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New Life
Brooklyn Navy Yard design honors former cemetery.
Elevated walking paths meander through the new memorial landscape.
Courtesy NBWLA

With a last fundraising push, the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI), a nonprofit group developing 14 miles of waterfront pedestrian access between Newtown Creek and Shore Parkway in Brooklyn, is preparing to develop former cemetery grounds in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. Over 2,000 marines and naval shipmen, along with their families, were once buried at the site adjacent to the Navy Yard’s hospital, but all remains were relocated to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens in the late 1920s. At 1.7 acres, the new Navy Yard Hospital Memorial Landscape is a small but significant piece of the larger redevelopment of the Navy Yard currently underway.

Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation granted BGI the rights to design and maintain the space, and in 2011 BGI selected landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) and Rogers Marvel Architects (RMA) to create an outdoor environment that also honored the site’s history. Located along Williamsburg Street West, the site will be accessible to the public through a series of raised wooden walkways that will lead visitors around cement mooring blocks, stones, and native plantings that tie into the historical and material language of the waterfront, according to Vince Lee, project manager at RMA. Stone gabion “mattresses” serve as footings for the walkway, which circumvents the location of former graves located in the center of the site. In honor of those formerly buried beside the hospital, steel frames proportionate to the size of burial plots will be constructed and elevated a few feet off the existing grade.

The new landscape sits to the east of the old U.S. Naval Hospital (left) and a site plan for the cemetery memorial landscape (right).

The former burial plots will be planted with native New York meadow species that will spread over time, blurring the borders of the original graves. Thomas Woltz, partner of NBW, characterizes this approach as “open-ended ecology” where social and ecological conditions are “set up and their systems are allowed to flourish.” The team hopes this tactic applies not only to the plant life of this node along the 14-mile stretch of greenway, but also to the surrounding community.

Perhaps more innovative than the design itself are the donors that BGI has cultivated. In addition to $600,000 received from New York Department of State through the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, the project is beneficiary of a $42,000 planning grant from the TKF Foundation, a private nonprofit supporting the creation of open space, which will support observation and evaluation of community use of the new park. BGI director Milton Puryear hopes to demonstrate that the new green space, which may be open as early as the summer of 2013, will positively impact the residents of the site’s surrounding low-income neighborhood.

Tyler B. Silvestro