Brooklyn Greenway Glitches

by Anne Schwartz, Jan 04, 2005

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made the creation of a Manhattan greenway a goal of his administration. Within two years of taking office, he completed an interim bicycle and pedestrian route around the entire island. He has supported putting into place the citywide 350-mile greenway plan, developed in 1993 by the Department of City Planning. But in Brooklyn, where the city is about to build one of the first sections of the trail envisioned along the downtown waterfront, the administration's current plans undermine the purpose of the greenway as a park space and a safe corridor for bicyclists and pedestrians.

All over the country, cities are creating landscaped bicycle and pedestrian paths (In PDF Format) for the many benefits they bring, including reducing traffic congestion, encouraging exercise, increasing real estate values and softening the hard edge of the city. So far, New York City has built about 100 miles of greenway, helped by the availability of federal transportation funding for this purpose.

Still to be built is the proposed Brooklyn Waterfront Trail in northwest Brooklyn, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Sunset Park. It would meet an existing path along Bay Ridge and could potentially connect with greenways along Jamaica Bay.

The first section of the trail slated to be built goes through the Columbia Street district, a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood wedged between the piers and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by the highway and connected to the working waterfront, it has the feel of a village and views of the Manhattan skyline. In a neighborhood only a few blocks wide, residents created four community gardens, which are now official city parks, and have been trying for a decade to get the city to put in the greenway through their neighborhood.

The city is finally putting a pedestrian/bicycle path through the area as part of a long-planned road reconstruction to better accommodate truck traffic to the piers. But the current design would leave the greenway with a hole in one section, where it eliminates the green - and the off-street path for bicyclists - in favor of widening the road.

For several blocks along Van Brunt Street, the city Department of Transportation plans to narrow an existing wide sidewalk and route bicyclists onto striped bike lanes on both sides of the street. To rejoin the greenway going north, riders would have to cross the street just before a blind turn that is being redesigned to allow trucks to pass at higher speeds.

Hundreds of residents have signed a petition to Bloomberg asking him to intervene in the impending reconstruction project and establish an interim greenway on the existing harbor-side sidewalk.

Residents believe that the greenway is being downgraded in favor of widening the road because adjoining neighborhoods, which are more populous and politically powerful, want to divert traffic from their streets. They note that the Columbia Street area already has 14 lanes of moving traffic. The Department of Transportation did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Community Board 6, which stretches from the Red Hook and Columbia Street waterfront to Park Slope, approved the road reconstruction project. According to Craig Hammerman, the district manager, the roadwork was originally proposed 15 years ago to reduce the impact on the neighborhood of trucks going off the approved routes. "If we design the truck route properly, then we won't need to rely on enforcement down the line," he said. The project has since taken on two other elements - infrastructure work for the Third Water Tunnel and incorporating the Brooklyn Waterfront Trail. In the negotiations over the project, the

Department of Transportation agreed to turn over for a park a 100-foot site originally intended to divert trucks. "We believe the agency has gone as far as we can get them to go," Hammerman said.

Bicycle advocates credit the Department of Transportation with becoming more bicycle friendly in recent years. The agency has added 200 miles of bike lanes as well as bicycle crossings on all four East River bridges, one factor contributing to doubling of the number of people riding bicycles in the city over the past 20 years. But they say it has been less receptive to off-street greenways or even physically separated lanes, giving first priority to moving vehicular traffic through the city.

One example is on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, where there are high volumes of traffic. The city chose not to put in a physically separated bike lane, "letting people fend for themselves in traffic," said Noah Budnick, projects director at the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. "In the Columbia Street area where you have a community that very much supports building the off-street path, it's harder to understand why the city and the Department of Transportation don't want to choose the safe alternative," he said.

Dave Lutz, a neighborhood resident and member of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Taskforce, an advocacy group, said that Van Brunt Street isn't the only place the city is putting a greenway along the road where there is space for it to go through a landscaped corridor. Lutz, who is also the director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition and one of the creators of the city's greenway plan, said, "As we paint those stripes on our streets and put greenway signs on those streets, we water down the term of what a greenway is. A greenway is a separate trail for pedestrians and bicyclists buffered by greenery."

The Overall Path

Because the land along the Brooklyn waterfront is controlled by so many different entities - including city agencies, the Port Authority, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and numerous private companies - piecing together a greenway promises to be a complicated and politically charged process.

The goal of greenway advocates is a 30-foot-wide, 14-mile-long landscaped off-street path along the waterfront. Such a trail would provide greenery and recreation for many neighborhoods that have very little public open space, as well as access to the borough's far-flung beaches and parks and its diverse neighborhoods. "It is as much a park space that you move through as a transportation corridor," said Robert Pirani, director of Environmental Programs at the Regional Plan Association, an independent planning group for the tri-state area.

Several local organizations are beginning to create an overall framework for the trail, which ultimately would be implemented by various city and state agencies and private landowners. The office of Borough President Marty Markowitz was instrumental in getting grants for the work through the New York State Waterfront Revitalization Program.

One of these organizations is the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, Inc., led by two former members of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Taskforce who split off from that group to take a more active role in planning and advocating for the overall path. Milton Puryear, director of planning for the initiative, said they believed that the way to "get around the DOT's refusal on Van Brunt Street and the quality we are after was to really communicate the whole vision and engage a much bigger population than the couple thousand people who live along the BQE."

Together with the Regional Plan Association, the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative has begun a six-month process of developing a route in Community Boards 2 and 6, from Red Hook to Newtown Creek in Greenpoint. The first public meeting was held in November. The planners will return with a conceptual plan at another public workshop on February 1.

In Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, the community-based organization UPROSE has trained neighborhood youths to lead a grassroots participation process to design a greenway through the largely Latino, Asian, and Arabic neighborhood. UPROSE helped block the construction of a power plant along the waterfront and is involved in a number of efforts to reduce pollution and increase greening in the neighborhood. The neighborhood has 35,000 young people, yet just a quarter-acre of parkland per thousand residents and almost no public access to the waterfront.

As the Brooklyn waterfront changes, there are many competing visions for how it should evolve. These range from preserving the working waterfront and encouraging water-borne transportation to current city proposals for housing, parks, and a cruise ship terminal. The city recently approved a zoning change in Red Hook to allow a controversial Ikea store to be built, and other big box stores may follow. These changes could provide opportunities for the creation of a green pathway, as well as obstacles.

Many of the projects proposed or in the works for the Brooklyn waterfront have the potential to increase automobile traffic unless there is an effort to develop alternatives. "Communities all across the country are trying to get automobile traffic off the waterfront so that the amenity value can benefit the community," said Pirani. "What is Brooklyn's waterfront edge going to be like? Is it going to be designed more for moving cars and trucks around the waterfront, or as more of a space for pedestrians and bicyclists and people being comfortable walking around it?"