Four years after the waterfront’s rezoning, protestors ask, “Where’s My Park?”
Here, couples sun themselves on red rocks, long bleached wood boardwalks stretch for miles, and children clamber over jungle gyms that look out to harbor views. No—this is not North Brooklyn today, where the majority of the waterfront is seen through chain-link fence and our joggers ride the subway to the Hudson River’s path; these are the images illustrating the 2005 rezoning of North Brooklyn’s waterfront—these are what could be.
That rezoning, which allowed for high-rises on the waterfront that would raise the area’s population by about 20,000 was approved because it also promised to alleviate the congestion: a huge swath of open space would grace the East River. There would be 54 acres of uninterrupted parkland, bedecked with dog runs, boat docks, miles of jogging paths and even a maritime museum.
At the time, Councilwoman Melinda Katz said, “In 10 years, I can’t imagine what Williamsburg-Greenpoint is going to look like.” Four years later, it looks about the same. Of those planned parks, only one has been built—the East River Park, the only project that was paid for by State coffers, as opposed to the city’s—and only two have timelines set for possible openings. Transmitter park, at the West end of Greenpoint Ave, is set to open by July 4th, 2010. At Kent Ave. and North 12th street, the Bushwick Inlet Park’s first soccer field is set to open around the same time. Still, that park was originally designed to be 26 acres. The city currently owns less than five.
“At the time, the promises are what really helped to sell it,” said Ward Dennis, a blogger at Brooklyn11211 and a community board member of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG). Though the city never provided the neighborhood with a definite timeline, “I expected there would be more progress,” Dennis said. “To have two developments almost fully built out on the waterfront and nothing in terms of parks there is definitely unequal.”
Those who agreed gathered at last Saturday’s “Where’s My Park Day?” which played off the City Department of Parks event, “It’s My Park Day,” that unfolded quietly nearby. Organized by NAG in partnership with GWAPP, the event met some of its goals: In addition to protesting the slow speed of development, protestors advocated for better transparency on the status of the proposed parks. The day before the protest, the Deputy Mayor promised openly monthly meetings between the city’s Parks Department and the community.
The event started at the future site of the proposed Bushwick Inlet Park, where protestors held out cardboard signs asking, “Where’s My Park;” a park expert delivered a speech from a dead stump—“an appropriate symbol,” she said; and a Bulldog puppy, lacking his dog run, wore a sign that asked for it. Most sensational of all were local kids who had come dressed as zombies in ripped up soccer jerseys and hollow-cheeked, bloodless faces (achieved with black and white face-paint). Together, they sang a sad, somber jingle while attempting to row a canoe past a chain-link fence that separated the street from the proposed boat launch—now just a bog trashed with old, rusty TVs.
As the group of protestors followed a marching band from one nonexistent park to the other, the zombie teens attempted a picnic on the blacktop outside the proposed Transmitter Park and a soccer match on the rough concrete outside the Commercial Street lot. Said Dewey Thompson, the dad who had organized the kids into this pseudo DaDa spectacle of horrors, “We thought this somehow illustrates how kids are being robbed of these parks on the waterfront—robbed.”
While elsewhere in the city, residents enjoy more open space per capita, in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, 1,000 residents share only .6 acres. “Have you seen McCarren Park on a nice Sunday?” asked Emily Gallagher, who heads NAG’s Open Space division and organized the event. “It looks like India.”
By asking for speedier delivery, NAG is put in the position of seemingly criticizing the Parks Department, even though both are working toward the same end: More open space. “I think the Parks Department isn’t completely thrilled,” Gallagher said. “They’re unsure as to what we’re trying to say about them.”
“Obviously, the Parks Department wants to see parks built,” said Stephanie Thayer, of the Parks Department and the Open Space Alliance. But the criticism that the city has been too slow to provide these waterfront parks is, she says, “A real simplification—a number of different parks are at different stages.” Parks Department spokesman Phil Abramson noted that the city has already spent $55 million on open space in the neighborhood and is looking to spend $152 million more. That money goes toward more than benches and grass seeds. “It’s not a simple easy process,” Thayer said, noting that conceptual drawings must be reviewed, meet state, city, DEP, DEC, and design committee approval, not to mention that the land—which is not currently owned by the state—must be acquired (a process which often requires lengthy litigation) before being remediated. If the process is slower here than elsewhere, Thayer explained, it’s because in North Brooklyn, “We have a lot of complexities”—noting the area’s history of heavy industry. “Could it go faster? Yeah. But do you really want to skip any of those steps?”
“Of course we don’t want unsafe parks,” Gallagher said, “But there hasn’t been any communication with residents…It smells fishy.”
Still, when the land was zoned for parks in 2005, the city noted that “waterfront development poses a unique set of challenges” and is the most expensive type of development, due to environmental factors among others.
“Now with the new excuse of a recession, this event is even more important,” Gallagher said. “We want to educate citizens: This is what we were promised, this is what we can demand.
Politicians joined the citizen activists to agree that action has been slow. At “Where’s My Park Day?” council candidate Evan Thies was on hand alongside assemblyman Joe Lentol. “I’m here because the city promised us open space,” Lentol said. “And they’re yet to live up to that commitment.” About the speed of the process, he said, “They have given us excuses, but not reasons.”
The excuses go on for a while—Bushwick Inlet Park is made up of 30 parcels, only some of which has been acquired after litigation and all of which will require remediation. The proposed Barge Park, in North Greenpoint, has had difficulty relocating the “sludge tank” to make way for affordable housing. And a park set to occupy a swathe on Commercial Street has yet to be vacated by the MTA, despite the authority’s promise to leave when given an appropriate resting place, which they claim was not to be found among eight spaces proposed by the Bloomberg administration. Last Thursday, council member David Yassky held an event on the steps of city hall to push for action getting the MTA out. Gallagher didn’t think that boded well: “If the city can’t even effectively kick a state authority off the land, how can the city be expected to buy private land?”
“I don’t think the city is trying to reneg on their promises,” said Ward Dennis, of Brooklyn11211 and NAG. “I think for a variety of reasons, the city would like to move things forward.” And this, he believes, may be the best time to do so: Though city coffers are low, land is cheaper. And NAG protestors were happy to get citywide attention for the day’s efforts. Still, of her meeting with the Deputy Mayor, organizer Gallagher sighed: “It’s the same stuff they’ve always been telling us.”
As he set out for the protest Ed Michaleski, who lives just off the water on Oak Street, looked cheery. “A lot of people are tired of fighting this; people say, ‘Look—nothing’s accomplished. Why am I spinning my wheels?’ But other people are still fighting”—himself included.