Activists Camp Out to Call for Completion of a Brooklyn Park
New York Times
July 11, 2016
Throughout its well-documented transformation, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has hosted an array of outlandish incongruities. By now, the images are almost hackneyed: artists and Hasidim gliding along on bicycles, sporting parallel chest-length beards; coffee beans of every roast sharing shelf space with spices from the Caribbean and craft beers brewed in nearby warehouses that had long stood idle.
But a scene along the East River on Saturday night would have given pause to even the most jaded Brooklynite. On a plot of pavement in the shadow of an industrial wasteland, a congresswoman, the borough president and several dozen community activists were trying to pitch a tent.
The would-be campers were seeking not a temporary respite from the asphalt but rather the creation of a permanent park. More than a decade ago, New York City promised to build a 28-acre green space along the inlet in exchange for the community’s support for a rezoning that added luxury residential buildings to what was once a primarily working-class enclave. But the revitalization of Williamsburg has galloped ahead without completion of Bushwick Inlet Park, and the “sleep-in” on Saturday was a plea to the businessman who owns a parcel of land that stands between its uncoupled ends.
“We’re not asking for anything more than what was promised us,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat whose district includes part of Williamsburg and who spent the night in a narrow orange tent. “And it wasn’t just a promise, it was a deal.”
A group has proposed turning the refineries and warehouses on the land that the park is supposed to occupy into a museum and exhibition space called Maker Park. However, city officials dismissed the idea, saying the structures need to be demolished to ensure that the heavily polluted land underneath can be properly remediated. CreditKevin Hagen for The New York Times
In 2005, almost 200 blocks of Williamsburg and Greenpoint were rezoned to accommodate the construction of the high-end condominiums and rental buildings that now hug the water’s edge. To moderate the effect on the community, which activists say sorely lacks green space, the city committed to building Bushwick Inlet Park on five and a half blocks along the East River. So far, only a corner of it has been created, at the southern end.
The city’s efforts to fulfill its promise have been complicated by the difficulty of buying land from different owners to piece the park together, not to mention the eventual cleanup of decades of industrial pollution. The price of the project has catapulted past the original estimates of $60 million to $90 million made when Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent, was mayor. The city has already spent $198 million on land, and $25.8 million on development. But the biggest plot still eludes the project: an 11-acre swath in the middle of the footprint, held by Norman Brodsky, owner of CitiStorage.
At the moment, Mr. Brodsky remains in a standoff with the city, which offered him $100 million for the property in June. Though Mr. Brodsky declined to comment, those involved in the conversations said he was hoping for a higher bid, reportedly as much as $325 million. Real estate experts pegged the property’s minimum value at between $120 million and $180 million, according to Crain’s New York Business.
City officials argued that their offer was “fair and appropriate” and that the value of the land had soared only because of rezoning contingent upon the creation of the park. Mr. Brodsky has thus far spurned the city and put the property up for an auction ending in July. Some have even suggested that the city use eminent domain to claim the land, betting that whatever compensation a court required would be less than the amount Mr. Brodsky was demanding. (Asked about the use of eminent domain, a city spokeswoman said, “Our focus is on a negotiated sale.”)
Daniel Campo, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore who has studied the area’s ethnographic history, spoke during the sleep-in. CreditKevin Hagen for The New York Times
Sensing opportunity in the gridlock, another group has proposed an alternate idea: turning the ghost town of ramshackle refineries and warehouses into a museum and exhibition space called Maker Park. City officials dismissed the idea, saying the area’s postapocalyptic feel may appeal to trendy developers, but that the structures need to be demolished to ensure that the heavily polluted land underneath can be properly remediated.
Despite occasionally biblical rain on Saturday, several dozen residents of the neighborhood took part in the demonstration, which offered music, dancing and trays of lukewarm hot dogs. The gathering was less kumbaya than college colloquium, with participants sitting down to lectures from Daniel Campo, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore who has studied the area’s ethnographic history, and Adam Perlmutter, a lawyer who has helped to litigate the parkland dispute.
“It’s clear that this area was always meant to be a park,” said Katherine Conkling Thompson, 53, a member of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park, an advocacy group that has championed the proposed park for decades. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a neighborhood desperate for green space.”
The idea for the sleep-in was conceived by the borough president, Eric L. Adams, a Democrat who has made a habit of overnight advocacy. Last year, he was among a group of legislators and activists who slept outside the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, as part of a battle over rent regulations.
So far, only a corner of Bushwick Inlet Park has been created, at the southern end of a footprint that is eventually supposed to cover 28 acres. CreditKevin Hagen for The New York Times
“We want to send a strong message to Mr. Brodsky to take the city’s offer,” said Mr. Adams, who grew soaked in the storm as he spoke. “The rain only shows that our commitment is real.”
With increasing frequency, Ms. Maloney has also found that the work of politics sometimes includes sleeping on unforgiving surfaces. She recently joined colleagues in an overnight sit-in for gun control legislation that involved occasional dozing on the carpeted floor of the House of Representatives. Addressing the gathering, Ms. Maloney repeatedly banged her hand down on a projector, which zapped off and seemed to be left in dubious shape.
“Over my dead body will they upzone this park,” she said to cheers. “They can drag us away from here.”
Soon enough, a group of police officers seemed to consider doing just that. “I don’t know about this,” one said as he surveyed the cluster of tents. His tone immediately shifted when he noticed Mr. Adams, a former police captain who used to work in the precinct. “What’s up, Eric?” the officer said. After a quick chat, the squad car drove off.
“I promoted those guys,” Mr. Adams explained with a grin.
In the morning, Mr. Perlmutter brought doughnuts and coffee. Bleary-eyed and still damp, the group packed up and headed to a nearby fence where they had hung a board counting down the days left for Mr. Brodsky to accept the city’s offer. On Sunday, the figure stood at 29. Through the chain-link barricade, they looked at the dilapidated landscape, sleepless but not hopeless.
Photo by Kevin Hagen for the NY Times.