Photo: The Brooklyn Paper (Rogers Marvel Architects).
In the last weeks, national housing developer Toll Brothers released the condo designs for its 159-unit + 200-room hotel development adjacent to Brooklyn Bridge Park. In exchange for a 98-year lease on the site, Toll Brothers' project must contribute $3.3 million to the Park's annual maintenance budget--by now a well-rehearsed strategy for sharing the costs and benefits of building waterfront parks in Brooklyn. Toll, best known for single family suburban projects, was chosen out of a competition juried by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation (BBPC), NYCEDC, and Parks Commission. The site plans were drafted by Manhattan-based Rogers Marvel Architects, whose recent public-scale New York City projects include the renovation of McCarren Park Pool and The Elevate Acre. The firm has also designed several other Downtown Brooklyn residential projects.
But the plans for Toll's Pier 1 project, according to The Brooklyn Paper, have a glaring problem. The portion of condos that will sit at grade along three blocks of Old Fulton Street have fenced off backyards. And this, park champions charge, literally flies in the face of the park's purpose. The article quotes a few critics who say the backyards diminish space that would otherwise be seen as public--if not actually--at least in spirit. But since the backyards are within the development's lot lines and don't appear to violate any zoning terms, their charge isn't quite striking a chord. But should Toll Brothers take them seriously? I think yes, but for much more material reasons than preserving "the spirit of the park".
Without access to Toll's development pro forma, I can only speculate that its long-term obligation to park maintenance fees, combined with the overall steep project costs threaten to squeeze Toll's margin. And since private space-starved New Yorkers will pay a premium for exclusive access to the outdoors, it makes sense to offer a combination of terraces and backyards to prospective buyers. And practically, backyards along Old Fulton will buffer Toll's high-priced homes from the exhausting sounds of tour buses, wedding limos, and merry pedestrian park goers. And they will also afford residents private, outdoor "tailgating"-type spaces, where they and their friends can warm up to or cool down from a park visit.
But the Pier 1 development's rival, One Brooklyn Bridge Park, another luxury condo building at the south end of the park with a similar maintenance fee arrangement, takes a different tack. The building's current website scrolls with attractive, black-and-white pictures of residents playing in the park, set against the enormous building. The accompanying taglines claim the blurred line between public and private as a singularly attractive form of exclusivity:
"Our kids' friends love to visit the game lounge, movie theater, and our 85 acre backyard," and
"There's only one place where luxury living meets the great outdoors: my place."
I'd love to hear from Toll how it imagines its own condos' designs relate to their prospective buyers' sense of park ownership.
Though the proposed Backyards at Pier 1 don't extend beyond the development's property lines or try and sub-in for sidewalk improvements Toll is obligated to build, they could take residents out of park circulation. These backyards, much like the coveted views enjoyed by Brooklyn Heights' townhome-owners just up the road, might prime new residents to see their own propertied interests as distinct from park visitors, and particularly as the park's final phases are complete. And this would be a sad loss--of level-headed consideration for the highest and best park uses going forward, and conversely the positive spillover of park improvements on private property values.
The case of Prospect Park West's 2010-2012 reconfiguration by the NYCDOT comes to mind: the loss of some parking in exchange for protected bike lanes was seen by PPW's motoring residents as an inconvenience and even a grievous assault. But to pedaling, walking, and running park goers, it was a boon--extending the safety and accessibility of the park nearer to the neighborhood. Curiously and in spite of abundant evidence in dense New York City about the significantly positive effect of park proximity on property values, no homeowner decrying the new bike lanes was talking about how they might cost out in the long run. Even more curious, these residents were usually reluctant to audibly proclaim the real reason for their concerns--which is to say their private interest in parkingease. Instead, in news articles and at public hearings, the most outspoken couched their protests in terms of safety, even disputing findings of the DOT's traffic studies and crash rates before and after the road diet. (StreetsblogNYC provided excellent, ongoing coverage of the insider politicking behind the PPW uproar and lawsuit, which can be found here.)
Well-tended public parks are a hugely important part of attracting and retaining resilient investment in cities. And so it makes sense for park stewardship to be a matter of public and private investment, creating shared value for their sustainability. But in order for this public/private toolset to work successfully, it must plan to align the interests of developers and their homebuyers, City agencies and the park-going public, and not only at the moment the deal is made. Over time, homeowners will literally have the highest stake in the neighborhood--in the form of private property values and the park maintenance bill they help to pay. The park's boundless publics need homeowners to stay close to the park--in all seasons--to need it for their own recreational, exercise, meditation uses, and so to see as near as possible how the general public values this asset. Looking down from above or peering over a backyard fence are insufficient.
Backyards abutting Brooklyn Bridge Park will no doubt be a popular feature of Toll's Pier 1 condos. But they could also take some of the park's potential best long-term friends out of circulation, much like backyards do for parks in land-rich Los Angeles. And if that occurs, condo residents' interests will shortly shift to concerns well within their property lines, and very probably within the confines of personal proclivity. And it is here where the NIMBY takes root, safely beyond reach of pleasant encounters with the stranger, the laughing child, the pedaling velodrome pilgrim. Backyards are bad for the business of public interest.
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