Borough Hall Conference Examines Brooklyn Waterfront

Panelists Eye Neighborhoods From Greenpoint to Coney

By Raanan Geberer

BROOKLYN — When city planning and policy types speak of the Brooklyn waterfront, they often mean the former industrial waterfront stretching from Greenpoint to Sunset Park.

But the Brooklyn waterfront is a large, varied one, and it includes landscapes as diverse as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Red Hook Container Port, the Coney Island amusement area and Jamaica Bay. All of this was discussed in Wednesday’s Borough Hall conference, “The Waterfront: A Brooklyn Model for Preservation and Change,” presented by the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute, the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center and the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

Among the speakers were Borough President Marty Markowitz; Purnima Kapur, director of the Brooklyn office for the NYC Department of City Planning; Jonathan Peters, professor at the College of Staten Island; Sapna Advani of the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center; Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schwieiger; Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; and Ellen Ryan, vice president of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

A familiar theme was the decline of the “working waterfront” starting in the 1980s, when containerization of ships became the norm and Brooklyn’s old piers were suddenly obsolete. This meant that large parcels of waterfront land became derelict or underused.

Kapur of the Department of City Planning talked about Greenpoint/Williamsburg as an example of waterfront reclamation. Not only waterfront installations but factories that were slightly inland, such as the old Gretsch Guitar Factory, became vacant as industry began moving out of the city. This, however, opened up opportunities for developers.

The city’s recent Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Plan gave condo developers incentives to build waterfront park parcels along with their high-rises. These mini-parks, combined with land that has been reclaimed by the city itself, will eventually result in a “green strip” along the waterfront that will be accessible to residents, she said.

In another old waterfront neighborhood, DUMBO, the buildings were somewhat different, she continued. Because they were basically loft spaces, artists began moving in long before the city finally changed its zoning to accommodate residents. Today, she said, DUMBO is a mix of residential buildings, high-tech companies, art spaces and some small manufacturers.

Peters of the College of Staten Island talked about the waterfront from the standpoint of jobs. In 1950, he said, 85 percent of the jobs for longshoremen were in Brooklyn. Now, because of containerization, 85 percent of them are in New Jersey.

Bigger and bigger container ships are coming, ships that the small Red Hook Container Port can’t possibly handle, he said. He pointed to the Danish Ship Emma Maersk, which can accommodate 11,000 shipping containers and whose tower is as high as a 12-story building.

Although the Sunset Park waterfront could be dredged to accommodate these new ships, he said, doing so would substantially alter the landscape. The better alternative, he said, would be for Brooklyn to concentrate on ship repair for smaller, more typical ships.

Brooklyn, he said, already has dry docks (ship repair facilities) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and several floating dry docks in other locations. These facilities should be maintained and expanded, he said, to retain and attract jobs. Just recently, he recounted, the contract to repair one of the Staten Island ferries was lost to a dry dock in Virginia, resulting in a loss of jobs.

Advani of the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center focused on Sunset Park. The goals of most planners, she said, are to expand access to the waterfront, which is now occupied by industrial complexes such as the Bush Terminal, and to unite industrial western Sunset Park with residential eastern Sunset Park.

The two parts of the neighborhood are divided by the huge overhead Gowanus Expressway. Many planners have advocated putting the expressway — which already needs to be repaired or replaced — underground or at street level. On a related matter, she praised the plan for Bush Terminal Piers Park, which will be created out of an inactive storage area for the historic industrial development.

Coney and the Navy Yard

In one of the more nostalgic elements of the conference, Borough Historian Schweiger traced the history of Coney Island, illustrated by slides. Around the turn of the last century, Coney was basically a summer resort, with several hotels, three full-scale amusement parks, and piers for ferries to take tourists to and from Manhattan. The area also had three racetracks.

Eventually, the amusement parks closed, with the last one, Steeplechase Park, shutting down in 1964. The racetracks were an early casualty because the state temporarily banned betting at racetracks in 1910. The hotels shut down after the amusement area’s clientele changed from middle-class to working class.

Although there was one bright spot — the opening of Astroland Park in 1962 — the amusement area became a crime- and gang-ridden shell of its former self by the 1970s. The area’s rebirth in the 1990s is well known, and Schweiger approvingly displayed slides of MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, and the new Luna Park, operated by the Italian corporation Zamperla.

Another area that has seen a rebirth is the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Kimball gave its story. Most Brooklynites know that the U.S. Navy left the Navy Yard in 1966, but many don’t know that a huge private shipbuilding corporation, Seatrain, began building ships within the former Navy facility in 1967, only to close its doors in the 1980s. In 1987 the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. was formed and began to concentrate on attracting smaller industry to the site.

Today, by any stretch of the imagination, the Navy Yard is a success. Most of the buildings have been leased, said Kimball, and the number of jobs has grown from 3,600 in 2001 to 5,800 today. Companies that lease space in the yard vary widely, from Steiner Movie Studios to a company that makes protective vests used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, from food service companies to the still-active dry docks, and from a furniture workshop to architects’ offices.

Asked what the Navy Yard offers these companies, Kimball answered that one of the attractions is a “hassle-free environment.” Because the yard is in an enclosed space, it has its own security and its own rules. “No one’s going to give your truck five parking tickets,” he said.

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Filed under Brooklyn Heights, Community News, Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO

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