Here Comes Everybody

The final pier has opened. Brooklyn Bridge Park is all but complete.

By Anne Raver

Photo by Alex MacLean.

It was raining, so we crouched, rather than sat, in the grassy bowl that Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, had envisioned as the centerpiece of the newly completed green space and playground on Pier 3, which, like most of the other piers in Brooklyn Bridge Park, sprawls over five acres, into the East River.

“I’m lucky to know what it’s like to imagine and hope for something like this for 20 years and finally see it, have it realized,” said Van Valkenburgh, whose firm drew its first plan for this park in 1999. “Look at that sky.”

Cradled in the middle of this sunken, wide bowl of soft lawn grass, bordered along its undulating edges by drifts of meadow grasses, trees, and shrubs, we couldn’t see the river or any of those spectacular views—of Manhattan, of the Statue of Liberty—so abundantly present elsewhere in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

We saw clouds moving overhead, patches of blue as the rain lifted. It was a relief from all that drama of the city and the harbor. “It’s serene. It has an interiority, a kind of counterbalance to those views,” Van Valkenburgh said. “It holds you, in a way you feel at Olmsted’s Long Meadow in Prospect Park.”

He nodded toward the long logs of black locust placed along the serpentine edges of this bowl.

“In Rome, I knew a park where pine trees had fallen and were left on the ground, here and there, skinned as benches,” he said. “The playful benches provided a kind of connection to plant growth that I had always wanted to bring to a park.”

These skinned logs were once huge black locusts growing in a forest upstate. Now, they are anchored to buried concrete deadmen, to keep them from floating away in the next big storm.

They call it moonlighting. Downward-facing lights on tall poles allow evening parkgoers to enjoy the river views and everything else without glare. The park at night stays awake with the rest of the city. Photo by Alex MacLean.

It’s the little things, combined with the spectacular, that make Brooklyn Bridge Park such a masterwork. Originally set at $350 million for construction, the park broke ground in 2008, opened its first sections in 2010, and, though its main piers are now complete, has a few major projects remaining. (A plaza beneath Brooklyn Bridge, another berm, and a swimming pool may raise the cost to $400 million.) The park received the Award of Excellence for General Design in the 2018 ASLA Professional Awards.

This postindustrial site, once covered with metal sheds and decrepit piers, runs for more than a mile along the East River, cheek by jowl to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), before curving north beneath the great arches of the Brooklyn Bridge and then the Manhattan Bridge, where trains for the Sixth Avenue and Broadway lines scream and rattle overhead. Always, there is the river, lapping the riprap, moving up wide steps or a gently sloped ramp or sandy beach, carrying water taxis and ferries, tugboats and barges along its fast-moving tidal current. “The enormity of scale was our biggest design challenge,” Van Valkenburgh said.

I’ve been back to this 85-acre park half a dozen times since I first wrote about it in 2014, and what struck me as most powerful then—its sweeping views and great muscularity, its intimacy and little places to get lost in—hasn’t diminished as sections have been added.

I get the same pleasure walking up the hill that now rises on Pier 1, following a path bordered by multitrunked London planes, to stand at the top of a ridge that looks southwest, across the river, to the Statue of Liberty raising her arm in the distance.

I experience the same soaring sensation walking down the north side of Pier 5, where the steel posts that once held up the old shed now frame three soccer fields and march toward the river like skinny poplars in a view snatcher, to Manhattan rising over 900 acres of water.

On the Pier 5 uplands, a mix of oak, honey locust, catalpa, and other trees is playfully employed to delay views of what lies ahead. Photo by Scott Shigley.

Matthew Urbanski, ASLA, and Paul Seck, both principals of the firm, worked with Van Valkenburgh on the master plan. They embraced the industrial history of the site and the dynamic of nature taking over the ruins.

“We loved the aesthetic of abandoned sites,” Urbanski said. “We took boat rides to overgrown islands.”

There’s a rural quality here, too, in the wooden telephone poles saved for lighting, the post-and-wire fencing along the hedgerows and boisterous meadows. They recall old Brooklyn, when farms stretched eastward across Long Island, and mansions topped the steep riverbanks high over the water. Its dense plantings of trees and shrubs, which can stand up to salt winds and inundation, and its rowdy meadows also answer a longing for nature in the city.

The intentional remains of the pile fields that register the tides, the high, grassy berms that reduce the noise of the BQE by 40 percent (and recall those high riverbanks), and the angular riprap along the curving shoreline are just a few of the broad strokes that embrace both the wild power of the river and the undeniable workings of the city, where necessary machinery—a combined sewer outflow near Bird Island, the remains of Pier 4, planted with trees and shrubs for wildlife, and a fan plant north of Pier 5—isn’t covered up.

Seck nodded toward the cars and trucks moving along the top tier of the BQE one morning.

“Even if we could have made the berms higher, I don’t think we wanted to,” he said. “There’s serious infrastructure you can’t apologize for, like the fan plant.” We stared at a drab yellow brick structure, perched above the beach north of Pier 5. “Every subway line into Brooklyn runs through here. If anything caught on fire, the fan plant would pull exhaust and all that.”

It was Urbanski who insisted on keeping the perimeter armatures of the piers. “And honestly, they would be so much less interesting if we didn’t have that kind of skeleton,” said Van Valkenburgh. “All we did was to have the brains to recognize how great it was and not mess it up.” And Brooklyn Bridge Park returns something eternal that has been missing for more than a century—access to the river.

Van Valkenburgh recalled the words of Mary Ellen Murphy, a longtime Brooklyn Heights resident and activist, who spoke at the end of a long community meeting back in the late 1990s. Murphy said she was old and living on a fixed income. She couldn’t afford to get out of the city. She just wanted to go down to the river at night and put her feet in, watch the moonlight on the water.

“That was a paradigm shift in park making,” Van Valkenburgh said. “We realized this park wasn’t about scenery; it was about the river.”

And it had to embrace a vast diversity of needs and interests. “It’s kind of like making Thanksgiving dinner for everybody,” Van Valkenburgh said. It’s this great diversity—of both people and uses—that makes the park so democratic and joyful.

Opening the park in stages was the result of funding that came in chunks over the years. That timing had its benefits, said Seck, the project manager: “If you don’t build it all at once, you learn a heck of a lot about what you’re doing. Sometimes you can do it better, or cheaper.” And it isn’t easy to find a good contractor who can build a $350 million job. “You would have a very small pool of bidders,” Seck said. “But for a $10 or $20 million piece, the pool is a lot bigger.”

Regina Myer, an urban planner who served as president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, worked closely with the design team from 2007 to 2016, managing the finances and maintenance of the park. Myer pushed for using the first $150 million to build opposite ends of the park—the children’s playgrounds, with their lush plantings and water features, on Pier 6, at the entrance of Atlantic Avenue, and the dramatic hilly landscape of Pier 1, a mile north at Old Fulton Street.

We wanted to have the biggest impact on the community, and they’d been fighting for the park for so long,” Myer said. Opening at opposite ends, in 2010, also sent the message that the whole waterfront would eventually be embraced.

“At the end of that first summer, we had no more money, so we just built a temporary bikeway to connect everything.”

Myer saw Atlantic Avenue as the gateway to the rest of the borough. She pushed to get the 63 Bus to stop at the Pier 6 entrance. The 63’s head sign now reads: Pier 6, Brooklyn Bridge Park. “That’s one of my crowning achievements,” she said.

The park continued to open in stages: the soccer fields and popular Picnic Peninsula on Pier 5 in late 2012; the ball courts and skating rink on Pier 2 and the beach that faces Bird Island in 2014.

As other parts of the park have opened—a densely planted meadow on the western end of Pier 6, a terraced landscape on the uplands of Pier 5, and most recently, on Pier 3, the bowl-like lawn and hedged labyrinth of play spaces made of found objects (mooring bollards, for instance, grouped like totems)—Brooklyn Bridge Park has something for everyone, including playgrounds for toddlers at every entrance.

Making a shot under a repurposed industrial shed, with Manhattan as a backdrop. Photo by Lexi Van Valkenburgh.

Van Valkenburgh, who has moved his residence and office from Manhattan to Brooklyn (the firm still has an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts), likes to walk along the Picnic Peninsula, when the air is redolent with spicy grilled meats, eggplants, and peppers, and filled with stories in another tongue—Brooklyn speaks more than 200 different languages—and the shouts from the nearby soccer field. He revels in the rowdy athletes piling out of the subways and heading down the staid, mostly white streets of Brooklyn Heights.

The entire park’s dense plantings and lawns retain stormwater, rain gardens collect much of what runs down various slopes, and the rest is directed into underground tanks, then recycled for 70 percent of irrigation needs.

The Pier 1 rain gardens are a favorite of children and naturalists drawn to the wildlife hovering over the joe-pye weed, queen of the prairie, mallow, buttonbush, swamp milkweed, and other wet-loving species.

Those swales, crossed by pedestrian bridges, merge with a tidal salt marsh of Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass, on the southern edge of Pier 1, which had to be carefully planted in the upper third of the tidal zone for just the right amount of saltwater exposure. A curving riprap gravity wall, as well as the exposed piles of a relieving platform, lessen destructive wave action.

Granite slabs, recycled from the Willis Avenue Bridge, offer a perch high over the marsh. Jeffrey Sandgrund, the chief operating officer for Brooklyn Bridge Park, learned a secret about the sunset here, on a particular day in August. “There’s one place to sit, where the sun sets directly behind the Statue of Liberty and lights up her torch,” said Sandgrund. “Michael told me about it when I first started, and every year I try to get there. It only exists for five minutes that one day.”

As it stabilized, the marsh provided another buffer for storm surges, as well as attracting wildlife and cleansing the river of nutrients. MVVA worked with the restoration ecologist Eric Rothstein to construct the marsh.

The team consulted soil scientists from Pine & Swallow Environmental to design a soil profile before planting the rooted plugs grown from native seed stock by Pinelands Nursery of New Jersey. These feats of engineering and horticulture are everywhere. Because Pier 3 could support only 350 pounds per square foot, layers of geofoam were stacked to form the undulating shape of the landscape before the bowl-like lawn was planted in two feet of soil, and the trees and shrubs in six inches more.

The soils are engineered for particular conditions and species. MVVA works closely with a soil biologist, James Sotillo, to come up with liquid biological amendments, either bacterial or fungal, which are injected into the soil.

Anyone who loves plants can’t help but notice the diversity and ebullience of combinations here, from the playful use of catalpas and paulownias—trash trees to many designers—at the top of the Granite Prospect, a spectacular outlook over the river, to the mind-boggling variety of rugged perennials and trees in the wet meadow on Pier 6.

“We were inspired by the High Line, in its wild state,” said Jason Siebenmorgen, an associate principal at MVVA whose knowledge of plants guided many of the plantings here. “The pattern moves around with the sequence of bloom.”

In September, the asters and goldenrods were coming into their own. The Eupatorium and Filipendula had faded to rusty dried flowerheads. We rambled along paths that curved around groupings of sassafras and black gum, pitch pine and Hollywood juniper.

“We call them bombs of trees. We float them apart, for islands of shade,” Siebenmorgen said.

At the southwest corner of this wild garden, we stepped through an opening in the old shed’s skeleton to stand against the railing of the pier. We were actually over the river now, below Manhattan, where the harbor opens to the sea. Walking north, all those boisterous plants—inkberry, beach roses, chokeberry, bayberry, and beach plum—were hanging out of the shed’s frame. It was the English garden gone industrial, exuberance bounded by geometry.

The sound-muffling berms, plush with waving grasses, are another engineered miracle of fill, layers of soil and jute mesh or Geofiber. Acoustic engineers from Cerami & Associates took sound measurements as noise from the BQE traveled across the park. The best reduction in sound came at an elevation of 35 feet, which determined the height of the berms.

The steep berms have been difficult for gardeners to weed, and the first, at Pier 3, suffered some dieback and erosion.

The second berm, on the Pier 5 uplands, was planted with a nurse crop of oats, and then a simpler mix of cool season grasses, in leaner soil. Geofiber, rather than jute mesh, has controlled erosion while being kinder to plant roots. A narrow goat path carved above the pedestrian path is really for gardeners.

The Pier 5 uplands is another intricate landscape, with grafted cherry trees at the top of the south rise, a mix of oak, honey locust, catalpa, elderberry, and viburnum along the lower path, and Deodar cedar and catalpa placed at the foot of the northern slope—to hide a bit more of the BQE and to frame a terraced lawn and sitting area, where movable chairs overlook a little marsh, sloping riprap, and the Picnic Peninsula and marina beyond.

“The idea was for it to be a passive counterpoint to the activities on the Picnic Peninsula,” said Andy Wisniewski, a senior associate at MVVA. We were walking along the upper path, a Cryptomeria and Deodar cedars to our left, the high berm to our right. “It’s like walking through a canyon,” Wisniewski said. Then the view opened up to the Brooklyn Bridge against the sky.

These uplands have an unexpected feeling of depth and height, of many layers and perches, especially the long stones, saved from a Brooklyn Bridge repair, set along the highest pedestrian path. You don’t hear the BQE here, resting against the berm, like a big, high-backed armchair, looking over the picnickers and the ball players to the river, once again, and the Manhattan skyline.

Tons of recycled stone and wood add to the park’s rugged, weathered feel. Hundreds of benches and 100 picnic tables were built from rot-resistant, longleaf yellow pine salvaged from the National Cold Storage Warehouse (see “Wood That Could and Should,” LAM, August 2013), which once stood on Pier 1, and milled locally.

The Picnic Peninsula itself is a concrete relieving platform cut away to reveal the river flowing back and forth on either side. The concrete slab edges of the piers provide 30-foot-wide avenues for walking, fishing, docking a boat, or sitting peacefully on a bench.

The giant slab stairway of the Granite Prospect, on Pier 1, which overlooks the river and Manhattan—that spectacular view again—is made of 300 pieces of recycled granite.

“Granite Prospect was never part of the original design; it would have been another lawn,” said Sandgrund. “But DOT was taking apart the Roosevelt Bridge and said, ‘We have all this granite,’ and Michael said, ‘Yeah, we’ll figure out how to use it.’”

Granite from the Willis Avenue Bridge makes up a terrace and wide steps that now lead down to Pier 3.

Great pie-shaped salvage stones have been used for an overlook near the Manhattan Bridge, impossibly planted with inkberry, elderberry, American holly, and a mix of Aesculus species. A sloping lawn tilts toward the river view.

“We had this idea of making hills very early in the planning process, because this flat site needed some oomph,” Urbanski said. “We called them signal mounts, this idea of raising points, as the park curved around the shore.” Raising the grade also lifted plants above saltwater, though they weren’t quite thinking that then. “Once we survived Sandy, the hills were the most prescient, genius thing we ever did,” Urbanski said. They lost 78 trees in Sandy, including supposedly salt-tolerant London plane and sweet gum, as well as Metasequoia, while ginkgo and Bosnian pine hardly blinked.

These spaces north of the Brooklyn Bridge are a kind of microcosm of the more expansive landscapes to the south. There are delicious moments, like the little pedestrian bridge that crosses over a small tidal marsh, where footings of an old warehouse remain.

“You can’t buy art that looks that cool,” Urbanski said. “It’s the landscape design notion of palimpsest, of old drawings showing through the new.” Urbanski created the playful spaces at the end of Pier 6, creating mini-hills and valleys, dense plantings of his favorite trees and shrubs, including all those hydrangeas and privet you see at a beach house in the Hamptons. Only here, instead of the Jitney, you take the 63 Bus to Atlantic Avenue.

The tall privet, which lines a walkway clear to a ferry landing, has been “pruned the wrong way,” Urbanski noted with a laugh, to arch out over the benches below and provide a bit of shade.

You can duck behind the hedge to Swing Valley, where a Tarzan-like trapeze and a bouncy floor painted blue (think swimming hole) attract the extroverts. “This is for the screamers—‘Look at me! Look at me!’” said Urbanski, who created plenty of quiet places for the shyer types. He pointed out a grove of bamboo he neglected to contain at its roots. “Kids have colonized it, made these feral trails, turned it into their own play space.” He loves the tropical feel of catalpa leaves. “Didn’t you play with those pods when you were a kid?”

Sandbox Village is for toddlers. A sculpted chicken, frog, and turtle are in the country; a wooden train pulls into Town Square; a friendly whale spouts water in the ocean. Older children scream and scamper around the rocks at the Water Lab, a series of water pumps and dams, which can be operated by hand. Shaded by cedars and oaks, it feels a bit like a New England pothole. A secret hideaway lies across a sandy path.

“This is for the real misanthropes like me,” said Urbanski, who remembers his childhood playground as a place to get beaten up. “It’s supposed to feel mysterious, so kids can discover it.” A path winds around a wetland of Equisetum, winterberry, and viburnum. A Metasequoia towers over one end, its limbs an invitation to climb.

We parted on the edge of the Picnic Peninsula, which was already filling up with families. “This is the in-town vacation concept,” said Urbanski. “The 16-year-old has to play in the soccer league. Grandma hasn’t been out of the house in six weeks. The little one can crawl around the playpen”—a colorful enclosed space in the tot lot—“and Uncle Tony can have his beer in a paper bag.” And go stick his feet in the East River.

Anne Raver has written about nature and the environment for more than 30 years.

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