Acting Regionally to Win Locally (and Regionally, Too)

Sometimes the most important question with a project is scale. What is the right level to tackle a problem or address a challenge?

In 1998, a small group of neighborhood activists in Brooklyn — Milton Puryear, Brian McCormick and Meg Fellerath and other members of Columbia Neighbors United — were concerned about a proposed widening of Columbia Street to accommodate new truck lanes. This idea, straight out of the 1970s days of urban renewal, would have crushed tcommunity efforts to improve a proposed four-mile, on-street bicycle route in their area, called the Brooklyn Waterfront Trail, from Atlantic Avenue to Red Hook.

Their response: get bigger! Puryear, McCormick and Fellerath created the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, a partnership to promote a 14-mile landscaped pedestrian and bicycle route all along the Brooklyn waterfront, from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge. A larger scale meant that the neighborhood pathway they originally sought would instead be a major new regionally significant amenity. The expanded project burned brighter in the public's mind and touched ever more partners, making its political fortune more viable.

The vision and efforts of BGI attracted RPA's attention. Thanks to initial pilot funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and subsequent series of grants from New York State's Local Waterfront Revitalization Program sponsored by the Brooklyn Borough President's Office, RPA and BGI were able to collaborate on a series of community-design workshops, concept plans and technical studies that enlarged local support and brought agencies and landowners together. At the same time, the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park helped drive a greenway planning initiative that looked at how to connect Sunset Park to the waterfront.

An important milestone was achieved last week when New York City's Department of Transportation released the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Implementation Plan. The plan, summarized here and available at, provides information on the 23 capital projects along the greenway. More than $20 million in federal funding has been secured toward these projects.The creation and adoption of this capital implementation plan will guide future development of the greenway and ensure its completion over time and as additional funds become available.

The plan builds on the five miles of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway that have already been built, which include some of the most popular bicycle and pedestrian routes in the city. Two additional miles along West Street and around the Navy Yard are now being designed. Altogether, this unique set of pathways, green spaces and public programs are already transforming Brooklyn's waterfront.

The progress made is a product of strength of the initial vision, technical planning chops and BGI's deftness in building a coalition of supporters. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez was an early supporter. In 2002 she secured an initial $14 million toward the greenway's construction. NYC-DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, since her appointment in 2007, has included the greenway project as part of her department's efforts to improve safety and sustainability on New York's streets.

Central to continuing progress is continued cooperation of public and private landowners that control or affect central parts of the designated greenway. They include the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, New York City Parks and Recreation, New York City Economic Development Corporation, Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp and Brooklyn IKEA. BGI is working with these organizations to ensure continued cooperation and communication, as well as to help with long-term stewardship and maintenance of this public space.

This kind of partnership of local and regional non-profits, public a gencies and elected officials is what makes dreams real. And a reminder that sometimes bigger is better.

Updated 7/6/12 with details about planning in Sunset Park.

Robert Pirani is Board Chair of Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.