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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Greenpoint urban initiative

Greenpoint knows it’s on the waterfront. Even though walking to the river's edge is almost impossible, shimmers from the East River catch the eye as the visitor looks down the tree-lined streets that intersect Manhattan Avenue. The impression is that an inviting view, some benches and shady gardens wait in the distance.

But Greenpoint has no waterfront parks. The streets to the river end at chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, torn-up parking lots and scrap yards. Each dead-end is a page in the story of the neighborhood’s industrial past. But these same relics stand for residents as a barrier to what some consider New York City’s greatest natural resources—its rivers and harbors.

The Olympics would have brought to this area—located across the river in Brooklyn from the Empire State Building— an arena for swimming and diving and a two-mile park along the river. Those plans were shelved following the city's unsuccessful bid for the games, but they added momentum to efforts by activists and residents to open up Greenpoint’s waterfront.

"A single road down to the waterfront for a community without access can be more meaningful than a 400 acre park," said Carter Craft, Director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, at a lecture held at the Urban Center in August. "With the price of park land through the roof, the wave of waterfront design is to get people on and in the water."

The Alliance is a collection of architects, academics, environmentalists and civic leaders who advocate for parks projects along the city's rivers. Some projects, such as Gantry State Park in Long Island City, Queens, are complete, to rave reception; others, such as a riverfront park at the end of India Street in Greenpoint, are just beginning. And some are still in the conceptual phase—a glimmer of green in the designer’s eye. The Alliance formed around a 1999 study that concluded the 13 million inhabitants of the New York metropolitan area were cut off from the 800 miles of waterfront that surrounded them.

Donna Walcavage, who is planning the Greenpoint Waterfront Park on Greenpoint Avenue, said: "Waterfronts used to be active centers of life. Today, in some neighborhoods, you can be a block from the water and not know it."

But Greenpoint is on the water—and knows it.

Although the Olympics are a no show, the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg (the neighborhood just to the south) got a boost this year when the city approved rezoning the area. Community groups lobbied for modification of the plan amidst fears that developers, in the scramble to build condominiums with unobstructed city views, would edge out residents for waterfront access.

The Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning (GWAPP) is working to ensure completion of a 1.6-mile river walkway beginning with a one-block park on India Street. The group says the park “will provide Greenpoint’s very first legal access to the East River.” It will also test how well the new zoning accommodates parkland.

A glimpse at what Greenpoint's waterfront has in store for it can be found just up the river in Gantry State Park. The park's plaza and gardens are fastened to the shoreline at the bases of four original gantries-- structures used to unload steel from railroad cars. The city wanted to fence off the gantries, said lead architect Thomas Balsley, and some doubted their visual appeal, but at Balsley’s persistence, the gantries were allowed to stand as they had 75 years ago.

"Our goal was to create a unique, provocative park that would spark the public's imagination," Balsley said. "The park exploits the diverse, post-industrial coastline of coves, peninsulas and pier remnants. We didn't want to cover the region's historical economic engine. We wanted to celebrate it."

The New York Times wrote, "The miracle of Gantry State Park is that it takes risks." If risks lead to miracles in projects like these, the future of Greenpoint’s waterfront looks glorious.

Jonathan Kirschenfeld has in mind an architectural showstopper—a “floating swimming pool” moored at the Greenpoint Waterfront Park. The pool will sit on the deck of a 250-foot long converted barge. Changing rooms, a snack bar, fountains for “water play” and a dining terrace finish Kirschenfeld’s design.

“The floating pool is a way to bring people to the waterfront, to let people know it’s there,” said Kirschenfeld, who was inspired by the floating bathhouses along the East River at the turn of the twentieth century. He announced the $3.5 million budget for the floating pool, and then took a pause to entertain chuckles from the audience at the Urban Center. The project proceeds undaunted, though. The floating pool is being built today at a shipyard in Louisiana; upon completion, it will be towed northward through New York harbor and up the East River to Greenpoint. Kirschenfeld hopes to throw a party onboard for the city’s July 4, 2006 fireworks.

Kirschenfeld isn’t the only one showing creative flair. Peter Gillespie, Executive Director of Neighbors Against Garbage, along with several other groups, is running an open invitation for residents to draw up plans for their visions of Williamsburg State Park—a two-block waterfront lot scheduled for re-development. And colorful ideas for the “Add Your Mark to the Waterfront” competition are rolling in from a neighborhood known as a home to many artists.

“We’re working with the community’s desire to participate in development,” said Gillespie in a telephone interview. He said that between five and 10 proposals will be selected for additional funding to fill-out the concepts.

One after another, the lectors at the Urban Center painted the edges of the East River green. “There was a time in the '80s when a 12 foot walkway along the river was considered a victory,” Balsley said.

By Gregory Yanick - New York
Greener Magazine Staff Writer

View slideshow - photos, G. Yanick

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