Vision for a Southside park wrapped in red tape
by Daniel Bush
Oct 05, 2010 | 1482 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Urban planners think in decades, not years. This is most true when it comes to big, transformative projects. Brooklyn Bridge Park has been decades in the making; Atlantic Yards, it has now been confirmed, won't take shape for many years to come.

Councilwoman Diana Reyna's vision for a new park on Williamsburg's Southside is in that mold - an ambitious, expensive plan to deck a section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway with playing fields, open space and an amenities-filled community center.

If it was built today the park would cost roughly $80 million, according to an estimate by dlandstudio, the firm commissioned by Reyna to design the park. That figure will surely rise with time, as labor costs increase. Reyna has acknowledged, too, that the project could take 20 years, if not longer.

Raising funds for the complicated construction of a park atop a heavily used highway is not without its challenges. But by any measure the neighborhood badly needs more open space.

And exceptions to the rule exist - the High Line comes to mind - which show that the city, when it feels the urge, can push big projects through with remarkable speed. The question is, will the Bloomberg Administration support this one?

“We have to get the city to pay attention,” Reyna said in an interview, where she spoke of the proposed park in detail for the first time. “This is not far-fetched. This is possible.”

The plan is to build a deck from South 5th to South 3rd streets, between Marcy Avenue and Rodney Street, that would cover a section of the BQE which runs below street level and has divided the Williamsburg community since it was finished in the 1950's.

On top of the deck would be sports fields, playgrounds and a community center with a pool. It would connect three overpasses and a series of small, underutilized parks on either side of the highway, creating a single contiguous open space. The 4.5-acre site would include blocks to the north and south with improved landscaping and safer streets.

Short of razing several city blocks, it is hard to conceive of another way to create a large new park on the Southside. The area forms part of a congested community district that ranks near the very bottom in terms of acres of open space per 1,000 residents, and suffers from well above-average rates of asthma and obesity.

Air pollution from the highway is a large contributor to the health problems there. Every day an average of 111,447 cars travel the stretch of the BQE that would be decked, according to the $100,000 design study produced by dlandstudio.

A 2007 state health report found that children living within 246 feet of a highway are nearly twice as likely to develop asthma. The streets surrounding the BQE are home to thousands of residents, and at least one school.

“The community really needs it,” Susannah Drake, dlandstudio's founder, said.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” said Luis Acosta, the founder of El Puente, a community organization involved in a larger effort to reclaim the Southside through environmental initiatives. “It will be the Central Park of our neighborhood.”

As signature parks go, this one is particularly complex because there is so little wiggle room.

Decking a highway without disrupting traffic requires planning and collaboration between government agencies of a different sort than was used at, say, Brooklyn Bridge Park, a much larger, costlier project but one where architects were able to start from near-scratch with several unused piers as blank canvases.

Reyna has met with several city agencies and the state Department of Transportation, and said they showed interest in the project. But she said they hesitated to commit until the mayor signs on, and the mayor's office told her it won't jump-start the planning process before the city makes its own cost-benefit analysis.

“The city's response has been we don't have our numbers,” said Reyna, adding that officials indicated they believed the park could cost three times more than the design firm's projection of $80 million. “That has frustrated the heck out of me.”

Mayoral spokesperson Jason Post said the city is open to new ideas for parks space, but he would not say if it plans to give serious thought to the numbers behind the park.

“We have talked to Diana Reyna,” Post said. “We have a meeting set up with her.”

At a recent public meeting on the park, an aide dispatched from the mayor's Office of Operations declined to comment on the proposed park. Other officials said they were waiting for more information.

The offices of several state and federal lawmakers did not return calls seeking comment on whether they would consider appropriating funds for the park. In private, people with knowledge of the plan said finding money to pay for the project would be difficult right now.

Nevertheless, the idea of a new park is widely popular with Southside residents who know of the plan. Many, like Elizabeth Rodriguez, take their children to play in McCarren Park. Fifteen blocks away, it is the closest large open space.

“It's incredible,” Elizabeth Rodriguez, the mother of three young children, said in comments typical of supporters of the park. “I hope it doesn't take 30 years but ten years [to build] so that my children can enjoy it.”

No doubt Reyna hopes so, too. Major public works elude most council members and the park would be a tangible reminder of the impact that Reyna - now in her third and final term - was able to have on her council district.

She acknowledged the park (which would be finished years after she leaves office, if it is built) would represent an important accomplishment, one she has spoken of since at least 2005. But she said viewing it as a legacy project is over-simplistic.

“A legacy doesn't belong to just one individual,” Reyna said.

Supporters said the entire community must embrace the plan in order to convince the city it is a realistic one, and a necessary investment in the poorer section of a gentrified neighborhood.

Many pointed to the High Line, a similarly ambitious project, still unfinished, that transformed aging transportation infrastructure in Chelsea into vibrant open space.

If it happened there, they said, why not in Williamsburg?

Advocates for the High Line formed a group in 1999, and began lobbying for support and funds. Three years later, the city backed the proposal and construction began in 2006. A High Line spokesperson said swift approval from the Bloomberg Administration proved crucial to pushing the project along. The first section opened to the public last year.

“Was the High Line impossible?” said Acosta of El Puente. “I'm sure many people told the founders of the High Line that it was pie-in-the-sky.”

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