DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — It will be small and plunged into shadow for most of the day, but a new design for a long-delayed Downtown Brooklyn park was embraced by Community Board 2’s executive committee meeting Monday evening.
The committee voted unanimously to approve the plan for Willoughby Square Park, which works around the sunlight problems with low-light plantings, “sparkle” and a philosophy that shade can be nice, too. The 1.15-acre park, to be built between Duffield Street and Albee Square West, will be surrounded by skyscrapers up to 57 stories tall.
NYC Economic Development Corporation and Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture presented the design.
The park has been in the works since 2007 as part of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan. But it hit a snag early this year when the EDC called the original proposal put forward by American Development Group “financially unfeasible” and dropped the developer.
ADG’s design called for the park to be built on top of an underground parking garage. The new plan eliminates the parking garage, making the design simpler and freeing up space.
“We are here tonight with an aggressive timeline we want to meet because we want to get this project as close to done as possible before the end of this [mayoral] administration,” said EDC’s Ricky Da Costa. “Part of that is updating the design that was previously approved by the Public Design Commission.”
“The site … will be surrounded by residential, hotel, offices and retail,” said Mary Margaret Jones of Hargreaves Jones. Her company has been working on the design since 2014. The environment is “pretty dense,” with “pretty high buildings,” she added.
“There are moments of sun … but not sustained sunlight throughout the day,” Jones said. The designers worked to make up for the lack of sunlight with “sparkle,” she said. Shade-tolerant plants will be planted, as will a small lawn in the section that gets the most light. By 5 p.m. in the winter the park will be dark, she added.
“You may remember in 2014, this open space was to be built on top of a parking garage,” Jones said. “Today, 2019, this open space will no longer be over a structure. It will be on the ground, on terra firma, which for a landscape architect is great news. We can make a healthy, vibrant landscape that will live, breathe and thrive.” Since the park no longer has to have ramps leading to a garage, it will gain more green space, she added.
The design elements in the new plan have been “flipped” in orientation from the original proposal. A plaza with tables and chairs will be moved closer to food outlets like Trader Joes, City Point and Dekalb Market Food Hall.
“And it makes sense to put the children’s play area, the garden and softer elements on the west side, adjacent to where there will be a lot of residential development,” she said. An interactive water feature is moving from the center of the park to the northeast corner. Plants and ground cover will create “a sense of oasis within the city,” she said. There will be “lots of seating.”
A central plaza surrounded by various places to sit will allow for small performances, but the park will not have bathrooms.
Before construction can start, lead-contaminated soil will have to be removed, and the surface capped with paving or two feet of soil, she said.
Artists will be chosen, but the method troubles historians
An art element — “In Pursuit of Freedom” — will go into the open space under the Percent for Art law, Jones said.
New York City’s Percent for Art law requires that one percent of the budget for eligible city-funded construction projects be spent on public artwork.
“We are identifying a number of optional types and places [for the art]. This will go out as a call. Artists will send in their pieces and there will be a selection process,” she said.
The art selection process begins this fall,” she said. “The artist will be on board by end of year, the piece goes into fabrication at the end of 2020.”
Jones said that CB2 would have a voice in the selection process.
Two representatives from historical organizations, however, told the Brooklyn Eagle following the presentation that they were dismayed that more emphasis was not placed on the memorial aspect of the park.
“They just voted. That’s shocking,” said Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society and the New York City Freedom Trail.
Morris, who was behind the co-naming of Duffield Street as Abolitionist Place, said he put in a proposal with a site plan back in 2007.
“It’s supposed to be a park with a fundamental theme of memorializing Brooklyn’s great role in the abolitionist movement, and that was basically hardly mentioned in the presentation tonight. It’s mind-boggling,” Morris said.
The memorial aspect of the park was a trade-off for the loss of Downtown properties thought to have been stops on the Underground Railroad, which were taken over by the city through eminent domain.
Morris said the Bloomberg administration had allocated $1 million for programming and $1 million for a capital project “specifically dedicated for a memorial to abolitionism and Brooklyn’s role in abolitionism. Four entities responded — the Brooklyn Historical Society, the NAACP (which Morris represented), Brooklyn Polytech and MoCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts).”
In the design he proposed, the abolitionist memorial elements are integrated into the park’s design, Morris said.
They include a “Friends of Freedom Amphitheater,” and a “Walk of Freedom,” which is supported by the “Pillars of Freedom,” an interactive a timeline telling the story of the abolitionist movement in the U.S.
Todd Fine, president of Washington Street Advocacy Group and a historian at CUNY studying public art in the city, said the Percent for Art program is fine for many situations, such as putting a piece of artwork in a building lobby, but not for historical monuments.
“The Percent for Art process doesn’t really allow multiple voices to think hard about what should be in a memorial. They have a process where they have 50 or 100 artists who go through a PowerPoint rapidly, they select five of them, then those five give proposals. And that’s it. So it’s very hard for the community or historians to really be sure is this the way we want to honor the abolitionists.”
He added, “It seems to me their goal is to finish the park as an amenity, which would further serve the real estate development. Get that done, and leave the art as an addendum.”
Morris and Fine were not permitted to comment before the board. CB2 Chair Lenue Singletary III, however, told the historians following the presentation that they could still bring their proposal to the Public Design Commission for consideration.
“So I still have a little hope,” Morris said.
A NYCEDC spokesperson on Thursday rejected Morris’ argument.
“Despite Mr. Morris’ unfounded position and the fact that his proposal to the RFP was not selected in 2007, this project has the support of community leaders and elected officials, and will pay homage to the abolitionist history in Downtown Brooklyn — which is the most important factor in this conversation,” the spokesperson told the Eagle.
He added, “We are honoring the commitment that was made to include the memorial in the project and nothing has changed. The memorial will be part of a multifaceted commemorative project entitled In Pursuit of Freedom which traces the history of the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn. This public art will be a prominent feature, fully integrated with the landscape and gathering spaces of the newly designed site.”
CB2 District Manager Robert Perris said he believed that the memorial would not get lost in the shuffle.
“As was presented on Monday, the open space and memorial are simply following separate timelines,” Perris told the Eagle. “Little more could have been said about the memorial because not only has it not yet been designed, the artist hasn’t even been selected.
He added, “Mary Margaret Jones FASLA [Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects], a senior principle at Hargreaves Jones, showed eight locations within the open space where a memorial could be sited, depending on its eventual design, proof that a memorial remains a part of Willoughby Square.”
The proposed design now heads to the Public Design Commission. NYCEDC anticipates beginning construction in 2020 with completion expected by 2022, depending on planting conditions.