On the Waterfront: A New Park Rises in Brooklyn

There's so much new public space in NY that even a tourist magnet as big as the City can afford to let the public know about some of its new gems.
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Good news! The Obama administration has finally trotted out again the infrastructure bank as a means of rebuilding the country. Bravo! Better late than never, right? So what sort of stuff could we fund through the bank? Subways, light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) are on my short list, particularly the kind that LA has needed for years. So with O finally on the right track, here are some observations about LA and NY that I hope are worth reading.

It is the ambivalent native New Yorker in me, but what can I do about it? Like the millions of us who dread the day the New York Times writes up their favorite pizza place in Brooklyn or Indian Delhi dhaba style joint in Jackson Heights, I want to share some information about the Brooklyn Bridge Park but at the same time I don't, because I don't want the park to get overrun with tourists and the bridge and tunnel crowd.

But thinking about it I realized there's so much new public space in NY that even a tourist magnet as big as the City can afford to let the public know about some of its new gems. As has been widely reported and with good reason, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NY's visionary Transportation, Planning, and Parks departments, New York has made great strides in recent years in taking back its waterfront, adaptively reusing an old elevated railroad, and rethinking Broadway and public space in places like Times Square, Herald Square, Union Square and Park Avenue.

While LA's adding an extra lane to the 405 freeway and belatedly building the Subway to the Sea that shortsighted politics and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBYism) killed years ago, on the waterfront in Brooklyn, Bloomberg is converting unused piers and previously unwelcoming, litter-strewn lots to crushed granite bike paths, handsomely and sustainably landscaped paths and hillocks, and a lawn with unrivaled views of lower Manhattan, NY Harbor and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. So in addition to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade where smart locals and tourists who knew about it have long gone to snap photos of the downtown skyline and harbor, New Yorkers and everyone else can now picnic, bike and cavort in a park with some of the best public spaces created since Olmstead and Vaux envisioned Central Park.

For several years already New Yorkers have had a piece of this great park adjacent to DUMBO at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, but now the park is stretching south all the way to Atlantic Avenue. Not yet complete are waterfront soccer fields, basketball courts, and a kayak launch, but what's already built rivals any parks anywhere in its breathtaking setting at the foot of the East River.

Of course all of these amenities don't come cheap to build, but more importantly, they take the vision of first-class planning, parks and transportation departments able to recognize that a big teaming city like New York needs public space in natural, if unexpected, places. And it needs leaders who recognize that just because there's never been a break in Broadway at Times Square or 72nd Street, doesn't mean there can't be a pedestrian-only stretch there that breaks up the grid and gives the public a welcome place to sit or stroll and watch the world go by. It doesn't hurt any that the city is pushed, prodded and encourage to make these changes to the streetscape or water's edge by smart, motivated activists like the writers at Streetsblog and by groups like the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.

Thankfully, LA has a similar movement for change in groups like CicLAvia, which is bringing a Bogotá-inspired biking and public space event to LA on 10/10/10 and the LA County Bicycle Coalition which is advocating for a comprehensive LA bicycle plan; and in writing by Damien Newton and Carter Rubin on LA Streetsblog, our own local affiliate blog on all things public space, biking, and public transportation related.

Hurdles of course remain in both LA and New York and all is not perfect, yet. Inspired as would be anyone on one of those rare but perfect early September New York afternoons (the kind LA has much of the year), on my visit to Pier 6 at the southern end of Brooklyn Bridge Park, I found access wasn't as good as it should be. Coming to the park, for example, from Cobble Hill across Columbia Street, south of Atlantic Avenue, there's no crosswalk or traffic light at Congress Street. So a five year old and others on their bikes have to compete to get across Congress to the new bike path with motorized traffic exiting the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) at Atlantic and heading south.

FYI, Pier 6 is in much demand as it boasts a great kids playground and is a hub for the water taxi to downtown Manhattan and Governors Island.

And then there's the fact that the wealthy types in Brooklyn Heights, the gem of a brownstone neighborhood just above the emerging waterfront park and the BQE have for now killed the idea of access directly from the Promenade to the park below. God forbid the hoi polloi should cut through their town to get from the subway stations at Clark Street and at Borough Hall to the new park a short walk away.

Though I hate to talk about New York and LA in the same breath, I'm so inspired by what our sister city in the East is doing to remake itself on Mayor Bloomberg's watch that I have to. You see New York is the boogieman the LA NIMBYs always trot out to scare Angelenos into rejecting more public transportation. How about this comment by an apparently unstable reader of one of my recent blogs? "30/10 is a fraud because it has nothing to do with improving transportation. It is a ruse to mega-densify Los Angeles, developers want to tear down a one mile wide swath from downtown to the ocean along the proposed subway and construct high rises..."

The fact is, LA's NIMBYs and the transportation reporters at the LA Times have got to get it into their skulls that projects like the Expo Line, bike paths, the Wilshire Subway, and 30/10 generally are NOT real estate developer/elite conspiracies to double or triple the latte and chai drinking population of the Westside. 30/10, Expo et al. are plain and simple, well-intention and thoughtful plans to give Angelenos smart enough to get out of their cars, a faster, environmentally cleaner, and healthier way to get from Point A to Point B.

More soon. I'm off to enjoy Gowanus and Red Hook and other parts of New York being rethought and remade by a smart Mayor and a team of top-of-the-class planners, builders and managers. More Angelenos should get out more. We've got lots to learn from our cousins in the old country.

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