This case’s outcome goes far beyond the green space’s confines.
A judge’s ruling on whether Brooklyn Bridge Park’s keepers are violating an agreement that restricts how much private development can be built in the park could affect meadows across America, park advocates said.
“This will certainly have city-wide and country-wide implications,” said Geoffrey Croft, who heads watchdog group NYC Parks Advocates and runs the blog A Walk in the Park. “If the judge rules in their favor, it would incentivize future development.”
An ongoing case between park honchos and civic group the Brooklyn Heights Association in Manhattan Supreme Court will determine whether developers can build two residential towers planned for Pier 6. Justice Lucy Billings’s ruling will hinge on her decisions on whether park heads are breaching a document that states they can only build as much housing as needed to pay for maintaining the meadow, and whether that document is legally binding in the first place.
Activists allege the park is flush with cash and doesn’t need to build 15- and 28-story towers at the foot of Atlantic Avenue, but park officials say they need the money from the high-rises to pay for upkeep of the wooden piles holding the pier up over the East River, which are being devoured by wood-eating crustaceans called marine borers.
The way Billings interprets the 2006 General Project Plan will determine whether more housing can be built in the future — regardless of financial need — and set examples for other park builders, according to activists.
Billings questioned whether the document was legally binding during a standing-room-only June court appearance, pointing out the language “intention to only build what is necessary” walked a fine legal line. The Heights Association’s attorney, Richard Ziegler, however, argued the document’s context and purpose, of laying out the park’s goals, made it binding.
Brooklyn Bridge Park was paid for by city and state funds, but its upkeep is financed by private development in the form of property taxes on the residential, retail, and office spaces inside of it, which go directly into park coffers.
Critics of the funding structure argue that privatizing public space is messy because politicians’ schmoozy relationships with profit-hungry developers subject the meadow to greed instead of public interest. In fact, state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Boerum Hill) — who opposes housing in the park — raked in more than $65,000 from supporters of it for his 2013 Public Advocate bid after giving up his veto power over development at Pier 6 and One John Street, according to Campaign Finance Board records.
And none of Brooklyn Bridge Park is designated parkland protected by the state, making the meadow nothing more than a high-end development with a fancy front yard, according to Croft.
“This is not a park, it’s a development corporation. The name says it all,” he said, referring to the greensward officially known as Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. “We don’t ask the public to buy fire engines and renovate police stations, but we allow these type of ridiculous funding schemes to infiltrate our parks.”
There is so much gray area in the public-private relationship, Croft said, that a ruling in favor of park honchos could give them the permission they need to build more if funds dry up in the future.
“When the piers deteriorate in a couple decades, it will be very costly and it is not unfathomable to think they would say, ‘Look we need another $100 million,’ ” he said.
James Yolles, a rep for Brooklyn Bridge Park, said officials are not planning to build more high-rises besides those at Pier 6, answering an e-mail that questioned whether they will erect additional towers if the judge rules in their favor with “No.”
But honchos have reversed their decision on the subject in the past. They originally planned for 740 units in the meadow, but then decided those would not generate enough money, and added the Pier 6 towers to the park’s planned housing in February 2005. Officials then increased the total housing to roughly 1,120 units, based on information from a 2005 Environmental Impact Statement on how development would affect the area.
If the two towers are allowed to rise, the park will have a total of 849 units spread out among its developments at One John Street, One Brooklyn Bridge, Pierhouse, and Pier 6.
Locals refuse to believe park officials will stop building if Pier 6 is allowed to proceed, though, saying they have learned from the past.
“In terms of their promises, everything is broken,” said Judi Francis, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund. “There is nothing any of these people have ever said to demonstrate they believe parks are important.”
Other cities with unused waterfront space are exploring similar models that mix development with parkland. A Boston land conservation group wants to build a massive park along the city’s harbor and hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates — which designed Brooklyn Bridge Park — for the project. But the organization can’t foot the entire bill, and is looking to partner with developers to fund it, the Boston Globe reported.
And in San Francisco, officials are planning to transform an old gravel yard into a huge mixed-use development with a waterfront park, housing, retail, and commercial space.
Francis said officials in cities across the country will look to Justice Billings’s decision as a precedent for how much real estate can be crammed into public parks, arguing the outcome will have huge consequences for meadows.
“Every mayor across America will do the same thing if their words and promises mean nothing, and if the real estate lobby takes over in privatizing public land, there will never be another great park in America again,” she said.
Roughly 4.5 million people visited Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2016, according to greensward data. And park-goers have begun to notice too much glass where there should be grass, said the head of the community group responsible for mediating between locals and park officials.
“A lot of people don’t feel it’s ‘public’ because there’s so much residential real estate there,” said Peter LaBonte, president of the Community Advisory Group, a panel that Squadron set up as part of his 2011 deal. “They feel as though they’re in people’s yard.”
Back in court
The case between park honchos and the Brooklyn Heights Association was scheduled to return to Billings’s courtroom July 18, when lawyers for the civic group were expected to argue that she stop construction on the towers — which developers RAL Development Services and Oliver’s Realty Group filed plans to begin on July 19 — until she makes her decision.
But it was postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date, and an emergency hearing was set for July 20 so the judge could decide whether developers can proceed with the ground-breaking, which includes hammering 400 steel beams into the dirt.
The litigants’ next arguments are expected to be their last before Billings makes her judgment, which could come weeks or even months after the final cases are made. The stakes are high, Croft said, before admitting that the past has taught him not to get his hopes up.
“When judges make rulings, the next court looks upon them,” he said. “It’s important this is struck down, but our experience is that often the public is not served by these decisions.”
Brooklyn Bridge Park officials refused to comment on the case, instead offering a statement that development at Pier 6 is necessary to fund the greensward.
Reps for the Brooklyn Heights Association did not return a request for comment, and Ziegler, the civic group’s attorney, declined to comment.