Xius Pimentel, 12, loved going to PortSide Park, a waterfront playground on a parking lot just a few blocks from his family’s apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
He and his little sister would go there all the time to practice gardening, hang up holiday lights or catch the ocean breeze when it got too hot outside. It wasn’t an official city park, just a community space that Brooklynites like his family had helped build together during the pandemic.
So the seventh grader was upset this week when his mom informed him that the park had been torn down over the weekend.
“I still don’t really understand why they closed it down,” Xius said. “Because it’s been there for like almost two years, and they haven’t said anything about it.”
The beginning of the end came on Friday afternoon when Billybey Marina Services, a company that operates waterfront space for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, demanded that PortSide, a Red Hook nonprofit, immediately get rid of the park it had worked with locals to help build.
“[A]t the request of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (“NYCEDC”), Billybey hereby demands that PortSide cease and desist its unauthorized and dangerous use of the upland area adjacent to the Berth Side, and that you immediately vacate the area and restore it to its original condition by removing all equipment and other property,” Donald J. Liloia, the firm’s senior vice president, wrote in a letter, copying an EDC representative as well.
The company argued that the presence of large trucks driving near the playground, which predated the community initiative, now posed an unacceptable danger to residents. This “existing risk,” the company argued, would be exacerbated by the nearby construction of a homeport for city ferries at the Red Hook waterfront, which was slated to begin earlier this month.
“There’s no justifiable reason we can find for this to have happened, and we certainly can’t see a justification for the way it happened,” Carolina Salguero, the founder and executive director of PortSide, said in a blog post responding to the cease-and-desist letter. “This feels arbitrary and capricious.”
In an interview with THE CITY, Salguero pointed out that PortSide also operates a historic boat docked right next to the parking lot, which visitors will have to cross to get to, yet the letter didn’t call for a moratorium on public access to the boat for fear of truck traffic or looming construction.
“We’re not seeing trucks. We’ve been here forever. And there’s other ways to mitigate this,” she said.
Salguero was also upset by the sudden demand on Friday that her organization tear down the community space, which she and her colleagues had to spend the weekend doing for fear of losing PortSide’s permit allowing its historic tanker to dock along the pier.
“They could have handled this differently and we could discuss ways to actually address concerns and mitigate them,” said Salguero.
Representatives for Billybey Marina Services did not respond to questions from THE CITY about the abrupt demand letter and whether they plan to provide an alternative waterfront playground for Red Hook residents.
In an email, a spokesperson for the New York City Economic Development Corporation echoed the company’s claims in last week’s letter.
“NYCEDC understands that members of the community appreciated having the pop-up seating and play area, but we were compelled to order Billybey Marina Services, the Operator of the DockNYC program, to notify Portside to cease and desist with the unauthorized use of the Pier 11 upland area as a pop-up seating and play area,” the city agency said. “The setup violated our lease with the Port Authority, and it also posed a danger to pedestrians given the regular vehicle traffic on that corridor.”
‘For No Reason’
Vanessa McKnight, a 62-year-old community activist who lives in the nearby Red Hook Houses, says she used to love taking her grandchildren to the park, and was upset when she learned about the playground closure on social media.
“I kept reading it, and it just didn’t make sense to me that they would remove that,” she said. “It wasn’t hurting nobody. We always cleaned up.”
McKnight says the fenced off parking lot was a great space for kids to practice biking and learn about the ocean.
“Now what are they going to do with the space?” she asked. “I just feel like they’re being meanies for no reason.”
When THE CITY visited the site on Wednesday morning, it was clear that the demands of Billybey and the EDC had been met.
The playground’s cafe tables and chairs, which the company had complained about in its letter, were no longer on the pavement. And a “free community library,” which the company had called out in writing, now had a little blue lock on its door.
All that was left was an empty parking lot and a white sign asking the public to take the plants, toys, books, and furniture.
“We loved serving you during the pandemic,” the banner read.