North Brooklynites demand city reopen closed park at 50 Kent

50 Kent Ave
The closed-off park at 50 Kent Ave., with overgrown grass around picnic tables on June 15.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

As the weather heats up and locals search for outdoor space, northern Brooklynitess are demanding the city reopen a recently-closed park at 50 Kent Ave. along the Williamsburg waterfront. 

“As we enter the heat of the summer this situation cannot be allowed to continue,” reads a June 15 change.org petition, which has garnered 200 signatures. “This community has fought for decades for these spaces and needs them now more than ever.”

Locals recently pushed senior city Parks Department officials to unlock the gates of the greenspace between N. 11th and N. 12 streets at Community Board 1’s recent virtual Parks and Waterfront Committee meeting, where one member asked Brooklyn’s Parks Commissioner Marty Maher why bureaucrats were keeping the lawn fenced off.

“People are leaving the city because there’s no open space here, it’s really dire times, and to see this greenspace that’s just sitting there locked off,” said T. Willis Elkins at the June 3 digital meeting, “it’s rough.”

Elkins pointed to the Department of Transportation’s closure of more than 40 miles of streets as part of its Open Streets program, and asked why the city’s greenspace gurus couldn’t do the same for existing parkland.

“How can the city on one hand be taking these drastic steps to reopen space on asphalt and then we have this just sitting there, I can’t wrap my head around it,” the board member said.

The padlocked gate of 50 Kent Ave. on June 15. Photo by Kevin Duggan

The 1.8-acre space is currently an overgrown lawn atop a former gas plant site and the city planned to break ground on redeveloping it into a more landscaped meadow this fall at the cost of $7.7 million, the Greenpoint Post reported.

A spokeswoman for the Parks Department did not immediately provide a more up-to-date timeline or cost for the project.

The park is a parcel of the city’s plans to create a sprawling park around the Bushwick Inlet, which also includes the recently-revised plans for the Motiva site nearby.

The city’s plans to develop 50 Kent Ave.Parks Department

National Grid cleaned up decades of contamination beneath the site, and in 2018 Parks officials opened it during the summer months as a so-called pop-up park, with events like movie screenings and theater performances.

Due to the site’s polluted past, Maher said that the Department could not just open it without having a staff member there to ensure people or dogs don’t damage the grass, which acts as part of the lot’s remediation.

“Even just opening the gates, that has to be monitored, because the grass is the protection, and we don’t want to see it turn into a dog run, we don’t want to see it turn into a soccer field, so we definitely need staff there to do that,” he said at the committee meeting.

The agency often receives private funding through conservancies, like the local North Brooklyn Parks Alliance — which has offered to support Parks to reopen 50 Kent — but Maher can’t even use those funds as the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget is currently not processing the money, he said.

“I can’t use private money, I don’t even know why,” he said. “OMB [Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget] can’t process that money for some reason and I don’t quite understand it myself.”

The Mayor’s office did not return a request for comment.

Despite the need for more open space to social distance amid the bug, the city might slash tens of millions of dollars from parks in this year’s budget, which Council and de Blasio will hash out before the end of the month, and Maher said he’s preparing to make due with less.

“We have a severely less staff than we’re used to for the summer season,” he said. “I can’t explain how dire — you can see this in other parks, grass cutting, weeds, litter removal, is a challenge for us this year.”

The petition claims the space would have space for more than 500 social distancing circles, as debuted at the nearby privately-owned Domino Park, and Maher promised the community board committee to take another look at opening 50 Kent at the beginning of the city’s new fiscal year in July, when the agency’s budget is clearer.

“I promise you I’ll take another look at it in the new fiscal year if there’s a way we can do it, even for a couple of days a week, we will try to do that,” he said.