Making Magic on the River

NEW YORK — One hot, hazy morning, I found a little shade under some pines in the garden near the end of the newly opened Pier 3, at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Slow ferries sliced whitecaps through the East River. In a maze of sassafras and juniper hedges, a woman played with her 6-year-old daughter.

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Michael Kimmelman
, New York Times

NEW YORK — One hot, hazy morning, I found a little shade under some pines in the garden near the end of the newly opened Pier 3, at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Slow ferries sliced whitecaps through the East River. In a maze of sassafras and juniper hedges, a woman played with her 6-year-old daughter.

And at the pier’s big reveal, three tourists, chattering in German, who had crossed from the upland side of the park, snapped selfies around the large sheltering bowl of a central lawn, peppered with forbs — a miniversion of Sheep Meadow — half-secluded behind thickets of linden trees and curving paths.

It’s easy to forget that barely more than a decade ago, when the idea for Brooklyn Bridge Park was still germinating, there wasn’t a blade of grass in sight along that stretch of the waterfront. What’s today acres of green space and athletic fields remained a grimy sprawl of parking lots and warehouses on decrepit piers. It required a kind of magical thinking to picture what might someday be.

Upriver, in Williamsburg, where Domino Park has recently opened, the Domino Sugar Refinery was on its last legs as late as 2004. And farther north, at Hunters Point, in Long Island City, Queens, the story was pretty much the same: a ruin of shuttered factories along the shore.

Now, Hunters Point South Park has arrived, with 11 acres of playgrounds and promenades. The first half of the park was finished five years ago; Phase 2, the other day. It features a marshy new island and a spectacular viewing platform facing Manhattan. Like Pier 3, it’s mostly about quiet places to pause, look and stroll.

So that makes three new or expanded parks along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront alone. This summer.

All three projects go back to the Bloomberg era. Privately built, Domino fulfills an agreement its developer, Two Trees, in Brooklyn, began negotiating with the city back then that allowed huge commercial and residential towers in return for open space along the water. Two Trees’ boss, Jed Walentas, poured $50 million into the park, volunteering to maintain it as well, and he has said he never had more fun building anything.

It shows. The park vastly exceeds what the city required.

As for the other two parks, in 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio, embracing Brooklyn Bridge Park as “the front lawn of Brooklyn,” set aside $26 million to complete Pier 3. And the city’s Economic Development Corp. has shepherded Hunters Point South through succeeding administrations.

I like a phrase that seems to have originated with Ken Greenberg, an architect and urban designer from Toronto: “The melting of the industrial glacier.” The single biggest change to the physical fabric of the city since the RMS Queen Mary last sailed out of town is surely the transformation of the waterfront.

New York’s not alone in this, obviously. City waterfronts have been changing everywhere, often hand in hand with private development. If anything, the pendulum may have swung too far. Public-private partnerships have many benefits, but they always come at some cost, and cities also need industry and economic diversity. That said, these three new parks are good news, especially when de Blasio, primarily focused on existing parks, has announced no big plans for new parks and still has yet to decide how to redo miles of critical parkland along the East River in Manhattan, where Hurricane Sandy devastated a number of public housing projects. More storms will come. Waters are rising.

And so is the city’s population, driving up the demand for open space.

That’s clear from how swiftly these latest waterfront parks have been adopted.

At Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the city’s most crowded parks already, Pier 3 adds 4.5 acres of breathing room, sandwiched between soccer fields and basketball courts. The architect, as he has been for the entire project, is Michael Van Valkenburgh.

In a park that he devised to be mostly extroverted, stressing recreation and views, he conceived the new pier as an interlude and inward-looking. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, described the beckoning pleasures of a curved path, offering up surprise and a chance encounter around the corner. Van Valkenburgh’s surprise on Pier 3 is that acre-size meadow, big but enclosed, spilling toward a plaza beside the garden where I watched the ferries from under the pine trees. The plaza also appeared as something of a surprise.

There were roller-skaters the other morning. The river was bustling and diamond dusted. A busker unpacked a guitar. I thought of the plaza around Bethesda Fountain, beside the lake in Central Park, where crowds watch rowboats imitating bumper cars.

At Domino Park, Walentas of Two Trees hired Lisa Switkin, senior principal at James Corner Field Operations, the landscape design firm that famously designed the High Line (with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, the planting designer).

Domino is, in a sense, the opposite of Pier 3. It reveals itself all at once. Pancake flat, richly detailed but overstuffed, it floats a dense jigsaw puzzle of 5 bespoke acres above the East River on a quarter-mile-long platform. A sturdy, elegant palette mixes stainless steel railings and Corten planters with industrial relics. There are thornless honey locusts, willowleaf spicebush, purple love grass and lilacs. There’s a Danny Meyer taco stand. South to north, the rumble of the Williamsburg Bridge gives way to the splatter of fountains and the murmur of waves through a cutaway in the platform exposing piles of the old pier and rocky shore.

Designed by an artist, Mark Reigelman, a new playground resembles a sugar refinery. Salvaged, clear-coated syrup tanks flank the park’s volleyball court. Two giant gantries, lugged from the water’s edge, where they once hoisted sugar cane off barges, are painted turquoise, like the inside of the old Domino factory.

Switkin is a gifted and subtle architect. The recycled artifacts look handsome. I’m not sure about all this fetishizing by Two Trees of a sugar company linked to slave labor, monopoly capitalism and bad teeth. But the spirit is plainly to enshrine the city’s industrial past, which echoes the idea behind 20-year-old Gantry Plaza State Park, on the Queens waterfront, whose designer Tom Balsley, has now collaborated with Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, from Weiss/Manfredi, on Hunters Point South Park.

Like Domino and Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hunters Point fronts new development, in its case (a projected) 5,000 apartments, the majority subsidized — the city’s single largest such housing endeavor, so I am told, since the 1970s.

Phase 1 of the park produced 5 1/2 acres of mostly active space, with a central green that doubles as a de facto yard for a school next door. Phase 2 wraps around the peninsula of Long Island City where the East River meets Newtown Creek.

The scrappiest of the three new parks, it is, at the moment, also my favorite. Much of the site feels surprisingly intimate. There are shady little nooks, lovely native plantings and artfully orchestrated vistas. We’ll see how intimate and lovely it remains after the Parks Department takes over the park’s maintenance and all the buildings are built. I passed some sunbathers on the small, secluded hill at the far side of the island, gazing toward the Midtown Manhattan skyline. Winding paths, just wide enough for two, meandered south, coiling along the waterfront, weaving through thickets of tall bluestem grasses, wetland pools and flowering rose bushes.

A biker paused at the precipice of a new 30-foot-high platform, the park’s main architectural statement, its faceted frame cladding a big truss to support the structure’s improbable cantilever, which looms, like the prow of a marooned ship, over the river’s edge. Briefly, I zoned out to the sound of lapping water.

All at once, the skyline evaporated in a silvery, mystic haze. Like an avalanche, a monsoon swept as if out of nowhere across the river.

New York never seemed wilder or more magical.

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