Doing Good Right Here: Witness to a New Waterfront

The Brooklyn Community Foundation’s office in DUMBO offers an exceptional perch for reflecting on the enormous arc of change that has taken place along the South Brooklyn waterfront over the past 30 years. What was once a bustling center of maritime and manufacturing is now home to an extraordinary range of new uses — large retail stores, warehousing of everything from fine art to beverages to large cruise ships and historic vessels. Former factories are now home to residential lofts and start-up design and media companies. And all along the waterfront, baby strollers and bicycles are increasingly replacing handcarts and fork lifts as the Brooklyn Bridge Park begins to reveal itself along its full 85-acre length and breadth — a grand community dream over 20 years in the making which has quickly become a new destination for Brooklynites and the world.

A Happy Ending? Not Quite Yet.

I was the city planner for this neighborhood when serious public discussions began in the late 1970s and early 1980s about converting the Port Authority’s largely inactive break-bulk piers into a waterfront park. At that time, we theorized that the capital monies to build the park would come from a combination of public sector sources — city, state and possibly federal dollars.

We also assumed that the baseline costs of park operations and maintenance, just as in any park in New York City at the time, would come from the city’s expense budget and be augmented by earned revenues from limited commercial franchises and special events which could also help pay for cultural and educational programming in the park. Then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden discouraged residential developers who expressed interest to the Port Authority in building along that waterfront because the community and civic leaders had already begun to focus on creation of a new model of a public waterfront park which was not dependent on residential development.

But, as the park finally took shape over the past decade, it became clear that our early assumption that the park’s operations would be augmented by a baseline budget from the public sector would no longer hold true. Despite the serious concerns of many community leaders and early park supporters, the concept of residential development in the park became embedded in the plan as the only way to pay for the new park’s maintenance and operations, estimated to be as much as $15 million a year. The plan to construct some 1,400 to 1,500 units of housing in the park remains the most controversial aspect of the park’s development.

Yet today, because of a unique intersection of events and circumstances, there just may be an opportunity to develop an alternate, less disruptive plan to generate an annual source of revenue to fund the park’s operations.

Several months ago, the Jehovah’s Witnesses announced plans to leave their historic headquarters in Brooklyn Heights for an out of state location. Rough estimates show that the Jehovah’s Witnesses property (all currently exempt from real estate taxes) totals over 2.8 million square feet of floor space in 15 buildings located on a mixture of residential and industrially zoned property. Much of this real estate adjoins Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the public sector to complete the original planning vision for the park by negotiating an agreement to purchase of all the Jehovah’s Witnesses property and then coordinate the sale and disposition of this property to the private sector and use the proceeds and the annual real estate taxes for the maintenance and upkeep of the park?

Right now, this massive amount of square footage contains less than 150 units of housing and no public retail or commercial space. Intelligent re-planning and rezoning of this property could result in excellent new housing opportunities for families, vibrant new retail space and new public investments in schools, streets, libraries, and other services.

Let’s use the 2.8 million square feet of lightly developed property overlooking the park to plan for the type of intelligent growth which would generate the taxes and revenues to allow the Park to become what Frederick Law Olmsted would call a “democratic development of the highest significance.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses property presents us with an opportunity to create a new parks maintenance strategy that can sustain the park and minimize the need to shoehorn new residential development into its boundaries.

This urban waterfront park should embody a vision of Brooklyn that embraces the water and the sky, and be a place where opportunities for cultural and educational enrichment are limitless. While negotiating the public purchase and sale of this property will take some years to fully mature, some things, like Brooklyn Bridge Park, are worth waiting for and worth doing right.

Marilyn Gelber, president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, has also served as a neighborhood planner for Community Boards 2 and 6 in the Brooklyn Office of City Planning; as director of Neighborhood Strategy Planning for the Department of City Planning; as the Brooklyn member of the New York City Planning Commission; as chief of staff and executive assistant to Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, and commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.