Boaters' Seaport 'Beach' Dreams May Come True with Funds from City

At the sandy patch that he has long wanted to see transformed into a public—if tiny—beach, Rob Buchanan pulls his rowboat back into the East River. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Aug. 07, 2013

A decade ago, when rowing enthusiast Rob Buchanan first laid eyes on a desolate, garbage-strewn patch of sand beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, he saw beautiful potential.

“I remember being struck by the sight of real sand and the waves that were lapping,” he recalled. “Once I knew it was there, I couldn’t go by without looking at it. It’s the only true sandy beach in Lower Manhattan.”

Brooklyn Bridge Beach, so named by waterfront activists, is a sandy stretch tucked between the East River and East River Esplanade. Until recently, the city has taken little notice of the space. Less than a block long and only about 60 feet wide at low tide, the space was once a graveyard for abandoned cars and is now littered with washed-up debris. A fence with a sturdy padlocked gate separates it from passersby on the adjacent es­pla­nade.

Buchanan, 54, a co-founder of the Vil­­lage Community Boathouse on Pier 40 and a former collegiate rower, is one of several boaters who for years has dreamed of the forlorn space becoming a bustling, barrier-free beach, a place where human-powered boats can land and people can relax.

Last month, the City Council matched $3.5 million in capital funding secured by Manhattan Borough Pres­ident Scott Stringer toward the transformation of the beach, bringing the total available funds for the project to $7 million. The beach is part of the 

East River Blue­way Plan, an initiative released earlier by Stringer and As­semblyman Brian Kavanagh that is intended to bring activity to the waterfront between the Brook­lyn Bridge and East 38th Street.

The plan calls for a wading area, terraced seating, and boat ramps. It also lays out strategies for storm resiliency, including the creation of wetlands and wave-attenuation walls.

For a recent interview with the Trib, Buchanan fought some heavy current from where he set off in Brooklyn and pulled his plywood rowboat, the East River Flyer, ashore at the beach. Leaning against the esplanade railing, he de­scribed a simpler vision of the sandy area, one the city can more easily afford. It might include some amphitheater-style seating and a portable pool, but most of what’s needed is already there, he noted.

“There’s a sense that they have all this money and have to spend it, hire architects and build stuff—but, really, it doesn’t take any money to fix the beach,” he said. “Let’s just open the gate and invite the community to do smaller things.”

The New York City Water Trail Association, a group of more than 20 boating organizations, has worked with Stringer’s office to determine the beach’s future docking capacity and conducts weekly tests of the water near the beach. (The group has concluded, more often than not, that it is safe for swimming.)

“We were really thrilled that they gave us a seat at the table in terms of figuring out what might work,” said Nancy Brous, who serves on the association’s steering committee. “I think they saw that there was a real demand and a real desire to access the water.”

Brous and Buchanan are hoping the spruced-up beach becomes a hub for human-powered boats, with a shipping container for storage. “I’m confident people on the Hudson side will use it as a stop-off point to get an ice cream cone or a cup of coffee,” said Brous.

Years ago, Buchanan brainstormed with SHoP Architects about the beach, and presented their ideas to the city Economic Development Corp. when it 

was planning the East River promenade. “They said, ‘We’re not dealing with that. It’s a liability issue,’” he recalled.

But that didn’t dampen Buchanan’s en­thusiasm for the sandy patch. Once a year, he and fellow boaters would row from the beach to Brooklyn and back in honor of George Washington’s 1776 evacuation of the Continental Army from Brooklyn. In 2006, they organized a luau there to protest the 

beach’s inaccessibility, and were confronted by NYPD’s harbor cops. “They said, ‘If you land on it, we’re going to take your boat,’” Buchanan recalled.But he and his fellow boaters have continued to use the beach as a place to wait until the tide turns. “If you could launch a boat there, that’d be great,” Buchanan mused. “If they take the fence away, that’s what’s going to happen.”