As the global climate crisis grabs more attention and the need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources grows more urgent, cities are grappling with what to do with the industrial artifacts of our petroleum-based past. In New York, the demolition earlier this month of 10 abandoned oil tanks along the East River in Brooklyn points to the tension between building on these relics and expunging them from modern view.
In 2016, the city purchased a seven-acre plot (complete with tanks) from Bayside Fuel Oil Depot Corporation, intending to add the tract to a 28-acre waterfront park that has been in the works since 2005. But what to do with the tanks proved contentious: some viewed them as a stinging reminder of the waterfront’s toxic past, while others saw historic structures with contemporary potential.
A group of architects, designers, environmentalists, and community advocates joined forces to come up with a plan to repurpose the vessels. The concept—originally called Maker Park and later dubbed simply “the Tanks”—called for vertical gardens, performance spaces, and oyster hatcheries to occupy the former containers, surrounded by playgrounds, open green spaces, and boat launches.
Leaders of the effort—Stacey Anderson, an associate director at the nonprofit Van Alen Institute, and Karen Zabarsky, a creative director at Kushner Companies—engaged architect Jay Valgora of Studio V and landscape architect Ken Smith of Ken Smith Workshop. Working pro bono, the team proposed covering contamination caps (used for soil remediation) with dunes to restore the native habitat of the area. “Giant lawns are one of the least sustainable things you can do with a waterfront site,” Smith tells RECORD. “They have a place. But they shouldn’t be the whole thing.” (The city’s plan, after removing the structures, includes synthetic turf and a centralized great lawn.)
In late spring, the Tanks launched a petition to stall demolition, giving the public more time to consider its alternative proposition. But just as the vision seemed to be gaining popularity, the city began dismantling the tanks.
To some in the community, demolition was the only acceptable outcome. The North Brooklyn waterfront has a complicated history, shaped by the toxic legacy of the Second Industrial Revolution. In 1867, petroleum pioneer Charles Pratt built America’s first modern oil refinery nearby. It was soon joined by dozens more, establishing that stretch of the East River as an epicenter of production. More than a century later, the effects lingered: in the late 1970s, the Coast Guard discovered between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil and other carcinogenic chemicals had spilled into nearby Newtown Creek, permeating 55 acres of soil. And in the 1990s, a Health Department survey found that residents of the nearby neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg experienced higher rates of stomach cancer and some kinds of leukemia than other New Yorkers. The creek was declared a Superfund site in 2010, and cleanup continues today.
“It’s almost painful to look at [the tanks], because they represent everything bad in the world right now,” says Steve Chesler, speaking on behalf of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park, a neighborhood advocacy association that has worked with the city on the waterfront project. “Just painting them white is salt in the wound for people who have endured decades of environmental abuse.”
The Parks Department tells RECORD that removing the tanks was an essential step toward remediation. “This is a large site with a complex history of previous uses,” says Crystal Howard, an associate commissioner with the Parks Department. “Removal of aboveground structures will allow for more thorough site-assessment work.”
But members of the Tanks team, including Matthew Carroll of Tenen Environmental, question that conclusion. “It’s my opinion that keeping the tanks would have, in fact, been the most efficient approach.” According to the group’s estimate, now that the tanks have been dismantled, their site will require the removal of some 20,000 truckloads of soil. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation tells RECORD that the area is still under investigation; proposed cleanup plans will be released for public review and input.
Innovative adaptation of industrial structures is hardly without precedent. Just miles from Bushwick Inlet, Hunter’s Point South Park was once home to slaughterhouses, oil refineries, and chemical plants. Gas Works Park, a former coal-gasification plant turned industrial-themed playground, is a fixture of the Seattle waterfront. Oil Tank Culture Park in Seoul, formerly an abandoned oil depot, aims to raise awareness about sustainability and urban regeneration as part of its mission. And Tank Shanghai, a cluster of decommissioned fuel tanks, is a heralded urban park featuring public gardens and art installations.
It comes down to personal perspective. “Some people believe we should tear down things we’re afraid of,” said Valgora. “I think we have to keep elements of our history but reinvent them with new meaning and purpose.” According to its master plan, the Parks Department does intend to draw on Brooklyn’s past, highlighting maritime history rather than its role as a fuel-storage hub. Current renderings feature an unbroken swath of open field where the tanks once sat. Removing them alters the landscape. What it can’t change is the history.