In populous Brooklyn, a park for people to unwind

Grass-roots groups push through a 70-acre greenbelt of open fields, fishing piers, cafes, and museums in one of nation's densest urban areas.

STANDING at the tip of Pier 5, where the sweet smell of cocoa beans mixes with a fresh sea breeze, Marianna Koval sweeps her hand across the spectacular view before her.

New York Harbor sparkles in a late afternoon sun as it reflects off the glowing towers of lower Manhattan. To the left, Governor's Island, an unexpected gem of lush trees, sets off the Statute of Liberty standing quietly in the distance.

"You watch the ferries and think of all the ways the harbor is coming back to life – literally, the water itself," she says. "It's improved so dramatically you can fish here. There's a peregrine falcon that's nesting on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the legacy we're going to leave our children."

After a 16-year battle in which the people of Brooklyn took on condominium developers, commercial real estate tycoons, and skeptical city and state officials, they have finally won the right – and a $150 million commitment – to turn this pier and the 70 acres around it into a park.

It's a dream that that was born in a church basement at a community meeting in 1986. And it's one that after the terrorists struck on 9/11 many feared would have to be shelved again, leaving most of the waterfront and its piers a ragged collection of warehouses, decaying buildings, and parking lots.

But the perseverance of grass-roots groups that wanted to transform the area into a neighborhood-friendly mix of greenspace and paean to the area's past – as a shipping port, military staging ground, and key stop on the underground railroad – ultimately inspired Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki.

They were looking for ways to signal to the world that New York might have been hit, but it wasn't down. So despite gaping deficits in both the state and city's budgets, they came up with some money. "This ... is a triumph of community vision and persistence," says John Watts, chairman of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition, a consortium of some 60 groups created in 1989 to push for the park. "This is an enormous victory."

The victory was years in the making. Michael Crane remembers talking with his parents about turning the waterfront into a park over the dinner table. Now a parent himself, he and his family moved back to Brooklyn in 1998. That was about the time his father and other local activists won the support of elected officials and landed a grant from the state legislature to fund a local development corporation (LDC) to come up with a possible plan for a park.

Over the next two years, the architects and designers at the LDC held more than 60 public planning meetings with thousands of people from all over the borough to find out what they'd like in a park. The result: a master plan that includes open fields, recreation spaces, fishing piers, and just enough commercial development – cafes and museums – to make the park self-supporting.

RESIDENTS wanted to make sure the area wasn't overrun by office towers and condominiums, in particular. Brooklyn is the city's most populous borough, but has less park and recreation space than any major urban center in the country other than Las Vegas.

"It was a massive feeling of accomplishment," says Crane, a coalition board member, of getting the funding for the project. "But [it is] one also tempered by the feeling that there's much work to be done."

Last Friday night, the people like Crane who pushed for the project put on their finery and celebrated at a once-neglected state park that will soon be incorporated in the much larger Brooklyn Bridge Park. With the shell of a renovated 19th-century tobacco warehouse as its entrance, this rolling green space, which sits between the imposing Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, gave people a taste of what's to come.

A salsa band played. People nipped at canapés. Some danced while others watched the water with its ferries, tankers, and sailboats gliding by the New York skyline. "What gives me such hopeful feelings and pride in my community is that this wasn't just an effort to stop something from happening," says Ms. Koval, the coalition's executive director. "It was a way of being practical and coming up with a positive solution and making sure that it happens."

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