By Martin L. Schneider and Beverly Moss Spatt
Special to the Brooklyn Heights Press
There are three great sights that visitors to New York City most often seek out: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and, the Brooklyn Bridge, which accommodates about one and a half million walkers annually.
The full grandeur of the Brooklyn Bridge is experienced in many ways. Walking across its one-mile span attracts folks year round from all over the world. From down below, visitors can thrill to its gigantic stone works and webs of steel while standing in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park.
But there is only one place where the breathtaking urban context and rich historical continuity of the Bridge can be fully appreciated. That is the view from the one-third-mile-long Promenade erected by Robert Moses above the cantilevered lanes of Interstate Highway 278. It is only from this Promenade that visitors can see the bridge against the magnificent background of our city. Today, a portion of that much sought after view is under dire threat.
It isn’t the first time views from the Promenade have been threatened. Within two years of the Promenade’s opening, in December, 1951, they were in jeopardy. Development plans had been floated by the Port Authority, the owner of the shipping docks and warehouses below it, to lease out the land for buildings that would have been higher than the Promenade. There was a public outcry and as a result, the city specifically limited the height of buildings in the Port Authority’s area to 50 feet.
But even that was considered insufficient protection. It took 20 more years for the city to enact a “Special Scenic District” which created a wide, protected, fan-shaped “view plane” in 1974. Since then, the sweeping scene from the Promenade — encompassing Buttermilk Channel, Governors Island, the Bay, the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan and halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge — could not be pierced by any structure.
Now, however, the view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Tower to Tower faces imminent threat. A new condominium building is under construction. It replaces the 100-foot-tall Civil War era warehouses which were within the bounds of the new park. That choice location was sold off to private developers as part of a long-term financing scheme for the park. But its sale came with an important limitation on the height of the building in order to protect the view of the bridge.
The need for the height limitation had been anticipated in 2005 by Otis Pearsall, a prominent preservationist. In letters and public testimony on behalf of the Brooklyn Heights Association he led the way to an understanding that would preserve the Tower to Tower view from the Promenade. That understanding, spelled out in the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Empire State Development Corporation in December, 2005, has now been ignored by the winning bidder.
This September, the new building’s super-structure was topped out and the supposedly protected view drastically compromised. The building, still a long way from completion, blocks out the lower portion of the East tower, parts of the sweeping cable structure and roadway, and scenic views of upper Manhattan, including the Chrysler Building. It now stands as a flagrant abrogation of the 2005 understanding.
In a different building situation, earlier this year, when the LG Electronics company threatened the tree line of the Palisades in New Jersey with a “vastly oversized tower,” The New York Times editorialized against it. It rightly said the building “…flout[ed] decades of work to protect the Palisades, which has national landmark and historic status.”
Sadly, the Brooklyn Bridge with its more than equivalent historic credentials, has failed to generate any comparable public outcry. However, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation could, if it chose to, still take action to enforce the original understanding. Again, the Brooklyn Heights Association is leading the way in the current battle against developers who seem to have no interest in the public’s right to historically significant views.
This potentially permanent loss is all the more bitter given next year’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Landmarks Preservation Law, which has helped to assure the unique attractiveness of so much of our city to so many visitors from all over the world. For now, it seems we can only stand on the Promenade and bemoan the vanishing legacy of a magnificent and inspiring world-class vista.
Martin L. Schneider was executive of his own public relations firm from 1965 to 1993. He was a governor of the Brooklyn Heights Association for many years and is the author of “Battling for Brooklyn Heights, New York City’s First Historic District.”
Beverly Moss Spatt was chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1974 t0 1978; prior to that she was a commissioner on the NYC City Planning Commission from 1965 to 1970.