Dead space to green space — Navy Yard may turn burial ground into park

Dead space to green space — Navy Yard may turn burial ground into park
Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

An abandoned naval cemetery will be transformed into a peaceful, wildlife-filled respite under a proposal being pushed by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.

On Thursday, the group — which is creating a 14-mile bike path along the borough’s industrial waterfront — presented plans to make the Naval Hospital Cemetery in the Brooklyn Navy Yard along Williamsburg Street West into a public sanctuary.

“When you pass the area, you think, ‘Wow, that was bleak,’ ” said Milton Puryear, planning director for the initiative. “Now this can be a beautiful place to get relief from buildings and concrete.”

The 1.7-acre site between Kent and Flushing avenues once included a ball field and, as rumor has it, a training ground for police dogs. But for decades, it’s been a fenced-off eyesore and home for feral cats.

The plans will create an urban oasis, with an elevated boardwalk, greenhouse, outdoor theater and grove of black cherry trees.

A giant meadow of native grasses and wildflowers will lure butterflies, birds, bees and bats, and steel rectangles holding different species of plants will light up at night to symbolize the nearly 2,000 long-forgotten graves.

In the 1820s, the Navy established the former farmland as a cemetery for sailors who died at the nearby Naval Hospital. Many of the remains were moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery in 1926.

But fragments of bone and coffin are still beneath the ground, making landscapers subject to a deed restriction that prevents soil disruption.

“It’s a site you can’t build on, so the question is: what’s the best use for it?” Puryear asked.

A landscape architecture firm created a design that memorializes the historic ground while stimulating ecological growth.

“It’s a place for reflection,” said co-designer Jennifer Brooks. “Bird watchers, nature lovers, students and families will find respite here. We’re treating it as sacred ground.”

The Greenway Initiative — which is currently plotting its bike path from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge — said the $2-million park could be built in 2013, if the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation can secure funding.

Reach reporter Kate Briquelet at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2511.

The Naval Hospital Cemetery on Williamsburg Street West has been vacant and overgrown with weeds for decades.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham