A Dream On Its Way to Reality: The Greenpoint Boathouse & Environmental Education Center

by Ryan Watson on

It’s a rare opportunity when a community can dream up something big and get it built. That’s the story—not, by any means, at the happy ending yet—with the Greenpoint Boathouse & Environmental Education Center.

Initially conceived by GWAPP board members Dewey Thompson and Christine Holowacz, the dream will be one of the largest boat launches and the only recreational boating facility in Greenpoint/Williamsburg. Let’s take a look at how we got here, where we are now and the next steps ahead.


I. The Backstory on the Environmental Benefits Projects Process

Where the Money Came From
Construction of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant was more than ten years overdue (and will eventually take more than 25 years to complete) and billions of dollars over-budget. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) levied fines against the city’s environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), for various infractions including failure to meet several deadlines. The fines totaled $10 million dollars with the money to be directed, through Environmental Benefits Projects (EBP), to “compensate” the affected community. This settlement is the largest EBP ever designated in New York State history. The DEC formed a Community Advisory Group composed of local community organizations to oversee a process ensuring that the EBP would reflect what the community wanted, and implement on time and with community input.

Establishing the Selection Process
In April 2010, the DEC selected three organizations to administer the EBP: City Parks Foundation (CPF) received $7 million; New York State Energy, Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) received $2 million; and Hudson River Foundation (HRF) received $1 million. While the funds were destined to be channeled back into the affected communities, proposed projects had to adhere to strict guidelines [PDF (254KB)] in order to be granted funding. The EBP criteria for potential projects included:

  1. Project must offer tangible community benefit;
  2. Projects addressing environmental issues would be prioritized;
  3. Projects must not be for any capital improvement that a city agency was already responsible for building; and
  4. Project must be located (or have its impact) within a half-mile of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Eligible areas for projects included a large section at the north end of Greenpoint and parts of western Queens (the south and north sides of Newtown Creek respectively.) Each organization (CPF, NYSERDA and HRF) set up their own process for community outreach, project development and selection. Once each administrator submitted its community project proposal, the administrators could prioritize the projects based on the given criteria and the DEC had the final say on project approval.

In order to elicit proposals directly from community stakeholders, CPF hosted a charrette workshop at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Visitor Center, during the spring of 2010, where community members were invited to brainstorm ideas. Following the workshop, CPF initiated a ranking process by which community participants assigned values to the various projects. Ultimately, on December 1 and 2, 2010, a public vote was held at polling stations placed in various locations in Greenpoint and Hunters Point, Queens. CPF’s process generated a list of several projects, ranked in terms of their community support and their adherence to the EBP criteria and feasibility.

Meanwhile, HRF invited residents to send them ideas for projects and met with applicants in person. They divided their grants into cycles and, so far, have given dozens of smaller grants ($5,000 to $50,000) to local groups and artists.

NYSERDA presented a handful of projects that they had developed internally to the community. These proposals were rejected by the Community Advisory Group and the DEC as either a) not providing a tangible benefit and/or b) unfeasible given the actual conditions of the area in which they would be implemented. For example, one NYSERDA proposal was to replace highly polluting oil burners in local residences. This proposal didn’t meet project requirements because the ½ mile radius surrounding the plant is primarily non-residential and, also, because recent legislation had already mandated that these changes be made.

In response, GWAPP Counsel Adam Perlmutter proposed constructing a large wind turbine on Newtown Creek, but NYSERDA rejected the idea. When no other new ideas were offered, the Community Advisory Group voted and the DEC agreed to re-assign NYSERDA’s $2 million in a split between CPF and HRF.*

The Evolution of GWAPP’S Proposal
According to GWAPP Board Members, despite the tremendous need for open space and other community amenities in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it was actually a challenge to think of potential projects that fit the strict criteria of the EBP. Thompson’s initial idea for the boathouse was inspired by a chance meeting.

As a longtime boater on the East River and Newtown Creek, Thompson had been thinking about how to get more community access to those waterways. At a conference about the city’s 2020 Waterfront Vision Plan, Thompson met Cassandra Smith, Senior Project Manager at the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC)—the huge, brick, Civil War-era former rope factory at the foot of Manhattan Avenue on the Newtown Creek that is now a non-profit offering subsidized spaces to artisans and light manufacturing businesses—and inquired if they would be interested in working with the community to allow public access to the waterway through the bulkhead on their flagship building. Smith thought the idea might line up with a project that GMDC had already been working on.

In a follow-up meeting with GMDC, CEO Brian Coleman confirmed that GMDC had been looking for funds to re-build its broken bulkhead along the Newtown Creek and had available interior space that opened out on that bulkhead. That meeting marked the beginning of the proposal’s viability.

In fact, the project would create a great synergy between GMDC and the community. The historic building houses hundreds of local manufacturing jobs. If the proposal becomes a reality, it would also provide a public open space along the water that was once inaccessible and an amazing community amenity in the form of a world-class boathouse.

But, as it turned out, that was the easy part.

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The Proposal & Its Approval
In 2010, GWAPP created an EBP proposal [PDF (573KB)] for a facility called the Greenpoint Boathouse & Environmental Education Center that would provide unprecedented waterway access, a substantial recreational boathouse, a center for ecological and historical stewardship and vital new waterfront open space. The benefits of the project were multi-faceted, and included:

  • Reclaiming Newtown Creek from its toxic history of industrial pollution;
  • Serving as the first parcel in a planned public esplanade that would connect Greenpoint to South Williamsburg;
  • Creating public waterfront access for the community and providing direct water access to the Newtown Creek; and
  • Assisting GMDC’s mission to create and retain hundred of local manufacturing jobs.

The proposal detailed a $5 million budget (based, in part on recent cost estimates for bulkhead renovation commissioned by GMDC), including the re-building of GMDC’s bulkhead, the creation of a public waterfront promenade and the build-out of the interior space for the boathouse and environmental/history center.

Upon completing the proposal, Thompson and Holowacz presented it to community stakeholders at multiple public forums. The proposal received nearly unanimous community support and garnered the approval of a multitude of elected officials and organizations, including: Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, State Assemblyman Joe Lentol, City Council Member Steve Levin and Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG). In a combination of the public polling and feasibility ranking conducted by CPF, the Boathouse project was selected as the top priority project for the EBP funding.

© 2012 Stefano Giovannini, Brooklyn Paper. Dewey Thompson and Christine Holowacz co-chairs of GWAPP in front of Newton Creek.

On October 25, 2011, the DEC and CPF submitted a letter [PDF (3.5MB)] approving the funds of the EBP to building out the boathouse, promising up to $7 million for the project. Runner-up projects would receive any leftover funding that was not used in the creation of the boathouse, however those project cannot receive funding until the principal project, the boathouse, is completed.

Two of the runner-up projects were: 1) Funding for land acquisition at Dutch Kills, which would provide LaGuardia City College water access; and 2) Phytoremediation projects in Newtown Creek to help restore the creek’s environment from its current toxic condition.

One More Hurdle
In November 2011, the city’s DEP and Department of Parks & Recreation suddenly ordered the closure of the public kayak launch site at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk—an apparent response to the Creek’s recent designation as a Federal Superfund site. The city’s apparent opposition to boating in the Newtown Creek was extraordinarily alarming to GWAPP given that the proposal for the borough’s biggest boat launch was in the process of being approved.

GWAPP, the North Brooklyn Boat Club, the Newtown Creek Alliance and the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee rallied, and in a series of boisterous public meetings, prevailed upon the DEP to reverse the closure and create something constructive to reduce the chance of someone unwittingly exposing themselves to dangers in the water.

Working with the DEP, these community organizations created signage alerting boaters to the creek’s inherent dangers, including poor water quality. The issues brought up during the face-off with the city became manifest in an addendum to the agreement with DEC about how the Greenpoint Boathouse would operate. It was agreed that only experienced, certified boaters would launch independently from the Boathouse and that on-water safety/skills instruction would occur in other, safer embayments.

II. The Current State of the Greenpoint Boathouse

As the anniversary of the funding approval approaches, what is the current state of development at the Greenpoint Boathouse? Currently, the project is in preliminary budgeting stages and stakeholders are in the process of establishing access agreements.

CPF has hired a construction manager and continues to negotiate with both the Parks Department to take responsibility for the open space along the bulkhead and with GMDC for a conveyance agreement that will allow the community use of the interior space..

III. What Happens Next? The Completion of the Boathouse

Despite overcoming numerous roadblocks in the process, GWAPP is hoping to see some significant progress in the next few months. As stipulated in the agreement with the DEC, the project must be completed within five years of the funding approval.

In the meantime, Christine Holowacz introduced the North Brooklyn Boat Club (NBBC) to Tony Argento, the owner of Broadway Stages which owns a slice of land next to the Pulaski Bridge with a small bulkhead along Newtown Creek. Broadway Stages generously agreed to allow NBBC to build a temporary boathouse facility known as the Broadway Stages Boatyard. Currently, NBBC has over 20 kayaks, more than 100 members, a full program of boating and, with the Newtown Creek Alliance, ecological activities.

What Can You Do?
While we wait for the Boathouse to finally open, check out the North Brooklyn Boat Club, join as a member or look for the postings of public paddles and get on the water!

*The re-assignment of the $2 million originally to be administered by NYSERDA has yet to be confirmed.

Ryan Watson

Ryan Watson

Originally from Los Angeles, Ryan is a relatively new but very proud resident of Greenpoint. He was drawn to Greenpoint by the strong sense of community and history of local activism. Ryan can be found at North Brooklyn Farms, the urban farm at the Domino Sugar Factory, which he co-founded or working in the 61 Franklin Street Community Garden.