NEW YORK — A walk along the East River in Brooklyn is like no other stroll along the waterfront. Sure, there are the obligatory benches and paved paths that open up to breathtaking vistas of the Manhattan skyline.
But for 1.3 miles along the river’s edge, visitors experience playgrounds, soccer fields, basketball courts, an outdoor roller rink, a pop-up swimming pool, cafes, barbecue pits, beaches, and performance spaces. And just when you think it can’t get any better, you spy a hand-painted carousel that spins under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Now this is how you develop a waterfront.
Brooklyn Bridge Park is a six-year-old public space that Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation in Boston, has hailed as a model. Turns out a bunch of Bostonians who are shaping our own harbor’s edge have also checked out the 85-acre park.
After visiting the space last week, I couldn’t help but think about our own Seaport District, with its ho-hum towers, and ask: Did we just blow it?
New Yorkers made a decision long ago that this part of Brooklyn would not go to the highest bidder but be set aside as a waterfront for all. Not just passive patches of grass, but spaces teeming with recreation. Initiated as a joint city-state project, the $400 million park is built on old Port Authority land and is operated and maintained by a not-for-profit owned by the city of New York.
Boston’s leaders made a different decision. They left it up to the private sector to drive development and offer public amenities such as parks, walkways, and cultural space.
The result: The Seaport District may be one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, but it is also one of the most soulless parts of our city. Instead of another Esplanade, we got another Financial District.
As if sensing another inferiority complex in the making, Boston Redevelopment Authority waterfront planner Rich McGuinness, who has visited the Brooklyn park, tried to assure me: “We didn’t blow it.”
McGuinness explained that when Boston started planning the Seaport District in earnest back in the 1980s, the city was losing population, and developers weren’t lining up to build here. To make the South Boston Waterfront desirable, billions of dollars of public investment went into the area: the Big Dig, the Moakley Courthouse, the convention center, the Silver Line. The intention all along was to get a return on our investment, even if it meant public spaces would feel like an afterthought.
My takeaway: Fuggedaboutit. We’ll never get a grand waterfront park in the Seaport.
“It would have been a lot easier to do it 10 years ago,” acknowledged Tom Glynn, who runs the Massachusetts Port Authority and toured the Brooklyn park with McGuinness last year.
Neither man is giving up hope that elements of Brooklyn Bridge Park can happen here. Boston’s waterfront is a lot smaller than New York’s, but as parks get built or are redone, both see a trend toward more engaging experiences.
Already, the A Street park by State Street’s building along Fort Point Channel includes a basketball court, a playground, and a dog park.
In East Boston, the newly renovated LoPresti Park features an artificial turf soccer field and basketball courts with postcard views of the North End and downtown Boston.
Glynn and McGuinness also think that Eastie may be our best shot at creating an imaginative public space on the water, where development is not yet fully formed.
City Councilor Sal LaMattina thinks so, too, and during his own pilgrimage to Brooklyn Bridge Park last year he focused on how its ferry system could be vital to creating a vibrant waterfront.
“We don’t want every developer to do the same community benefit,” said LaMattina, who lives in East Boston but also represents Charlestown and the North End. He points to one developer in East Boston who wants to provide water transportation to Charlestown, while another might build a kayak launch.
Massport, a major waterfront landowner, also plays a role. The authority owns four acres of empty waterfront land in East Boston that is designated for public use — the so-called second phase of Piers Park.
What’s up in the air is who will pay for the next phase.
McGuinness also sees opportunity for more open space as the city deals with climate change. Boston may need to fill in some shoreline as a buffer to rising sea levels.
“We can create land,” he said. “Those are some of the fun things we are looking at.”
Feeling a little better about the future of our waterfront, I circled back to Canales, of the Barr Foundation. He was the one who holds up the Brooklyn park as aspirational after the foundation pledged last month to get involved in shaping the waterfront.
“There is an opportunity here, and we have multiple actors who can come together and make something exciting,” Canales said.
His favorite part of the Brooklyn park also happens to be mine: the sense that everyone belongs there, from locals to tourists, whether rich or poor, the kind of place where a construction worker would feel as comfortable as a Wall Street banker.
Regina Myer, the president of Brooklyn Bridge Park, summed up best the park’s most compelling attribute: “It’s a place that’s deeply democratic.”
We don’t have enough of those types of spaces in Boston, especially along the downtown harborfront. We may have lost our opportunity to create something on the scale of a Brooklyn Bridge Park, but we shouldn’t give up pushing developers and government to reimagine public use on the harbor.
In other words, we still have time to make it right.