars. On a recent weekday morning, it was a happy mob scene, with scores of babies and caregivers participating in a sing-along, older kids playing soccer in the oval, and younger kids digging in the sand beneath the beach volleyball nets.

Meanwhile, the second phase of the project, which was designed to be more contemplative, was not especially crowded. The most interesting thing about this section, aside from its nearly natural beauty, is over an acre of newly established wetlands. Nearly every recent park along the water’s edge, including the Gowanus Canal’s Sponge Park and the manmade hills of Governors Island, is designed, in part, to mitigate damage from rising sea levels. They are what you might call soft flood control infrastructure, rather than hard infrastructure like a sea wall. Sure, the parks increase the value of the adjacent real estate, but they also protect that same real estate from storm surges.

In this case, the wetlands are also a sort of historic reproduction. Manfredi speculates that perhaps 200 years ago, the site was originally a salt marsh, like most areas along the East River (which is really a tidal estuary). But by the mid-20th century, the land on which the park’s second phase sits became a dumping ground for the dirt from the Midtown Tunnel. It’s perched higher than anything else in the vicinity—great for views—and any trace of its natural configuration had long ago been obliterated.

The new wetlands, carefully planted several months before the park opened with red switchgrass, smooth cordgrass, and bitter panicgrass, are protected from the East River’s strong currents by berms, constructed of loose stone known as rip rap. They’re a reimagining of what the Queens waterfront may have been like before the Europeans showed up. “We’re retaining some sense of wildness,” says Weiss, but it’s a civilized kind of wildness; for example, a concrete pathway follows the water’s edge atop the berm that shelters the wetlands.

In the interest of adding more wetlands to the project (as mandated by the Army Corps of Engineers), the team transformed a peninsula into an island, reachable by a bridge and separated from land by a salt marsh that fills with water during high tide. The island is a supremely isolated spot, a grassy area with an artwork (by Nobuho Nagasawa) that traces the phases of the moon, and looks out at the least isolated place imaginable, directly across the river.

“It’s not natural, but it is a new kind of constructive nature,” Weiss explains. “We love the idea that something is 100 percent constructed and 100 percent natural.”

While the newest piece of Hunter’s Point South feels convincingly like a coastal meadow that might have existed centuries ago, Domino Park, located on the Williamsburg waterfront, is more aggressively manmade. Positioned as the front yard of the 3.3 million-square-foot mixed-use complex on the site of the former Domino Sugar refinery, its six acres of activities are carefully apportioned, like chocolates in a Whitman’s Sampler.

Domino Park
©Daniel Levin
Domino Park
©Daniel Levin
Domino Park
©Daniel Levin

Under a controversial 2005 rezoning intended to goose the residential makeover of industrial Brooklyn, high-rise buildings were encouraged along the East River in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but the developers had to provide public access to the water. Most developers followed the letter of the law, providing the items on a checklist issued by City Planning: a certain percentage of space covered with planting, a certain ratio of linear seating to length of walkway. The results in Williamsburg have been less than stellar.

But Domino developer Two Trees, as a gesture of goodwill to an often-hostile neighborhood, invested $50 million in a larger and more elaborate park than the rules stipulated. Two Trees hired a full-time horticulturalist and small army of maintenance staff who can be seen everywhere, polishing and tidying.

Domino Park looks a lot like a substantial upgrade of the decade-old park near Ikea in Red Hook, which itself is a direct descendant of Gantry Plaza. That store was built on the site of a working shipyard; industrial remnants, like cranes and tools, were used by one of Balsley’s Gantry Plaza collaborators, Lee Weintraub, to create a bit of post-industrial allure.

Domino, too, celebrates industrial archeology. The entire park, in fact, is built on a raised platform that was originally part of the refinery, according to Lisa Switkin, senior principal at James Corner Field Operations, the landscape firm best known for its work on the High Line. “Barges and things would pull up to the edge and unload materials—in this case, the raw sugar,” Switkin tells me. “It had a bulkhead platform edge, so this site has been like that for 160 years-plus.”

And while there are planted areas framed by weathered steel barriers, and active recreation areas—a very popular water feature for kids, a bocce court, a smallish dog run—much of the park is dominated by artifacts of the sugar industry recast as objets d’art. Screw conveyors and sugar tanks are treated as sculptures, while a pair of gantry cranes and a phalanx of steel columns form an elevated walkway. A playground, by artist Mark Reigelman, pays homage to Domino by “taking children through a fun-filled representation of the sugar refining process.” The refinery building itself still stands, looming over the park, and is being converted into office space.

How all of this looks and feels—whether it’s clever or profane—depends a lot on how you feel about the deindustrialization of the waterfront.

To its credit, Two Trees tried to address one of the biggest problems with the 2005 rezoning. The rules didn’t require the waterfront access areas to be connected to one another. While regulations call for “a continuous walkway” along the shoreline of each development site, there’s no requirement that the walkway of one development link to the next. What’s evolved, then, is a patchwork of enclaves. The most basic thing you want from any waterfront is to walk unencumbered along it, but that will never happen in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Domino Park does abut the existing city park at the foot of Grand Street, and Two Trees has extended River Street, formerly a dead end, through the site. Still, there’s a limit to what the developers can do about the fact that their lovely park exists in isolation.

Brooklyn Bridge Park
Max Touhey
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Max Touhey
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Max Touhey

Considering the glaring flaws in the Williamsburg waterfront scheme, the product of a wholesale transformation done via zoning rather than planning, it’s unfair that the park that takes the most abuse from politically-minded critics is the one that gets it right. Brooklyn Bridge Park is the Bloombergian reuse of a 1.3-mile string of piers built by the Port Authority in the 1950s that, by 1989, when development plans for the waterfront began to percolate, were used primarily for storage. It offers access to the water, extraordinary vistas of Lower Manhattan, and provides a nice, off-road conduit for bikers, walkers, and runners. It’s not all that big—85 acres compared to Prospect Park’s 585 or Central Park’s 843—but its length (compounded by the walkways around each pier) and the spectacular setting give it grandeur.

The park was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, who started work in 2004. Pier 3, which opened in July, is the last of six piers to be converted to recreational use. “Each one of these piers is the size of Bryant Park,” notes A. Paul Seck, a principal at MVVA who’s been engaged with the park since day one. Each is about five acres in area and, as Brooklyn Bridge Park president Eric Landau points out, they alternate between active and passive uses; Pier 3 is passive, with gently undulating green. “This is our Long Meadow,” says Landau. “This is our Great Lawn.”

Like the designers of Domino, the MVVA team tried hard to reuse what they encountered on the site, but the end result is more subtle. “We found out that we had miles and miles and miles of these two-by-six joists,” says Seck. He’s talking about wood salvaged from a couple of storage buildings that the design team dreamed of converting into something else, a hotel maybe. Instead they demolished the buildings and recycled the materials. “It was longleaf yellow pine, which was mainly used for the masts and for the boats in the harbor,” Seck explains. “But it had a strength to it that was like the tensile strength of steel. We were able to reuse all of that wood for the benches.”

Similarly, they turned granite from the demolition of the Roosevelt Island Bridge into tiered seating for Pier 1 and reused extra tall light poles that the Port Authority had originally installed on the future park’s piers in the 1950s. “They were actually made in Brooklyn,” says Seck. “We took those down, and we reinstalled them back in.”

The result is a park that is thoroughly designed without being too self-conscious. Its industrial gestures tend to be forward looking. For example, a newly constructed building containing a boathouse, maintenance facility, and public restrooms near Pier 5 was designed by the firm ARO as a rugged steel grid. It’s industrial in spirit, but utterly without nostalgia. On Pier 2, there are stenciled icons, designed by the firm Open, that use simple pictograms indicating the different available activities, such as people jumping or skating. They’re clear and representational, cute but not too cute. The overall aesthetic feels genuinely like the MVVA team created it in response to the site and the moment.

Critics of Brooklyn Bridge Park, however, don’t generally go after its design. Instead, they take issue with the fact that its operations are funded by real estate development: a hotel, an adjacent condo building at the north end of the park, and three apartment buildings (including the adaptive reuse of a former Jehovah’s Witness warehouse) at the other end, plus rents the park charges to concessions like Ample Hills Creamery and Fornino Pizza.

The city funds the park’s capital projects, like the conversion of Pier 3 into a meadow, and provided $12.6 million last year. But the operating expenses, to the tune of $18.6 million in 2017, are supplied by ground lease rents on the development sites and something called PILOT payments, or “payment in lieu of taxes.” According to Landau, Brooklyn Bridge Park is “completely self-sustaining” thanks to the revenue generated by those developments, which cover “100 percent of the day-to-day operating costs.”

The conventional wisdom is a park paid for privately is something less than a park. Most recently, writer Robert Sullivan, in an essay on development and inequality for the online journal Places, argued, “Brooklyn Bridge Park is an amenity underwritten by the costly residences that overlook the recreational spaces.”

“When you spend time in the park, you begin to feel that the public has come up short in the partnership,” Sullivan contends, “that in return for the underwriting, the park has become an extension of the condos and the hotel.”

In fact, Brooklyn Bridge Park was dreamed up in the 1990s by a consortium of neighborhood groups as a brake on development. At the outset, the goal was to prevent Port Authority from selling its piers to private developers who would build towers obscuring views from Brooklyn Heights. Early on, the concept was that the park would be built and paid for by a combination of public and private funds; the latter, essential to the park’s maintenance, would come from the developer fees and ground leases on a hotel, a marina, and other buildings. But the arrangement has sometimes generated acrimony, most recently when Brooklyn Bridge Park pushed for the construction of two apartment buildings, one luxury and one affordable, at the south end of the park. Neighborhood residents were quoted sounding a great deal like Sullivan. “I think with this development of the park, it’s going to cease to be a park—it’s going to become a backyard for wealthy people,” said one man in local news story.

In truth, if you really wanted to go after the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the PILOT program is where you’d dig in. Instead of paying taxes to the city’s coffers—where, in an ideal world, those funds would be distributed equitably among the city’s parks—developers make equivalent payments to this one park. (Hudson Yards has a similar arrangement to pay the cost of the extension of the 7 train.) It’s unfair that Brooklyn Bridge Park has more than enough money to cover its maintenance needs while other parks struggle, but there’s no guarantee that if PILOT money went into the city’s coffers, the neglected parks—like those cited in the Center for an Urban Future report—would benefit.

Before Piers 1 and 6 opened to the public in 2010, I was on the side of the naysayers. On principle, I disapproved of the funding concept. Then the park opened and became a very compelling argument for its own goodness. Go to Brooklyn Bridge Park, look around, and tell me that the only people who benefit are the wealthy residents of adjacent condos—I doubt you’d come to that conclusion. Also, while most waterfront parks in New York City are the byproducts of residential development schemes, Brooklyn Bridge Park turns that formula on its head; the developments are a byproduct of the park scheme. To me, this seems like a saner approach.

Which brings me back to my beery observation. It is tempting to write off the recreational waterfront that’s emerged over the past couple of decades as something false, or too sweet to be genuinely New York. But the parts of the recreational waterfront—such as Hunter’s Point South and Brooklyn Bridge Park—where cohesive plans were made and executed, where good designers rolled out parkland over time, may be as authentic as the thing we lost, the industrial city, the gritty place.

This doesn’t mean that every inch of waterfront should be recreational and residential, or that we can afford to let the remaining industrial places slip away. But as much as I miss living in a city where ruins can simply be ruins—instead of design objects or play structures or “industrial-inspired” condos—I think the best waterfront parks offer something profound. They remind us that we live in a city surrounded by water, and that our future—assuming we have one—will hinge on how skillfully we negotiate the line where the city meets the water’s edge.

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