The February 16 meeting of the Seaport/Civic Center Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) considered whether Lower Manhattan deserves a beach of its own.
Graeme Birchall, president of the Downtown Boathouse, a local non-profit organization that promotes public access to the water, spoke in support of creating one. He also responded to “Brooklyn Bridge Beach: Feasibility Study,” a review conducted by the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in August, 2014, which throws cold water on the idea.
Despite the tip of Manhattan being surrounded by the Hudson and East Rivers, the community does not have a single beach. The one place where the public can actually get into the water is Pier 26, where the Downtown Boathouse hosts a free kayaking program from May through October. Aside from this lone opportunity, however, the primary rule residents are told to observe about the water is “look, but don’t touch.” Hoping to remedy this situation, community leaders have been pushing for the creation of a swimming area and small boat launch, situated beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, since 2013.
The EDC study’s main conclusion is, “due to existing site conditions and other ongoing uses in the vicinity of Brooklyn Bridge Beach,” its consultant team, “does not recommend allowing swimming or small recreational boat launching and landing at Brooklyn Bridge Beach without significant changes to the existing environment.”
Mr. Birchall responded that, “Kayaking in New York Harbor does have its challenges, but it also has an excellent safety record. Many tens of thousands of people go kayaking safely in New York Harbor every summer.” He continued, “The existing beach is fine as it is, both as a wading beach, and as a kayak launch site.”
The EDC study raised other concerns with a Brooklyn Bridge Beach accessible to the public. Its study claims, “The water quality in the lower East River is not likely to be suitable for water contact activities.”
Mr. Birchall’s response: “there are two public beaches directly across the river from the Brooklyn Bridge Beach, plus a kayak launch site.” This was a reference to sand beaches in Brooklyn Bridge Park, alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, and the East River State park, in Williamsburg. (There are also public beaches along the East River in Red Hook, Stuyvesant Cove and Astoria.)
A major issue cited in the EDC study was the need for structures to break large, incoming waves. Although the review listed multiple options, like artificial islands and floating breakwaters, it noted that all of these are expensive solutions.
But Mr. Birchall presented options the EDC had yet to consider, such as groynes (big rocks that go into the water to block waves and moving sand), which are inexpensive and used worldwide.
The EDC review, while acknowledging the many “desirable features” a beach would provide, concluded that without significant, expensive changes, the waterfront is unsafe, and therefore should remain closed.
Mr. Birchall responded to the EDC’s report as a whole with derision. He said, “The Feasibility Study can best be described as toxic waste. Almost every issue discussed is done so in a distorted way that emphasizes the unimportant and ignores the important.”
Although the EDC report emphasized two of the beach’s possible uses, swimming and kayaking, Mr. Birchall argued that beaches in New York City are used for much more. Many people enjoy the sand, he noted, or take wedding pictures there. Others, he added, play games near the water or just relax in the sun. Mr. Birchall added that such a beach would also bring in more tourists and help with the “Green NYC” brand.
Mr. Birchall concluded by urging that the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Beach be opened by this summer. “The Manhattan Community Boathouse and Downtown Boathouse have started a campaign to get people to go to the Parks Without Borders website and to ask for the Brooklyn Bridge Beach to be opened up,” he said. Anyone wishing to support this effort can browse www.nycgovparks.org/planning-and-building/planning/parks-without-borders.