Monday, May 19, 2008


Our beloved bridge turns 125 years old this week. The city of New York is throwing a big party to celebrate, but what's under the 5989 foot span is often ignored. I remember seeing skateboard kids doing their thing near the giant masonry anchorage of the bridge on the Manhattan side of the span. I couldn't help but notice those giant archways, big rooms actually that had been cemented, doored or locked shut.

Turns out for the past few decades, they've been municipal storage units and repair shops. Old traffic lights, signs, trucks and assorted maintenance equipment. But, when John Roebling started building the structure in 1870, he had something else in mind. Roebling wanted to use those catacombs as public space and indeed over the years the 29 brick and granite archways have hosted open markets and even a playground.

During the cold war, New York city stored thousands of rations in the event the Ruskies dropped a bomb on us. In 2006, while doing routine maintenance, workers discovered boxes of medical supplies, drugs and assorted sundries. 352,000 high calorie crackers were found in water tight containers. The boxes had been stamped with the dates 1957 and 1962. Think Sputnik and the Cuban missile crisis.

Years earlier, in the 1970s, historians made an even more important discovery, boxes full of Roeblings original drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge. In all, they hauled away 8000 items that have now been forever immortalized in books, museums and city storage vaults. The nearly 50 foot high vaults were sealed off in the 1930's until that discovery in the 70's. Many of those giant rooms remain sealed to this day.

But, alas, in 1986, Beatrice Gotthelf and her Catgo Group came up with a plan to put the space to good use. She envisioned 185,000 square feet of retail, commercial and even residential space in the vaults. The project at the time was estimated to cost
24-million dollars, a price tag that would surely rise dramatically in 2008 New York City. She even got the city to sign a 50-year lease to develop the project. But, several years into the planning, the project stalled. Gotthelf and her one-woman development corporation were told by the city that before anything could be built in the catacombs, she would have to invest millions more to repair the badly damaged six foot thick masonry walls. Water was also leaking into the space. To this day, the underbelly of the Brooklyn Bridge has never been developed.

As we head into the 125Th anniversary of the bridges opening on May 24, 1883, one has to wonder with no room to build or expand in our crowded city, why the government hasn't jumped on board to create a unique space under the span. My first thought was that September 11Th changed the city's original ambitious plan.

That may still be the case, but if you look under the Queensborough bridge you'll find just what I'm talking about, retail space including a beautiful restaurant with soaring ceilings and a glass roof that gives you a spectacular view of the support structure of the bridge. Listen if terrorists are going to bomb the bridge, they're going to bomb it with or without retail or residential space underneath. Just do it.

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