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Those who attended the first public meeting on the redesigned plan for the Brooklyn Bridge Park commercial, recreational and housing development got a surprise Tuesday night when an architect displayed a series of townhouses along Furman Street below the Brooklyn Heights promenade, which he said planners envision adding to the project.

Matt Urbanski, a member of the design team led by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, placed the series of three-dimentional pink rectangles along the eastern perimeter of a model of the 1.3-mile waterfront site.

The new homes sat between taller white models of four residential buildings, including two skyscrapers, at each end of the project. The recent addition of those four buildings has created a storm of debate among longtime park advocates who historically opposed the placement of housing along the waterfront.

Audience members who came to the meeting, jointly hosted Feb. 22 by Community Boards 2 and 6 at Polytechnic University in Metrotech, elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” mixed with grumbling and head shaking.

When Urbanski explained that the housing would serve to block sound from the noisy, cantilevered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway beneath the promenade and above Furman Street, a woman in the audience interrupted, shouting, “So you’ll deflect all the noise back into the Heights instead.”

Urbanski said engineers specializing in noise abatement would study the effects of the houses on both sides of the park.

Many of the roughly 300 people who came to the lightly publicized meeting were keenly interested in the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation’s addition of housing as the primary revenue generator.

Of particular concern has been the plan to build a 30-story skyscraper near Pier 6 at Atlantic Avenue.
Not including the row-houses proposed for Furman Street, which runs between Old Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue under the BQE, the new plan calls for the construction of 730 market-rate co-op or condominium units to pay off the annual park costs with their common fees.

[The Brooklyn Papers reported last week that recent financial estimates showed the park would likely need to build more housing within 35 years to keep up with rising operating costs.]

When Urbanski finished placing the low-rise mock-ups along the park’s perimeter, he explained, “These [low-rise] buildings are a direct response to the feedback we got from the public,” but cautioned, “It’s in the middle of being explored right now.”

Urbanski touted the Furman Street development as a positive way to increase the value of the middle section of the park, and create a safer street atmosphere for foot traffic without hindering views from Brooklyn Heights and the promenade, which are protected under landmark regulations.

“It would make basically Furman Mews, like Furman Street’s nice cousin,” he said of the new road that would be created on the park side of the new buildings. He also noted that the difficulties of building next to the cantilevered highway were many, starting with no access to light from the BQE-facing sides of the buildings.

Asked during a brief question-and-answer period at the end of the meeting how many stories might be shaved from the 30-story tower if development on Furman commenced, Wendy Leventer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp. (BBPDC), a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp. charged with designing and operating the park, said she wasn’t sure.

But in a press briefing that morning, BBPDC consultant Tom Montvel-Cohen told reporters that Pier 6 was likely to remain built up, regardless of additional housing along Furman Street.

“First of all, it’s all very nice to draw boxes on a plan, but if there’s no market for something, you can’t build it,” he said, referring to housing being built next to the highway.

“The value of development at Atlantic Avenue far outweighs any development on Furman Street,” Montvel-Cohen said.

Indeed, based on figures provided to The Brooklyn Papers by the Empire State Development Corp., the park planners expect the 30-story and eight-story buildings at the uplands of Pier 6 to generate nearly 40 percent of the total revenue generated by the park’s commercial entities.

Asked how much revenue row-houses on Furman Street could generate, a spokeswoman for the Empire State Development Corp., Deborah Wetzel, said it was too early to tell.

“None of this has been decided yet, even insofar as whether it will happen or won’t happen. To go any further than that would be misleading,” she told The Papers.

But at Tuesday night’s meeting, the tower was still a major concern for many of the community members in attendance, even though Urbanski opted to use more user-friendly terms like “strategy,” “visual marker” and “sound buffer” to describe the two apartment buildings the planners have said are necessary if the park is to meet its projected $15.4 million annual operating expense.

“What we’re trying to do with Pier 6 is capture a piece of the site and protect it from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” explained Urbanski, which he gestured to on the model using a pointer. “People had a lot of things to say about that,” he said after a long pause. “So we’re thinking about that area right there.”

“Can you elaborate on that?” asked an audience member. To that Urbanski turned away and passed the microphone to Van Valkenburgh.

At a press briefing earlier in the day, he elaborated slightly, saying, “We thought it was a good idea to put a tall building here, to mark the entrance,” adding that “it helps with sound attenuation” at one of the loudest parts of the park.

But, Urbanski added, “the three-story buildings at Furman Street will be just as helpful for sound attenuation.”

Urbanski, Leventer and Van Valkenburgh all shied away from getting into specifics about the hotly debated proposals for the buildings planned near Atlantic Avenue, and glossed over renderings of a 16-story residential high-rise on the Con Edison lot at John and Pearl streets in DUMBO. A misleading rendering of that building shown during a PowerPoint presentation at the meeting gave the impression that it was several stories shorter than is proposed.

Without wasting any time, the DUMBO Neighborhood Association (DNA) sent a letter to Leventer, copying it to all the public officials involved in the plan, announcing their rejection of any plans for park housing in DUMBO without further disclosure of park finances, which have not yet been opened to public scrutiny.

“We object to the proposed 16-story residential tower at 1-11 John Street,” wrote DNA President Nancy Webster. “In 1998, DNA worked tirelessly to prevent Con Edison from auctioning this site to developers interested in building luxury housing there.

“The current proposal allocates the bulk of the site to the proposed residential tower and leaves a mere 60-foot-wide parcel for the rest of the park — not wide enough for public accessibility or significant use,” she wrote.

While the eventual co-ops or condos on the Con Ed lot only account for $3 million of the total anticipated park revenues of $19.7 million — based on Year 11 projections provided to The Brooklyn Papers by the Empire State Development Corp. — the Pier 6 developments would account for $7.3 million, or almost 40 percent, under that scenario. Those projections are based on tax abatements to the homeowners that would decrease in percentage during the first 10 years, becoming completely exhausted in Year 11.

Nancy Bowe, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said she was still hopeful for a solution.

“If you heard at the meeting last night, changes are being made,” she said. “I know there’s a meeting this week to talk about expenses,” she said, mentioning one scheduled for Borough Hall Thursday hosted by the BBPDC.

“We certainly hope we get some information in writing.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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