Let the beach idea drown, C.B. 1 committee says

By Jefferson Siegel

The last time a beach made news Downtown was decades ago when landfill from the construction of the World Trade Center created a temporary venue for outdoor performances.

Another small strip of beach under the Brooklyn Bridge was the subject of a presentation at Community Board 1’s Waterfront Committee Monday night. Four years ago the board in an advisory vote said they did not want the city to develop the beach and last Monday board members and the audience expressed strong doubts for a beach.

The narrow sand strip, about 250 feet long and 70 feet deep at low tide, has been on the board’s radar for several years as part of the development of the East River waterfront from the recently refurbished Battery Maritime Building north to East River Park.

The $150-million project is being funded by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The beach remained part of the plan as the City Planning Dept. and the L.M.D.C. developed it over the last few years, but it was not included in the changes the city thought it could do within the budget when the project was approved last year. A city financial consultant also spoke Monday night about the waterfront’s financial plan and said that studies are still in the preliminary stages, but he hoped the first parts of the new waterfront would open in three years.

The beach presentation didn’t propose a sandy oasis for hot weather lounging. Rather, Tribeca resident and avid kayaker Rob Buchanan envisioned a boat and kayak landing at the end of Dover St.

“I row in the harbor a lot and that’s one of the places where we land,” Buchanan said about his idea for the boat landing. Using photos of Downtown riverfronts, Buchanan tried to demonstrate that the gated seawalls surrounding Downtown effectively blocked access to the rivers. One photo of Pier 40 on the Hudson River showed what he described as an inconvenient landing point for rowers and kayakers. He thought the launching points at Chelsea Piers and near the Downtown Boathouse on the old Pier 26 were also unsatisfactory.

“It’s actually the perfect landing spot,” Buchanan said of the East River beach in a calm spot in the water. “It’s in the lee of Manhattan Island. It’s where you want to go if you’re in a small boat.”

Several board and audience members launched into criticisms of the plan. Joe Hartigan of Rockaway was a firefighter near the proposed beach for twelve years. “We would respond to people in the water,” he said of the hazards of easy access to the East River. “That is a dangerous spot right there, because people will walk in there and don’t realize it’s getting deeper. Once they can’t touch the bottom, they’re gone.”

“This is the central spot,” Buchanan said, “to go to Governors Island, Red Hook, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to Queens. That’s why it could be a fantastic public landing for the community.”

Several kayaking enthusiasts spoke in favor of the beach landing, including a member of the Downtown Boathouse, who said that,” The community has gone absolutely bonkers for kayaking. They’re sick of this elevated wall on the river.”

“It’s really pretty sterile,” Buchanan agreed. “There’s also a really large back-eddy between those two bridges,” he said of the water currents at the beach location, “and that is a very useful thing if you’re a paddler or a rower.”

“Not if you’re an eight-year-old kid, though” Hartigan chimed in. Ongoing talk of the danger to neighborhood children wandering into the water put a damper on the rest of the presentation.

Linda Roche, chairperson of C.B.1’s Waterfront Committee, summed up the board’s sentiment after the meeting. “I’m not a proponent of the beach, quite frankly,” she said. “I do worry about children and drownings.” She was familiar with other small, popular neighborhood beaches in Brooklyn. However, “I just don’t think it’s a viable option for us,” she concluded. The issue was tabled for future consideration.

The other topic at the meeting was an update on the East River Waterfront project. Todd Poole, vice president of Bay Area Economics, a firm retained to consult on the park project, discussed financing ideas to sustain the 2.1 mile greenway that would stretch from the Battery Maritime Building past the Brooklyn Bridge to the southern tip of East River Park.

“We are looking at revenue-generation opportunities that include concession areas such as food concessions, both permanent and non-permanent,” he told the crowded meeting room. Poole noted the differences in estimating revenue for a narrow, linear park such as the proposed strip compared with a larger park such as Battery Park or Bryant Park. Food carts, restaurants and kiosks similar to those in the South Street Seaport are under consideration. The city also plans to build pavilions under the FDR Drive for retail and community spaces.

“We are probably about halfway through our study right now,” Poole said. Several members had questions about developing the park, especially in the area of the Seaport’s Pier 17. Poole said his firm was still in discussions with General Growth, which owns the Seaport Mall and the rights to develop the former Fulton Fish Market spaces. He told board members he was not permitted to discuss the state of negotiations regarding General Growth’s plans.

Development questions persisted until Roche reminded the room that, “Their task is only to look at different types of revenue generation. They will not be developing” the park and, therefore, Poole could not expound on development plans.

Poole did offer potential financials for revenue generation. Food concessions and meeting spaces would offer the best return on usage, he suggested. Using the Union Sq. holiday market as an example, Poole calculated a $400,000 income for the 30 days the market is in operation, “a home run-type opportunity,” he offered.

The area south of the Brooklyn Bridge would provide better business conditions, Poole noted, with the area north of the bridge, stretching into Community Board 3, becoming “More of a promenade, very passive,” in terms of revenue generation. That area might have only a few food carts.

Unlike Battery Park City, which assesses the residential buildings on their land, Poole said there was no plan for similar assessments in the area of the park. The optimum goal, he concluded, would be 100% of funding coming from businesses with no need to depend on government grants.

Lee Gruzen, co-chairperson of a new group, Seaport Speaks, proposed that, like other New York attractions, the park be geared towards locals. “Build it for residents,” she said, “and the tourists will come.”

When queried about a timetable, Poole hoped work would be underway in 18 months. If done in stages, portions of the park could be completed in three years.

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