Renewed Calls for 'Unfettered Access' to Lower Manhattan's Only Beach

Brooklyn Bridge Beach, bordered on the west by the East River Esplanade, is often strewn with driftwood and garbage. In this 2013 photo, Rob Buchanan rows to the beach. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 04, 2016

A wading pool and kayak launch, terraced seating and plenty of sand for castle-building and lazy days in the sun. That’s how city officials more than two years ago pictured the future of what is a garbage-strewn stretch of sand beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Tucked between the East River and East River Esplanade, Brooklyn Bridge Beach has for years been kept off limits to the public by a padlocked gate on the esplanade fence.

Back in July 2013, standing on the esplanade above the beach and displaying a colorful rendering, Scott Stringer and Christine Quinn, then Manhattan Borough President and City Council Speaker, announced $7 million for the beautification project. It would be part of the East River Blueway Plan, an initiative to bring activity to the waterfront between the Brooklyn Bridge and East 38th Street.

“The redevelopment of Brooklyn Bridge Beach will transform an unused and forgotten stretch of waterfront into a premier staycation destination,” Quinn said at the time.

But a recently released feasibility report throws some cold water on hopes of real beach-going in Lower Manhattan.

The city-commissioned study, by Ocean and Coastal Consultants, a division of COWI Marine North America, recommends a ban on swimming and on “small recreational boat launching and landing…without significant changes to the existing environment.” Fast currents and the possibility of collisions with commercial vessel traffic would make human-powered boating unsafe, according to the report. Added to the dangers, it said, are sewer outflows, which can occur when sewer pipes, located at both ends of the beach, release combined rainwater and sewage during heavy rains.

Breakwaters and other structures could help calm waves and wakes, the consultants said, but their environmental impacts are unknown and could be accompanied by a long and costly approval process by regulatory agencies.

“In lieu of direct contact [with the water] we recommend alternative engagement strategies,” the consultants wrote, “such as fishing overlooks, or separate, shallow wading pools independent of the river.”

The report was not well received, especially by boating enthusiasts. Rob Buchanan, a co-founder of the Village Boathouse on Pier 40 and a leader in the community of human-powered boaters, called it “a shoddy document” and complained that boaters like himself, who already land at the beach, were not consulted for the study.

“That’s not really something that the feasibility study should be recommending against since it’s already happening,” Buchanan said in an interview. “If they had even bothered to make a couple of phone calls they would know that.”

Buchanan acknowledged that the waters around the Brooklyn Bridge are not good for inexperienced boaters and unmonitored swimmers. But he took issue with many of the findings, saying that the study ignores slower current speeds near the beach and exaggerates the dangers of the sewer outflows and water quality. (Testers from both Riverkeeper and the New York City Water Trail Association have found the water to be nearly always safe for swimming.)

“I am all for the community getting access to the water and then, in a more organic and gradual way, figuring out how to use the water from the beach,” said Buchanan. “But the beach should definitely be open, like tomorrow.”

Community Board 1 agrees. It passed a resolution last month (the third since 2008) that called on the city to open and regularly clean the sandy stretch right away, permitting “unfenced, unfettered access to the beach to allow walking on the beach as soon as possible.” It noted that another small beach (Brooklyn’s Dumbo Cove), directly across the river, already allows unrestricted access. More study is needed, the board said, to determine the safety of the water for swimming and boating but that study should not delay the opening of the beach for non-water activities.

At a meeting of CB1’s Seaport Committee, which drafted the resolution, Louis Kleinman of the Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of nearly 900 organizations, said that he and other boaters often land at the beach and climb the fence to take rest breaks at the Seaport.

“It is a very perfect spot for kayaking and rowing and I don’t understand why they think they should wall it off,” Kleinman told the committee.

“If you’re not going to promote the ability for us human-powered people to have access to that beach,” he added, “you’re going to get a lot of people upset.”

Todd P. Manson, project manager for COWI Marine, which issued the report, declined to answer questions or comment for this article.