Taking Back the Waterfront—Land&People

Walk through the thicket of worlds in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, heading west, and you'll encounter a hundred different neighborhoods. Pass by Senegalese dry cleaners and Hasidic day care centers. Listen to Ukrainian spoken by a baker and the chatter of Hispanic teenagers just getting out of school. Meet Italians on one block and Orthodox Jews on the next. Where a rise in the street allows a view, glimpse the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, looming.

At the edge of this famous borough, at the western brink of this historic neighborhood, cross Kent Avenue, the pot-holed, industrialized route that runs north-south. Slip through a hole in the chain-link fence and follow a bumpy, well-used path through the mugwort. Cross over makeshift skateboard ramps, dip down to a cobbled, half-buried streetbed, and follow it out to the shoreline. There is Manhattan, seeming close enough to touch. At your feet is the East River, running between this margin of land and that. You can feel, for a moment, as if you're standing at the very center of New York City.

"It's empty, it's open, and it's free," says Brooklyn photographer Lynn Bell, explaining why this waterfront land has inspired so many different dreams for its potential use. Wiry, pig-tailed, independent, Bell, who has an appetite for bygone industrial architecture, has catalogued the Williamsburg site in hundreds of photographs over the past decade. "Just personally for me," she says, pointing to an image of the twin towers of the World Trade Center dwarfed in the distance between the remaining bars of a wrought-iron fence, "that skyline with all of this roughness around it is what makes this place beautiful." Bell, who moved to Williamsburg 20 years ago, knows the preciousness of open space in this city: Brooklyn is framed by two miles of East River shoreline, but until now its residents have had little access to the water. Bell chose Williamsburg for its neighborhood charm; part of that charm, she found, was living among hundreds of people whose notion of home embraced an abandoned, rubble-strewn, seven-acre lot with access to the river.

Those seven treasured acres have sparked a lot of dreaming. One man in the early 1990s envisioned homeless shelters; another imagined a multiplex entertainment center on the land; before that, plans for a 16-story housing complex were drawn up by a developer. Last year, a 2012 New York City Olympic Committee claimed this would be the ideal spot for archery and beach volleyball events. But it is the people closest to this land–Williamsburg neighborhood activists, craving open space in New York City's most densely populated borough–who will see their dream materialize.

Erik Kulleseid, the Trust for Public Land's New York State director, has worked since 1995 to draw together public and private interests in the effort to see this land become New York's 160th state park. Kulleseid says the diversity–and unity–of this community are at the center of the project's success. "This is a story of individuals gathering together across various lines of difference and showing what they can do for the public good."

A Waterfront with a Past

Kulleseid is talking about folks like Michelle Rodecker, who's lived on the same Williamsburg block all her life and–like Bell and dozens of others–has links to the waterfront through work and relationships. For Rodecker, it's land that's as close as family. "It's almost like a baby, watching it change," she says, referring to the site's checkered history and the passions it has inspired. Among the hip, young SoHo and East Village artists who have recently come to this part of Brooklyn in search of cheap rents, Rodecker is an old-timer, a woman whose life is entwined with the institutions that have shaped the streets, the commerce, the community, and the waterfront.

Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal. The name evokes the industrial heritage of the East River waterfront, where a rail-to-barge terminal operated on the proposed park site for almost a hundred and fifty years. In its heyday, freight agents who worked at the terminal, like Rodecker's husband, Jim, would load as many as 1,400 railroad cars a month onto barges and pull them across New York Harbor to the Greenville yards in Jersey City, New Jersey. Rodecker, a woman with vivid red hair and a flame of passion in her voice when she talks about the old terminal, was inextricably linked to it through her father, a tugboat captain there. "I remember the day he retired," she recalls. "I watched him walk off the terminal. In those days, when someone retired, all the tugboats would line up and blow their horns. It was so emotional, I cried my eyes out."

After the old terminal closed in 1979, the buildings and lands lay empty. Nostalgic for their waterfront past, Williamsburg residents bribed each other for the old BEDT sign that used to grace the terminal building. In the 1980s, homeless encampments sprang up on the site, and fires burned the buildings to empty shells where the sky showed through. Lynn Bell took her camera down on sunny afternoons and photographed the rusted auto parts, roofless shanties, and a fellow artist's spontaneous industrial sculpture displays. But for people like Jan Ruszczyk, veteran Williamsburg resident, Polish immigrant, and liquor store owner, those were the bad old days. "We didn't go down there then," he says from his snug and popular store a few blocks from the water. "It was far too dangerous."

NAGing About Garbage

In that same decade a citizen appeared on the waterfront scene who ultimately became its most heroic advocate. Peter Gillespie, another longtime Williamsburg resident, describes what it was like in 1988, when the homeless left and a garbage transfer station started operating at the abandoned terminal by the water. "Rats and seagulls were everywhere. It smelled horrible, and there were no regulations in place."

A dusty, dirty clean fill operation followed the garbage transfer station, sprawling over the southern end of the site in 1994. "There were a lot of complaints from the community because there was a fear that this operation–or others like it–were really going to take over," says Gillespie, a soft- spoken former artist and videographer. Out of that fear, Gillespie, Michelle and Jim Rodecker, and other concerned residents founded a neighborhood organization and environmental group called Neighbors Against Garbage–NAG–and fought successfully to close the clean fill operation. That success taught its members, as Gillespie puts it, "that when the community makes a lot of noise, the agencies regulating this industry have to wake up and obey the rules."

It was no accident that an organization like NAG, and other concerned neighborhood groups, arose in North Brooklyn. The district had an uncomfortable familiarity with garbage. Community Board 1–which includes Williamsburg and its northern neighbor, Greenpoint–is populated by 19 waste transfer stations, second only to the South Bronx. In a herculean, two-year effort, NAG joined forces with State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and forced USA Waste, a national commercial waste company, out of its 1996 bid for a permit that would have made way for the largest trash transfer station on the East Coast.

Brooklyn's Community Board 1 had another unenviable distinction: less open space per resident than 48 of the city's 59 community boards. "There was always this idea that we wanted to integrate the waterfront back into the neighborhood," says Gillespie, leaning back in his swivel chair at the Kent Avenue NAG office, "but it wasn't until we succeeded in stopping the waste transfer station that we had the courage to try to make it open space." NAG, with Gillespie leading, gathered a chorus of north Brooklyn voices, from churches to schools, merchant associations to temples, and cultural centers to firehouses. NAG started with community workshops and, with the help of Assemblyman Lentol and TPL, resurrected a community plan that held a vision for the waterfront. The dream of a park was at hand.

The State Steps In

Coincident with Williamsburg's open space vision was that of New York Governor George E. Pataki and Bernadette Castro, commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In his 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, the governor had allotted support specifically for underserved communities. Williamsburg certainly qualified, but at first the terminal site property wasn't appealing to Pataki as a state park acquisition–the property was in foreclosure, and there were environmental remediation issues to contend with (see "Fields of the Future" at end of page). Around that time, however, New York University turned its gaze to the site. Only a few stops from Williamsburg on the L train, NYU had operated among the closely huddled buildings of lower Manhattan for nearly 30 years without playing fields of its own, and envisioned practice and competition space on the East River.

The State Parks department and NYU, with the encouragement of Lentol, Kulleseid, and Pataki, met several times with community leaders in Brooklyn. With the creation of public open space and parkland clearly defined as a community priority, NYU was able to hear out and address the concerns of the Williamsburg community. Other participants in the complex process of reaching consensus on NYU's move to north Brooklyn included the community board; city, state, and federal political representatives; the owners of the site; city and state parks departments; and the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

With the backing of Assemblyman Lentol and Williamsburg's NAG, TPL purchased the land in August with an $8.3 million loan from NYU. Grants from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation and support from the J. M. Kaplan Fund provided funds to help defray TPL's costs of liability and ownership. In January, the state purchased the land from TPL using money from its Environmental Protection Fund, thus allowing TPL to repay the loan to NYU. The university ultimately will invest $10 million to develop playing fields and sports facilities to be used equally by its teams and the public. In exchange for use of the property during the 49-year agreement, NYU also will manage the park on behalf of the state.

Taking Back the Waterfront

"This public-private mix was very interesting to the governor," says Assemblyman Lentol, who claims that revitalizing the waterfront is the most important work of his legislative career. "It's unusual to have a university that's interested in partnering with the state and involving itself in the upkeep of the land. That really made a difference. This administration saw it as a golden opportunity. Of course," he laughs, "the gods of open space were working with us, too."

"Throughout New York City, communities are trying to get to their rivers and can't," says Rose Harvey, TPL's senior vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional director. "On the neighborhood level, borough level, city level–on all fronts–there's a critical need for waterfront access." One of the greatest hurdles is mollifying public agencies, which are often scared by the high costs and perceived environmental risks of former industrial properties. "This project shows us that when it comes to waterfront in urban areas, you gotta get it early, accept the risk, and find private dollars," says Harvey. The Williamsburg project, with its bold funding partnership, can serve as a model for opening waterfronts from the Harlem River to the Hutchison River to the Bronx River.

Another challenge lies in successfully appealing to communities that are often suspicious of private institutions. Certainly NYU's presence in Williamsburg has had its critics. Many locals who regularly use the dilapidated piers from which to fish, for example, are fearful that the proposed waterfront promenade–part of the state's design for the park–will restrict their access to the water. Even some community activists who helped fight against garbage were stunned to find they'd made way for NYU's ballfields instead of public open space. NYU will use the fields primarily from September to May, which may preclude spontaneous community use of the site for activities like dog walking and for Williamsburg's Hungry March Band, which practices there on Sunday afternoons if it's not raining or snowing.

No one better appreciates the mixture of personalities in Williamsburg and the importance of listening to local voices than TPL's Erik Kulleseid, who suggests that the real "biodiversity" of this plot of land is its strong and varied local character. "This was a dream project for me," he says, "because it was a victory for the underdog. It got the local people involved when the stakes were high. They've had to cross such incredible distances to get here."

Currently in the works are more than 100 proposals for parks on New York City's 578 miles of waterfront. For communities that have been sealed off from the water for generations, the chance to reclaim their riverfronts is now. They are responding to a clear and uncomplicated need–attaining a more intimate connection to the rivers they live beside. Michelle Rodecker, amazed at what she's seen happen to the old barge terminal site, says, "This project can help show the way for other communities on the river." Ever hopeful, she heads out the door with Jim, their dogs, and four nieces and nephews. They're slipping through the hole in the fence and walking down to the water.

Land & People, Spring, 2001

Martha Sutro lives, teaches, and writes in Brooklyn, New York. Her essay, "Cashing Out on the Bering Sea," will appear this spring in Out on the Wild Blue from St. Martin's Press.

Fields of the Future: Brownfield Remediation

Forging a neighborhood vision wasn't the only challenge facing Erik Kulleseid, TPL's New York State director in charge of the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal project. The Williamsburg waterfront site is a brownfield, like many others along the riverfronts of Eastern and Midwestern cities, which makes handling it especially sensitive–and ambitious. "For a nonprofit to assume liability in a chain of title is a huge responsibility," says TPL's Senior Vice President Kathleen Blaha. "You have to take responsibility for the current problems and foreseeable problems, getting involved with legal issues, engineering, and environmental assessment." Once TPL and New York State were persuaded that the environmental contaminants on the site (principally hydrocarbons) were manageable, TPL obtained an insurance policy to protect against unforeseen environmental problems, a first for the organization.

The necessity for TPL to take such risks may soon be allayed. Last year Congress introduced the Brownfields Revitalization and Restoration Act (BRERA), national legislation to reclaim brownfields. Under the proposed bill, prop- erty owners not responsible for contamination would receive relief from liability. The bill would authorize $150 million each year in grants to local governments, states, and Indian tribes to revitalize brownfields, and it includes incentives for brownfield-to-park conversions.

"The situation is ripe for this legislation for many reasons, one of which is that it's not a regulatory approach, it's an incentive approach," says Sven Kaiser of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Brownfields Team.

Alongside social justice advocates, local governments, and economic development interests, TPL has led the environmental coalition in support of BRERA. In testimony before the U.S. Senate, TPL's Senior Vice President Alan Front noted that the legislation would "foster recreation, open space, and redevelopment on brownfield sites, and by extension, help conserve undeveloped lands." Even though a key sponsor of the bill, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), has retired, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Robert Smith (R-NH) and subcommittee chairman Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) continue to press for BRERA's passage. Advocates are optimistic that it will pass this year, bringing needed help to a growing challenge.

In New York City alone, 6,000 brownfield sites have been identified, more than half of which are on the waterfront. The success of projects like the one on Williamsburg's waterfront–bolstered by powerful new tools contained in BRERA–may foster a rise in brownfield redevelopment and bring needed parks and open spaces to communities nationwide.