A new battle rages in Brooklyn at the site where Washington saved every last soldier of the Continental Army by crossing the East River at Brooklyn Heights, fleeing British troops. Unfortunately, today’s battle has not ended heroically nor does it portend well for the nation’s public parks in the future.
Mayor Bloomberg proposes placing four additional luxury condo towers inside Brooklyn Bridge Park (joining the condo tower that opened in 2006). Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) from these five park condo towers will support park maintenance and on-going capital costs. This reflects the Mayor’s plan for parks to maintain and rebuild themselves, not from tax dollars like all other critical public services, but through building luxury high-rise towers inside public parks’ borders.
The last opportunity to win the battle against housing inside this park was lost in early August when Senator Daniel Squadron and Assemblywoman Joan Millman gave up their right to exercise a veto over housing in a faustian deal they made with the Mayor. They capitulated in return for park funding and recreational facilities the Mayor threatened to withdraw if his demand for housing was not met. They also agreed, despite Squadron’s galloping into office on the campaign promise of “no new housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park”, to immediately allow the next housing tower to rise in the north end of the park.
The irony is that the community had developed many alternatives for park funding that would have generated sufficient dollars to pay for the park without the need of housing inside its borders. But that was in direct conflict with the Mayor’s Private-Housing-Inside-Parks Doctrine so those ideas were whittled down to a few acceptable “if’s” that might, if the Jehovah Witnesses decide to sell buildings adjacent to the park, and if it could be done by January 2014, allow some outside-park buildings to be swapped for in-park housing. That is, if the community goes along with what could be significant up-zoning. And these “ifs” had an additional catch – the swap would not be an apples to apples trade off. The Mayor whittled the swap to .3 feet of planned park housing for every 1 foot of Jehovah Witness buildings found off site. Sound complicated? Making a deal with the devil is rarely ever simple.
Of course, even in the most dire of battles a few skirmishes are won. Here the deal included a sop to the community’s long advocated need for recreational facilities – recreation that was stripped out of the park plan when plantings for condo buildings took precedence over pools, ice rinks and ball fields. (Landscaping sells condos but ball fields do not.) So, in this new deal, the community is promised a temporary pool for 5 years, tennis courts, a bubble on one playing field, and a commitment to build out the pier that was to contain the only real recreational facilities that remained from the community’s park plan – basketball courts, skating and tetherball. So, recreation skirmish won. Hooray for park patriots!
The great irony is that the Mayor’s park-housing plan has already failed. The first condo tower inside the park at 1 Brooklyn Bridge Park has sold only half its units after five years on the market and the NYC Department of Finance recently reduced their payments to the park by $1 million. Add that to another one of the Mayor’s back room deals gone awry last month that resulted in a Federal Judge removing funds that were to come from park retail at Empire Stores – the Mayor had violated the national park’s services designation of that property as park land. It was a foregone conclusion that alternate means to pay for this park had to be explored because even more funds were needed than the park could accommodate with the Mayor’s housing plan!
Not to have called the Mayor’s bluff and used the significant power of the housing-veto, was a major blunder that will have repercussions for public parks long into the future. Boston and San Francisco are exploring private housing inside their new parks, citing park-housing “success” in Brooklyn.
The remaining hope is for a new army of committed politicians with the courage and leadership to fight for our parks, without privatizing them for condo development. These leaders can activate the standing army of community organizations in Brooklyn who have a major tool in their arsenal: we know how to pay for our parks without either the need for housing or new taxes.