The conception and development of Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) has been nothing short of transformational, inspirational and international in impact. But the park development, through the initial stages, has been tough on historic Brooklyn Heights.
Most residents of Brooklyn Heights treasure the uniqueness of their community and recognize the priceless value of their historic status and 19th century scale. They will have no trouble questioning or opposing the efficacy of nearby development if it threatens the streetscapes that are so unique in the Heights.
But others choose to remain passive, with an attitude that echoes the popular Doris Day song from the 1950s: “Que sera, sera … whatever will be, will be.”
A few others seem to feel Brooklyn Heights may be TOO precious. They will say that BBP should be able to get away with excessive development and any crowd-pleasing programs, some of which can bring on a carnival or flash-mob atmosphere that is hard to control once created.
These are conditions that hit quaint Brooklyn Heights particularly hard, especially because neighboring Downtown Brooklyn possesses a unique transportation asset: nearly all major subway lines converge here. When large pedestrian crowds move to and from BBP events, parts of Brooklyn Heights have suffered.
This columnist does not have the answers to inevitable growth issues that sometimes pop the seams of comfortable neighborhood enclosures. But it is important that people everywhere who treasure cities acknowledge the total uniqueness of Brooklyn Heights.
This uniqueness goes far beyond the rules and regulations of passionately based landmark laws, or the bureaucrats who oversee them. This uniqueness is ancient.
Brooklyn Heights sits on a bluff that was formed in the Ice Age. The view plane overlooking New York Harbor is not simply some idea that a well-meaning citizen thought about pushing into law.
It is a classic vista worthy of National Park status.
Therefore, it was a travesty beyond the concerns of any local individual or group when a developer was allowed by park overseers to build extra floors onto Gorilla House, AKA the Pierhouse.
It is indeed ironic that the extra projected income allotted to park maintenance by the enhanced Pierhouse complex should render unnecessary the extra heft of the ambitious high-rise project at Pier 6.
Still being thrashed out in court, the Pier 6 issue may be settled like a cooling bowl of alphabet soup, as the judge has asked the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) and BBP to “work it out.” (If you mix those initials you can almost hear a stuttering voice trying to say, “Be Happy” … B-B-B-HAP-)
But back to that historic bluff.
As the bluff rolls down to sea level at the northern and southern ends of Brooklyn Heights, there are two busy man-made trade routes to the waterfront: Old Fulton Street on the north and Atlantic Avenue on the south.
These boundaries, added to the man-made civic center parks by Borough Hall and Cadman Plaza Memorial to the east, along with Brooklyn Bridge access, form clearly delineated barriers that should be respected and treasured for what they are: examples of the village or small-town frameworks that pervade New York City.
Indeed, those “villages” in all five boroughs are what make New York City so livable and viable.
Cobble Hill, sister “hood” and historic district circumscribed by commercial strips and the notorious “trench” along Hicks Street, suffers a massive high-rise rim shot akin to what the Heights faces to the east. Thanks to historic district lines, the primary character of the neighborhood will survive. But assaulted? Yes.
Along the Brooklyn Waterfront, from Greenpoint at Newtown Creek to the north, through Williamsburg and DUMBO heading south, past Bay Ridge and on to Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend, Brooklyn’s waterfront villages claim pride in their uniqueness.
But who can doubt that Coney Island is a difficult place to live amid the untrammeled development of the past and essential business imperative to attract transient crowds?
And who can doubt that Brooklyn Heights, with its own stable and multi-generational constituency and its aversion to out-of-scale development, has been shaken by the growing pains of Downtown and BBP?
Doubters outside Brooklyn Heights may well ask, “Who cares? You are a small constituency, no longer as influential as you were when development was moribund Downtown …”
It is a valid point. But readers should remember this fact: there would be no DUMBO or BBP today if it were not for “meddling” Brooklyn Heights preservationists.
In the 1970s, led by the famous Otis Pearsall, these preservationists ventured outside the Heights’ historic district lines to save the Empire Stores Warehouses, using their clout to create a Fulton Ferry Historic District and prevent the city’s plan for a major meat-packing district on the waterfront under Brooklyn Bridge.
The public records back up those assertions. And they show for all the world to see that preservationists from Brooklyn Heights laid the groundwork for the waterfront renaissance cherished by so many today.
For those who find discomfort in the fighting that has taken place over elements of BBP, remember that our universally loved landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge, was not built without bitter political battles, unprovable graft and corruption scandals, as well as attempts to compromise the original vision.
Furthermore, in May 1883, in the first few days of public crossings after the official opening, there was still public apprehension that such a huge structure, towering above all other New York buildings, could not stand for long. In the first week of opening, a pedestrian panic that the bridge was falling left 12 people crushed to death.
No fatalities have been reported yet in BBP, but there have definitely been some gun-toting troublemakers near the basketball courts.
Brooklyn Heights may yet find a single voice to defend against development assaults on its streetscape, while supporting the best elements of the most exciting park in the world.