Brooklyn’s Willoughby Square: Mayor’s Latest Libertarian Park
Matt Chaban Sept. 24, 2010, 8:27 p.m.
The most talked about rezoning of the Bloomberg/Burden era has to be the 2005 transformation of Williamsburg and Greenpoint from gritty industrial backwater to haute condo clusterfuck. And yet the one that has had a far greater impact on Brooklyn, or at least its skyline, is the one undertaken a year prior in downtown Brooklyn.
The similarities are many. Tons of luxury condos, tons of stalled construction, tons of delayed commitments from the city. One of those is finally moving forward, though, as the city’s Economic Development Corporation has finally released an RPF for Willoughby Square, a 1.15-acre park-like public plaza designed by Hargreaves Associates that includes an abolitionist memorial entitled “In Pursuit of Freedom.”
The new square is yet another stroke of genius (or mortgaging of the public trust, depending on one’s perspective) by the Bloomberg administration, as it is taking a prime parking lot at a prime intersection in downtown Brooklyn, shoving it underground, and building a park on top.
The result is an increase in parking spaces, to 694 (again, for better or worse), but also an increase in much-needed open space and public amenities–and all for virtually no cost to the city, as the developer of the garage will pay for the square’s construction and a local BID will be in charge of maintenance.
It is an increasingly popular–and increasingly controversial–approach that has flourished since the ’80s, with the creation of groups like the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance, which primarily use public funds to maintain and program a handful of city parks, though they are still responsible to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Under the free-market sensibilities of the mayor, this plan has gone into overdrive, with a number of parks, such as Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park. They are being built by the public sector but maintained through private development on or near the parks–in the case of the former, through multi-use piers; the latter, residential development, though the Brooklyn Bridge Park plan has drawn considerable scorn and is currently under reconsideration.
Never mind that there may not even be enough money coming in through said development to keep the parks going.
With Willoughby Square, and the much larger Governors Island just across the harbor, the city has taken its plan a step further toward the Libertarian ideal of private-public space, which is what concerns so many critics: that eventually such spaces will cease to be public at all, more admission-only amusement parks than public amenities. (This is already common practice at many National Parks.)
Governors Island is open, but the soaring second phase in all those pretty renderings will not arrive until two development parcels totalling 33-acres are sold off. NYU has expressed its interest in at least one, which raises the specter of another Washington Square Park, i.e. more campus quad than public park. (Don’t forget that Washington Square Park, including its controversial redesign, is still being paid for with public tax dollars.)
As for Willoughby Square, it’s basically a glorified room for a below-grade parking lot. It has been called Brooklyn’s Bryant Park, and not only because it’s a square park surrounded by towers but also because it will be similarly managed, in this case by the MetroTech business improvement district. While it is unlikely, what is to stop MetroTech from kicking out characters it doesn’t approve of or otherwise restricting access.
What’s next? An airport in Central Park?