If you think money is one of the biggest barriers to turning the outer harbor into a sweeping waterfront park, you should see what they did under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Ten years ago, there were 85 acres of lonesome shipping piers left behind on the Brooklyn riverfront. Thousands of jobs had disappeared. There was barely a blade of grass. Chain-link fences and an expressway cut off the water.
The land was an even less likely spot for a park than the vast industrial prairie that Buffalo has failed to redevelop on the edge of Lake Erie.
Enter pure determination.
Brooklynites battled for years over what would become of the commercial port on the East River after the borough’s shipping industry died. Plans for high-rise housing and parking rose and fell. Neighbors drew up their own dreams for a waterfront park.
The years dragged on. Development just wouldn’t stick, and this was the reality: There was no money for the expensive upkeep of a maritime park – even one with magnificent views of Manhattan.
“This was not a time when the government had a lot of money to be doing frivolous projects,” recalled Joanne Witty, director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp.
Witty was in town last week to tell the turnaround story of how a shipping wasteland that plagued Brooklyn for years turned into a public space where you can take in a movie under the stars, sip a glass of wine, play soccer, launch a kayak or simply go for a run.
She had some choice advice for those gathered in the Saturn Club to hear how Brooklyn’s blight turned into Brooklyn’s beauty. Her first lesson was simple, but it’s the type of common sense that Buffalo bigwigs have ignored before:
Get everyone involved early.
“Top down doesn’t work,” Witty said. “Even if it’s a brilliant idea, it doesn’t work, because it’s against human nature.”
What’s intriguing about the Brooklyn project, though, isn’t the planning process that led to its construction, but the fact that the park is designed to be financially self-sustainable despite its hefty $15 million annual cost.
And they did this not by shutting out private development but by carefully incorporating condos into the design. Long-term ground leases and payments in lieu of taxes from those residential buildings pay for the upkeep of the park.
Tucking private homes into the plan was not without controversy – lawsuits were filed and dismissed – but it unlocked the money to turn what could have been a pie-in-sky park into a real place where people could live and play.
Buffalo’s Outer Harbor has been a conundrum for decades. Its waterfront has held both the promise of something great and the remnants of our failures.
For the first time in years, though, its potential seems within reach. A portion of the land – a pebble beach and marina – are slated to become a state park. There’s a vocal push to turn the rest of the land into a waterfront park.
More than a decade ago, Brooklyn’s deteriorating shipping piers seemed every bit as much a missed opportunity. Today, they’re a lesson in civics done right.
“The people who show up to this park, of course, have no idea how any of this happened,” Witty said. “All they know is that this is a fabulous place to come and play.”
Could we say the same in 10 years?