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The Brooklyn Bridge Deserves a Scenic View District of Its Own

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Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition of her monthly column, Lange hits the streets, Ada Louise Huxtable-style, to analyze the sidewalk-level impact of waterfront development around the Brooklyn Bridge. And ICYMI, catch up on her past columns about architectural gamer paradise Monument Valley, the new Whitney Museum, and an over-the-top vanity park planned for Manhattan's Hudson River.

View toward the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights side, past Pierhouse. Photo by Max Touhey.

My first sighting of a selfie stick in the wild was on the Brooklyn Bridge. Three European tourists gathered themselves together, with one tourist acting as a pivot point, angling the rod so that their three heads would be framed by one of the bridge's distinctive pointed stone arches. In most ways, the Brooklyn Bridge is the best New York City icon on which to selfie with a stick. The Statue of Liberty is usually too far away; the spire of the Empire State Building, from the observation deck, too near. Central Park is very nice but, ultimately, grass is grass. The bridge has natural lighting, built-in framing, and instant recognition. Being yelled at by a biker as you infringe on her lane for a photo could be seen as a New York hazing ritual.

The Brooklyn Bridge belongs to all of us, as an icon, as infrastructure, as a backdrop for snapshots and proposals and commutes. Which is why it needs protection. Not from being torn down or allowed to rot, like less photogenic and accessible contemporaries, but protection from love—the obsessive kind of love that wants to glom on to its glamor and give little in return. Right now, a series of buildings and proposals are chipping away at the experience of the bridge, blocking sidelong glances down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and scrubbing from view the masts and cable stays that suggests an earlier New York. It's time for the bridge to get a Special Scenic View district of its own, a two-way district that preserves sight lines both to and from its mighty span.

Drone photograph from Brooklyn Bridge Park looking toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Aymann Ismail for Curbed. (Click for big!)

The first point of contact is Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the hotel and condominium complex designed by Marvel Architects and developed by Toll Brothers just south of the bridge. Standing at the northernmost point of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, anyone can see that the new building blocks the view of the bridge's roadway in two places: the top story of the middle condominium building and a pair of offensively ugly concrete boxes on top of the hotel, which contain mechanical equipment and a bar. In renderings these are "softened" with a comb-over's worth of ivy; needless to say they can't be seen from the front of the hotel, which faces the park, only from the Promenade and Furman Street.

In June, a State Supreme Court judge ruled that construction of Pierhouse could move forward, rejecting a lawsuit by Save the View Now on legal, if not aesthetic, grounds. "The casual passerby walking along Brooklyn's majestic Promenade is struck with the indelible impression that these buildings, now nearing completion, are simply too large," reads the decision by Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Lawrence Knipel. And yet, in his judgment, the statute of limitations for a lawsuit had run out, and mechanical equipment does not count against design guidelines setting the heights of the buildings below the height of the roadway. The buildings grew, in part, because of Hurricane Sandy, which forced the architects to raise their lowest floor above the new FEMA floodplain. The bridge and the Promenade, however, remain at the same height. But frankly, at no point should Marvel Architects have been allowed to put those ugly boxes on a roof that will be seen by millions. Just because you can't sell it as an amenity doesn't mean it's invisible. In a piece arguing preservationists are overly focused on small battles, Justin Davidson dismissed the lawsuit as over "a few feet of bulkhead" "which intrudes into residents' views of their favorite bridge." But this battle is over more than a few feet (for one of the boxes, it's more than 30 feet), and affects many more than the residents of Brooklyn Heights (whose views are typically from a higher point than the Promenade).

The Pierhouse under construction at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo by Aymann Ismail for Curbed. (Click for big!)

It's a shame the building is too tall, because in other ways the design is sensitive to site and context. The hotel exterior is dark and simple, not ostentatious and distracting, with metal sunshades that refer obliquely to the industrial past of Dumbo. The complex is pierced with public throughways in multiple locations so that it does not completely wall off the park from Furman Street that runs behind it. The most dramatic route to the water could be Squibb Park Bridge, the springy, zigging structure that connected the Heights to the flats of Brooklyn Bridge Park… until it had to be closed for excessive bounce. No reopening date has been announced, but from Squibb Park above you can see the bridge zagging between the buildings like a walkway through concrete treetops.

Pierhouse is also farther from the bridge than 60 Water Street, the 17-story Leeser Architecture and Ismael Levya-designed rental building-slash-parking garage-slash-middle school just north of the bridge in Dumbo. Glassy and spiky, thanks to triangular fins that give the pale green surface some texture (while simultaneously causing my OCD to kick in—how will that roadside glass ever stay clean?), 60 Water Street is problematic from the ground and from the air. As opponents warned from the start, the building reduces the views of the Brooklyn Bridge along Front Street to a sliver of suspended roadway. From the Brooklyn Bridge's pedestrian path, the tower crowds close—those residents are going to have to keep their shades down all the time unless they fancy Standard Hotel-style exhibitionism—and partly blocks the bridge-to-bridge dialogue with the Manhattan Bridge.

Photos by Max Touhey.

It could have been worse. Way back in 2009, when Marty Markowitz was still Brooklyn's borough president and this Two Trees project was known as Dock Street Dumbo, the developers were pushed and prodded to move the tower further back from the bridge to the east side of their lot. The project was able to move forward when the developers brought the height of the lower, western portion of the building below the bridge roadway and added a significant neighborhood perk: a public middle school, which will occupy one 45,000-square-foot floor in a crowded school district. When it is kids vs. views, obviously you choose the kids—right?

One has to ask, given the improvement in the real estate market since 2009, whether Two Trees actually needed all of those floors to go ahead with the school. Could public officials have shrunk the tower still further? Imagine both sides of the bridge hemmed in, a longer, darker walk between anchorage and river. What happens when the developer of another site offers a pre-school for the toddlers of Dumbo? Or a technology-focused high school for the offspring of the other kind of developers? Fighting each battle, building by building, incentive by incentive, is difficult for those who have other jobs, and things like FEMA flood plain changes can be missed. When, in January, Hamilton Nolan called Pierhouse "the worst building in the gilded city" he was pointing right at the mysteries of these public-private deals, in which the public is always in the weak negotiating position: "Many people … will tell you that the Pierhouse project provides a public benefit by generating tax revenues that will pay for the rest of the park. Can't argue with that… After all, there is no sin greater than leaving money on the table."

Drone tour following Alexandra Lange's path from the Brooklyn Bridge Park, to Dumbo, over the storied bridge and into Manhattan, along Beekman Street, and down to Pier 17 on the East River waterfront. Photos by Aymann Ismail for Curbed. (Click for big!)

Across the river, approximately the same distance from the bridge as Pierhouse, politicians and community members have, for the present, chosen views over kids, rejecting SHoP Architects' proposed 40-story tower with a lower-floor middle school for a site north of Pier 17. In March, borough president Gale Brewer told the New York Times, developer "Howard Hughes needs to start over." The site is problematic for a number of reasons, most notably the presence of two historic structures, the Tin Building (located within the city's South Street Seaport Historic District) and the landmarked New Market Building upon which the city has attempted demolition by neglect. In early June, dubious local officials asked to see the report by which the Economic Development Corporation has declared them beyond restoration.

If the buildings can be saved, they should be, as authentic, small-scale remnants of Manhattan's past. But after walking the site a few weeks ago, I'm not convinced a tower—as a second choice, bearing a rich package of amenities—would be destructive, either of the view of the bridge or of the low-rise neighborhood, which has rebounded post-Hurricane Sandy. I would not argue this if the tower were closer to the Brooklyn Bridge, or if the FDR did not already draw a line between the shiny new and the textured old, the fish market buildings excepted. The east side of the highway has been developing a separate architectural identity for decades, one that the historic ships should be a part of, but don't need to match. The programming of spaces, old and new, is more important than their styling.

A long, low building would wall off the water and block views of the bridge along a larger portion of the East River Waterfront Park—the opposite effect of a tower on a slim, publicly accessible base. From the ground right now, even the Tin and New Market Buildings interrupt the view of the bridge span from the current walking path. There's no elevated walkway on the Manhattan side, and the long-range view is already compromised by the FDR Drive.

This minority opinion may be moot, however. Howard Hughes has gone back to the digital drawing board for the tower site. In a letter to Mayor de Blasio, dated June 3, CEO David Weinrib wrote, "We are now working on a significantly revised plan to address the height issue as well while retaining the vibrancy required for the district to be successful"—without specifying which architects are working on those revisions. The 40-story height (down from 50) always seemed like a negotiating tactic. The scary towers coming to the south end of Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Long Island College Hospital site are—for now—also said to be 40 stories. The closest tall buildings to the tower site at the end of Beekman Street are the 27-story Southbridge Towers, built by Gruzen & Partners in 1971. Why not use that as a top limit? The emphasis of any design, looking north along the Manhattan coastline, should be on holding the tower as close to the highway as possible. Advocacy group Save Our Seaport—which has proposed an alternate plan—pointed me to some terrifying views from the heliport north. The tower must be slimmer, shorter, and pulled closer to land than their gray slab, and it shouldn't have neighbors: To build a new row of private buildings outside the public waterfront access the public has finally gained would be disastrous. Upriver, Waterside, the 1974 Davis, Brody & Associates complex at 30th Street, stands alone.

What we're protecting. Drone photo by Aymann Ismail for Curbed.

The Brooklyn Bridge deserves offense, not defense, because there will always be a developer dangling a middle school, a glass tower shown as transparent in the renderings, a forgotten agreement, an offensive mechanical unit. The Brooklyn Bridge needs a special zoning district of its own: an invisible tube stretching from the anchorages on one side of the East River to those on the other, elastic enough to reach to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Police Plaza, both raised, public platforms that offer distinctive, leveled-up perspectives on the roadway. If the bridge is where we want to be seen, let's make sure we can always see it.

· All Critical Eye posts [Curbed]
· By Blocking View of the Brooklyn Bridge, a Building Incites a Battle [New York Times]
· Fiddling With the Frick While New York Burns [New York Mag]
· savetheviewnow.org [Official Site]
· SHoP's Revised, Shorter South Street Seaport Tower, Revealed! [Curbed NY]
· Pols Want City's Inspection Report Before Seaport Buildings Are Torn Down [DNAInfo]
· Controversial Seaport Tower Could Be Shorter Than 40 Stories [Curbed NY]