It is a rare project that is fully funded, as well as supported by both the public and its elected representatives, but still can’t get off the drawing board. But the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Beach, which (if built) would become the sole access point at which Lower Manhattan residents could step into the water that surrounds them — rather than merely looking at it — faces just such a quandary. It has received $15 million of dollars in funding from both the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the City Council, is supported by Community Board 1 (CB1) and a chorus of elected officials, but remains at a years-long standstill.
In recent months, Graeme Birchall, president of the Downtown Boathouse, has become a quiet-but-persistent advocate for the project. At the November 15 Community Town Hall Meeting hosted by State Senator Daniel Squadron, he noted, “we’re trying to get access to that lovely little beach under the Brooklyn Bridge on the Manhattan side,” adding that the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), “got $10 million in funding to open up that beach and nothing is happening.”
At the October 25 meeting of CB1, Mr. Birchall said, “you either use your waterfront or lose it. After CB1 passed a resolution supporting Brooklyn Bridge Beach last year, it was sent to EDC. But I don’t think there’s been a response. Let’s get some public access to the waterfront.”
Earlier this year, the LMDC allocated $5 million to the project. According to the official website of Governor Andrew Cuomo, these funds were intended, “to continue to build on… past support for public waterfront access…. The project will also include the installation of new railings and site furnishing while creating limited beach access near the Brooklyn Bridge.”
This tranche of funding came on top of a 2013 allocation of $7 million from then-Manhattan Borough President (now City Comptroller) Scott Stringer. Opposed to this coalition is the EDC, which took possession of the funds from both the Borough President’s office and the LMDC, as they were allocated. The EDC, which is the lead agency overseeing the development of the East River waterfront, bases its position on a 2014 feasibility study, which concluded that, “due to existing site conditions and other ongoing uses in the vicinity of Brooklyn Bridge Beach,” the 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.” Instead, this report proposed “alternative engagement strategies,” including fishing platforms and onshore wading pools.
That study was reviewed by CB1 in February of this year. At that meeting, 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.” CB1 agreed with Mr. Birchall and passed a resolution urging the City to move ahead with the plan. This came on the heels of similar measures, enacted in 2008 and 2013.
In the intervening nine months, there has been no visible progress toward creating a public beach beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. An EDC source says, “the study conducted by a professional engineer determined that there were feasibility and safety concerns for the Brooklyn Bridge Beach project as it was originally proposed. Given the serious safety and permitting issues, we will not be building Brooklyn Bridge Beach as proposed, but still have every intention of creating a project that connects the community with the waterfront. We are working towards putting out a request for proposals for the design of a buildable project that takes into account safety and permitting feasibility concerns as set forth in the study.”
The EDC source continues, “in addition to completing Esplanade work, we plan on incorporating design elements that will bring people closer to the water including ‘fish-outs,’ ‘get-downs,’ or something new proposed by a new design that could be part of a new Brooklyn Bridge Esplanade.”
It was not immediately clear what legal authority EDC has to modify the intended purpose of funds allocated by other government agencies and remitted to it with the understanding that EDC would use the funds as directed. In the meantime, it appears that Lower Manhattan residents will have to continue, for the foreseeable future, to abide by the rule that has governed for generations their relationship with the water that surrounds them: “look, but don’t touch.”