Waterfront Ruin Morphs Into $350 Million Park: James S. Russell

Brooklyn Bridge Park
A view of Brooklyn Bridge Park at Sunset with the Manhattan skyline beyond. Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh built a naturally acting salt marsh at the edge of the East River, facing a field of pilings that once held up warehouse piers. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Passing through a woolly hedge, I found dozens of children romping through fountains and sliding down a gurgling watercourse. Here was a great playground created within Brooklyn Bridge Park, now making a spectacular setting accessible to the public.

The Manhattan skyline looms over the East River as it widens into New York Bay. Romantically crenellated Brooklyn Heights rises behind, above the din of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

The first stages of the park are barely older than a year, and yet you can already get lost in greenery that has replaced flat, crumbling-concrete warehouse docks along the river.

Brooklyn landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, 59, has been turning 85 acres of industrial desolation into a riot of planting and whimsically looping paths.

Reluctantly leaving the water fun zone, I met up with Van Valkenburgh and Regina Myer, the park’s president, who were showing design aficionados around.

We wandered across the broad, empty acres of Pier 5. They will soon host sports fields and a picnic area. Right now, there is just a line of naked steel warehouse supports standing out against the Manhattan skyline. The slap of river waves replaced the receding racket of the highway. Tour boats and oil barges thrummed peacefully by.

Acres of Activity

That calm may not survive the hunger for recreation. Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents are very short on park space, and Van Valkenburgh is trying to please everyone by cramming every inch of the acreage with activity, from baseball to boat launching.

Phasing has followed funding from city and state sources. Myer said she expects two-thirds of the park to be built by 2012. A vintage carousel in a pavilion designed by Paris architect Jean Nouvel opened last month.

Current and future real-estate development around the site is supposed to support park operations, but some neighbors have resisted, worrying about walling off the waterfront.

Van Valkenburg does not curate every square inch, as designers of the High Line or Central Park did. Instead shrubs explode shaggily out of their beds. Using mostly native plants, he invites nesting birds.

Trees are arranged to shade in summer and cut frigid winds in winter. “I’ve planted new site ecologies that can thrive in a heavily used urban setting,” he said.

Avoiding maintenance-intense gardens and elaborate park furniture stretched the park’s $350 million budget. It sounds like a lot of money, but cleaning up after industry does not come cheap. That’s why stunning waterfronts all over America go underutilized.

Kayak Launch

A massive ridge built up of salvaged boulders spirals out of the water, wrapping a kayak launch. It snakes along the shoreline in soft curves, alternating stands of low native trees with shrubs that spill into the river.

The ridge is one of Van Valkenburgh’s big, willful gestures: artificial nature that does not pretend to be “natural,” but which can evolve in a genuinely ecological way. The boulders confront what he calls “the post-industrial nature of the place.”

He also created a tiny salt marsh. A pair of ducks nosed in to check the handiwork, and seemed satisfied. It drains the parkland through a naturally-acting yet artificial stream criss-crossed by footbridges: civil engineering usefully prettified.

On Pier 1, the most spectacular bit of the park now completed, tree-topped ridges rise in graceful curves to frame long meadows, then slope down toward the Oz-like skyline. The Brooklyn Bridge looms theatrically overhead.

When our group arrived at the Fulton Ferry landing, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, the sun had just gone down, and swarms of people were pouring into the park. They come to watch the lights of the skyline wink on as night falls.

The more unruly Brooklyn Bridge Park becomes, the better, I now think. It’s a lush, invigorating riposte to the forests of glass and steel and the great bridges leaping the river.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.