Parks are often oases of green in otherwise gray urban landscapes. Gravel paths meander under leafy trees, children play on grassy lawns, and fountains provide cooling spray on hot afternoons. Yet these natural spaces take up valuable real estate and aren’t seen as inherently useful, and are therefore sometimes pushed to the backburner by developers and planners alike. Willoughby Square, in Brooklyn, NY, however, will bring together both beauty and utility by topping an automated underground parking garage with street-level greenery in a smart new project targeted for completion in 2016.
Over a decade in the making, Willoughby Park is being called the “crown jewel” of the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan, a scheme to help improve Brooklyn’s public spaces and foster neighborhood community and culture. Located half a block from the lively Fulton Street Mall, and surrounded by hotels, businesses, and residential towers, the site is part of an overall rejuvenation of the area. “Downtown Brooklyn continues to expand and flourish as one of New York City’s most vital central business districts,” Seth W. Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), has said. “Investing in new open space, like the park at Willoughby Square, is an important part of our efforts to build on the momentum of this important neighborhood and foster the City’s economic growth.”
In terms of the design, this project started with the idea of the green space. As Mary Margaret Jones, senior principal of design firm Hargreaves Associates, explains, “Willoughby Square is unique in a few ways, but perhaps foremost is the way it is being realized, with the park design coming first and the parking garage design following and conforming to the park. It is usually the reverse.” The acre-large expanse of green space includes mature street trees, a play structure, meandering walkways, and a memorial to the 19th-century abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad (focusing on its ties to Brooklyn).
A below-grade parking garage will provide functional utility as well as financial sustainability, helping pay for development of the green space above. Touted as the largest automated parking garage in the country, the structure will house almost 700 cars on its 5 floors. Created by Automotion Parking, drivers will simply pull their car into a designated area, grab a ticket, and then a high-tech system of plasma screens, computers, cameras, forklifts, and lasers will whisk the car away into a parking space. Invisible and compact, the garage will also have eco-friendly benefits; since automated parking eliminates idling car engines and exhaust fumes, the garage will help reduce carbon, hydrogen, and nitrous oxide emissions from the estimated 250,000 cars it will serve each year.
Mutually beneficial to each other, as well as the city, the parking garage and park are both equally integral to this project. “Without the automated parking garage, you couldn’t have the park above it, and without the park, you wouldn’t have the catalyst you need to revitalize this area of downtown Brooklyn,” says Ari Milstein, Executive Director of Automotion. It’s an idea that merits consideration in the suburbs as well, where blossoming main streets, new transit centers, and retail centers could easily benefit from this smart solution of much-needed parking combined with community green space.