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Long-stalled Willoughby Square Park scraps parking lot, adds abolitionist memorial

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The green space was promised to Downtown Brooklyn 15 years ago

A rendering of the long-stalled Willoughby Square Park.
Economic Development Corporation

The city has revived plans for a Downtown Brooklyn park promised 15 years ago—just without a subterranean parking lot and the private developer originally set to build it.

A Willoughby Street green space built above a high-tech, underground parking lot was promised to the community as part of a neighborhood rezoning in 2004, but despite years of planning the NYC Economic Development Cooperation (EDC) scrapped the plan in January after it said the project’s builder, Long Island-based American Development Group, failed to finance the Willoughby Square Park development.

Now, some five months later, the 1.15-acre park project is back on but instead of a some $80 million project with a “financially unfeasible underground garage,” EDC will transform the entire site into an estimated $15 million green haven for Downtowners with a permanent memorial commemorating the neighborhood’s abolitionist history, city officials say.

“We’re committed to creating open space that meets the needs of this growing community while honoring its historic legacy and look forward to moving ahead with this new development plan,” said EDC’s president James Patchett.

The city expects shovels to hit the ground by 2020 and for the new parkland to be complete by 2022. Ramps that were expected to accommodate the garage will be converted into useable green space, according to EDC. The “need for parking has lessened” given the area’s abundance of public transit options since the park and garage were originally pitched, according to EDC evaluations. No parking is included in the new plan.

Lenny Singletary, the chairperson of the neighborhood’s Community Board 2 praised the move to nix the high-tech garage in favor of speeding up the long-stalled project. “Downtown Brooklyn is rich in public transportation options and eliminating the garage will expedite construction of the open space,” said Singletary.

The city actually aims to open a portion of the long-stalled park as soon as this summer as EDC’s capital division works to finalize the design and development plan, and build the space itself instead of relying on a private developer. In lieu of a futuristic parking garage, city officials are opting to embrace the neighborhood’s history as a major player in the 19th century abolitionist movement with a memorial that highlights the Underground Railroad and its Brooklyn ties.

Long before Brooklyn was veined with subway lines, it was a hotbed for the Underground Railroad—a network of safe houses that helped thousands of slaves escape the south before the Civil War. Brooklyn, which was home to several antislavery churches and activists, was a crucial nexus on the “freedom trail.” A short walk from where Willoughby Square Park will rise is Plymouth Church of the Pilgrim—a Grand Central Terminal among railway stops—and Duffield Street between Fulton and Willoughby Streets, which the city dubbed Abolitionist Place to honor those who once shepherded slaves there through the Underground Railroad.

Few structures from that time still stand, but a two-story redbrick building at 227 Duffield Street that was once the home of celebrated abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell remains. It came under threat in 2007 when the city attempted to seize it and other properties on the block through eminent domain. The historic buildings would have been razed and transformed into the southwest corner of Willoughby Square Park, but after fierce pushback, and a lawsuit brought by the owners and community members, the city agreed to reverse course and rejigger its plan to work around the Duffield Street property. Others still were booted from area homes to pave the way for development, some of which were rent-stabilized while others may have been stops on the Underground Railroad.

The marker that would memorialize the area’s complex abolitionist history aims to build on the work of In Pursuit of Freedom—a public history project the seeks to highlight the heros of Brooklyn’s anti-slavery movement created by the Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center, and the Irondale Ensemble Project. It also aligns with the city’s push to diversify its statues and monuments.

“Across the city, we’ve been actively collaborating with residents to bring new monuments to our public spaces that reflect the full breadth and diversity of NYC’s people and history,” said NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl. “We’re excited to expand these efforts to Willoughby Square.”

Together, DCA and EDC will begin the process of selecting an artist to design the abolitionist memorial. Artists interested in being considered for the project can reach out to percent@culture.nyc.gov. Requests will be reviewed on a rolling basis.