A Critic’s Tour: New Parks Along the Waterfront

James Russell has become something of a connoisseur when it comes to views. The architecture critic for Bloomberg News is particularly fond of one spot found in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s a salt marsh right sandwiched between a pier and a piece of land that juts out into the East River. And what’s caught his eye is the view offered from Brooklyn’s newest park.

“What I really love is this really tiny natural area with a wonderful view right across the rivers of the huge towers of lower Manhattan that contrast just gets to me somehow,” he explained during a tour of the park.

But it’s not just the views this park affords that have made Russell a fan.

If Sandy exposed the city's vulnerability to flooding, this park, one of a growing number of waterfront parks and esplanades in development in Brooklyn and Queens, could be a possible solution. Russell is also the author of the book The Agile City, which looks at building and development in the era of climate change. He says Brooklyn Bridge Park isn’t just a grass and trees park, it’s transformative.

“People in Brooklyn and Queens just did not have access to the river at all or little street ends, that was about it,” Russell said. “And the parks and esplanades really open up all kinds of vistas and recreational opportunities that really had not existed. They were really walled off by industry.”

What also makes it transformative is it takes into account the realities of being on the water’s edge. It takes considers issues like rain and runoff. Russell points out a little stream that runs through one corner of the park.

“It looks like a completely natural stream, like it’s always been here,” he pointed out. “But it was completely invented for this park. And it’s one of the strategies that the city’s using in a lot parks now, which is to use more natural means of drainage.”

Hunter's Point South Park

(Photo: Hunters Point South Park will offer a mix of uses when completed, including being able to handle floodwaters. Caitlyn Kim/WNYC)

A few miles north, construction crews are working to get the first phase of Hunter's Point South Park in Queens open by May 15. This esplanade is part of a redevelopment project that will include housing and even a school. When completed, Hunters Point South, which could have housed an Olympic village, will have a big oval lawn, dog runs, playground, a ferry landing and more. It can also be flooded.

“This whole esplanade can in theory be flooded and not be seriously damaged,” Russell explains. “So there’s going to be a lot more sensitivity to that kind of thing I think in upcoming parks, but also the idea that the public can share a place that’s also used for flood control or handling rising waters, that’s going to become a bigger issue.”

Developing parks along the water also become more topical since Sandy. Redevelopment is not without its detractors – issues from gentrification, cost, blocking of river views accompany any and all projects. But, Russell notes, it does help pay for the creation of these parks and esplanades when the city budget might not stretch for them.

Russell, for one doesn’t want to see all esplanades along the river front or all buildings, be it commercial or residential. He likes a mix. And it’s the mix — of old and new, urban and wild — that makes these waterfront parks interesting to him, from a design perspective.

Domino Sugar Factory Site

(Photo: The former Domino Sugar factory site's redevelopment includes plans for a waterfront park./James Russell)

For an idea of what Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hunter's Point South used to look like, Russell takes us to a site between the two: The Domino Sugar factory. It’s slated for mixed use development by the company Two Trees.

The proposed esplanade that will accompany the redevelopment will include more active park activities, such as a floating pool and a kayak launch, than walkways and viewpoints proposed by other developers. It also gains a more park-like feel than the old proposed plan for the site because the buildings have been set back more, which will also reduce the risk of flooding.  The park will include "get downs," places where people can actually touch the water, though swimming, most likely, will not be encouraged. Like some of the other parks, there are also plans to incorporate some flavor of the old, industrial site.

Pointing to some large rusty tanks, Russell said, “I think that they really will tell you a lot about what use to be here and I hope they don’t make the restoration too pristine along the way. Actually I like these little angled bridges which were connecting processing plants but I have feeling they’re not going to survive into these new plans. But they’re going to keep these really spectacular loading gantries that were about loading sugar onto the ships and unloading supplies.”

It’s not just in Queens and Brooklyn. Russell says new parks like these are historic in the city because they open the waterfront in ways that can handle rising waters, while still giving the public access.

“Water is just alluring no matter what and people are really drawn to it,” he explained. “And I think that’s really important. It’s also a different way to get in touch with nature and just be able to blow off steam.”

And, as any view connoisseur will tell you, waterfront parks are great places to watch the sunset and the city skyline light up.