Written by Roberta Lane
This afternoon, the City Council of New York City will vote on whether to approve the Dock Street DUMBO project, a 17-story tower that would rise within 98 feet of the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and many others in New York City oppose the project, which would compete with and diminish the bridge's signature profile. Construction of the Dock Street project as proposed would damage the treasured visual experience of the bridge from points all over the city.
The gravity of the threat to the Brooklyn Bridge has attracted the attention of some of the country's most renowned scholars and luminaries, led from the start by David McCullough, a former Trustee of ours and author of The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Mr. McCullough worked in partnership with the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance to actively oppose the project. With an article in Newsweek, and multimedia on the New York Times website, among other efforts, Mr. McCullough attracted national attention to the issue and helped raise alarm among New Yorkers, who can easily lose track of the threats upon threats to their built heritage in the city's only-slightly-slowed churn of unmanaged or poorly managed development.
In most cases, preservationists' first job is to lay out a clear case for the public on why the places we want to protect really matter. I think that we actually enjoy that part, as it is -- essentially -- a storytelling gig. We try to transport people through time to marvel at the layered history of places, and we try to show how preserving richness and depth in the built environment enriches our daily lives.
The Brooklyn Bridge, though, needs no such introduction. Its power as a symbol of America's vision, strength, and history of innovation transcends New York (sorry New York!), and has moved poets, photographers, moviemakers, tourists, and native city-dwellers since it was completed in 1883. You can read David McCullough's gripping history of the bridge's construction to learn more about the drama and moment that attended its design and construction, but even if you don't know all of the details, seeing the bridge or crossing it is enough to love it. In dealing with the threat posed by the Dock Street DUMBO project, we found that we can almost talk about the significance of views of the Brooklyn Bridge in shorthand, because everyone in the country knows that the Brooklyn Bridge matters.
It seems strange that there is threat to such a widely beloved place. How could this happen? There are a few forces at work. Development in New York City has slowed, but it is still moving along at a rapid clip. And the Bloomberg administration has an unfortunate history of letting New York's historic character and significant places take a backseat to ambitious new construction projects.
We included Brooklyn's Industrial Waterfront on our 2007 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, because the particularly intact and significant neighborhoods into which the Brooklyn Bridge leads were highly threatened by inappropriate development. Since then, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a new DUMBO Local Landmark District, a great stride. But in doing so, the LPC carved the same parcels on the edge of the district out of the scope of protection that are now proposed as the site for the Dock Street DUMBO project, primarily because the owner removed some significant features of the buildings that stand there while the new district was being debated. This left a spot for the current proposal, and also left the new Landmark District, along with the Fulton Ferry Landing Landmark District on the other side of the parcel, vulnerable to the introduction of such an inappropriate incursion.
An earlier iteration of the current Dock Street project died due to public opposition in 2004. The current proposal is for a residential tower with some low-income housing and retail at the first story. The most notable difference from the 2004 proposal is that the developer proposes to donate space in the building to New York City for use as a public middle school. This issue has divided the community and eclipsed other issues. No matter that studies for a nearby rezoning found (within three months of this offer) that a school is not needed in that immediate vicinity, or that even if there were such a need, there are lots of other sites that would work better.
The DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance has been working for a long time to protect their neighborhood, and now they are leading the charge to protect an icon that matters to us all. It is an uphill climb, as the project has already been approved at several lower levels in seeking the rezoning required to build such a tall residential structure.We have provided advocacy support in those proceedings, and delivered testimony at the last public forum for this rezoning application, the City Council's Land Use Committee.
This project would violate a clear visual area that sets off and defines one of America's most inspiring views. At minimum, the tower should not rise higher than 75 feet, in our view, the level of the roadbed. New York has the fortune and responsibility to be steward of the Brooklyn Bridge. We hope it will live up to this job in today's City Council vote.
- Brooklyn's Industrial Waterfront on PreservationNation.org
- Save Brooklyn's Industrial Heritage
- DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance
Roberta Lane is a program officer & regional attorney in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Northeast Office.