East River Activists Looking to Turn the Tide on Beach Access

On the East River Esplanade, a woman does her morning exercises above Brooklyn Bridge Beach, a strip of sand that is 191 feet long and about 54 feet wide at low tide. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 28, 2017

Don’t go near the water.

That’s what the city has been saying to would-be sun worshipers and others who, for years, have wanted to enjoy Lower Manhattan’s only stretch of sandy beach.

The 191-foot-long sliver of sand, known as Brooklyn Bridge Beach, lies beneath the bridge, along the East River Esplanade. A padlocked gate on the esplanade fence keeps it off limits, though it sometimes serves as a stopover for kayakers.

Now a group is launching a new effort to reverse the city’s policy.

The South Street-East River Community Development Corp. (CDC) has been in talks with the overseer of the property, the city’s Economic Development Corp., though so far to no avail. Formed in 2015 to advocate for comprehensive planning along the waterfront from The Battery to the Lower East Side, the CDC hosted a public forum this month on the future of the beach.

“Many of us who walk along the esplanade fairly often stop and just feel the sense of peace and calm, the rhythm of the water coming and going along the shore,” said Joanne Gorman, the CDC’s secretary, who made the presentation. “So it’s important that we hope it will be reconsidered.”

The push to open the beach comes as the city readies a request for proposals from designers for the Brooklyn Bridge Esplanade Project that would make improvements to the waterfront experience from Peck Slip, at the southern end, up to Catherine Slip, several blocks north of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Back in 2013, then Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced $7 million for a beach beautification project that would include a wading pool, kayak launch and terraced seating. But the city scuttled those plans following a city-commissioned study that recommended a ban on swimming and recreational boat launching due to fast currents and sewer pipe outflows. Gorman complained that the city has used that study, which does not take issue with walking on the sand, to deny all access to the beach. The group is not seeking permission for swimming.

In a detailed response to the report last year, Graeme Birchall, president of the Downtown Boathouse on Tribeca’s Pier 26, refuted many of the safety concerns, including the danger of East River currents and sewer outfalls cited in the report. He also noted that the study “ignores the fact that there are multiple extremely popular beaches less than a mile away [in Brooklyn] from Brooklyn Bridge Beach.

“Obviously it’s a biased study,” Birchall said at the meeting.

Gorman claimed that the study’s objectivity was compromised because it was undertaken at the same time that the Economic Development Corp. and the developer Howard Hughes Corp. were studying the feasibility of creating a marina north of Pier 17 that could have an impact on the beach.

“The question that comes to my mind is what project was the feasibility study actually intended to serve?” Gorman said.  “We’re talking about the vast public realm and this is the case where we have a private developer coming over onto the public realm.”

At the meeting, Brian Larsen, an EDC senior vice president and engineer who has long been working on the East River waterfront projects, denied the connection. “It was not biased in any way, shape or form based on whatever is happening with Howard Hughes,” Larsen said, declining to enter a discussion with Gorman about specific points of the study.

The EDC has said that there are a variety of other ways to spend the $7 million already allocated for the beach beautification project that don’t include walking on the sand, such as “lookouts” that come down to the water’s edge.

“We share the same goal in providing folks access to a place where they can enjoy the waterfront, where they can enjoy events, where they can enjoy recreation and education opportunities,” said Charlie Samboy, an EDC government and community relations representative. “But we have a different opinion about how we can achieve that.”

The beach straddles Community Boards 1 and 3 and since 2008 CB1 has issued three resolutions that call for public access to the beach. Paul Goldstein, chair of the boards Waterfront Committee, said CB1 will be taking up the issue yet again.