Last Thursday, with a simple "toot" of a plastic whistle, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated a seismic shift in local soccer circles.
Standing on the downtown Brooklyn waterfront with a cadre of local politicians, including Borough President Marty Markowitz and Assemblywoman Joan Millman, as well as players from the New York Red Bulls and St. Francis College soccer teams, the Mayor officially opened Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 5, an enormous new multipurpose athletic facility immediately adjacent to Brooklyn Heights.
Lauding the new pier as a "spectacular addition to the newly revitalized New York harbor," Mayor Bloomberg specified that Pier 5's five acres of space will be available for lacrosse, rugby, cricket, flag football and ultimate Frisbee.
But, as any Brooklynite knows, a flat open field is best suited for soccer, the world’s sport. With three enormous fields now within reasonable distance from almost anywhere in Brooklyn, Pier 5 offers enticing possibilities for space-starved local soccer programs.
According to Magnus Mukoro, Co-Director of Young Rock Soccer Academy in Fort Greene, the arrival of Pier 5 is “a wonderful thing. Kids can engage in sports activities because it’s rare to find big, open spaces, especially here in Brooklyn.”
For Assemblywoman Millman, the fields at Pier 5 are available to all children, especially as officials look to address instances of obesity plaguing select segments of the city’s population.
"This green space is not only for league and college teams but for local residents and beyond," Millman said. "I hope that youngsters get to use this park because when you have a place for kids to actually run it helps to combat obesity."
Echoing Mayor Bloomberg’s praise, Ms. Millman added: "We’re very proud of everything everyone’s done here. This is a park for the city and beyond. When you walk all the way to the end [of Pier 5] it’s an enormous, wonderful and incredible view."
After years of commuting to Aviator Field in the Rockaways, beginning in fall 2013 the St. Francis College men’s soccer team will play their home games at Brooklyn Bridge Park. With athletic fields now within walking distance of the school’s Brooklyn Heights campus, St. Francis Athletic Director Irma Garcia views Pier 5 as an ideal opportunity to work directly with local youth programs.
"We are looking to do free clinics next year not only on the soccer field but on the volleyball courts as well," said Garcia. "This is just an amazing day for Brooklyn Heights and for Brooklynites. I can’t wait to get here and see all the free clinics [for kids] that we are planning."
The fields at Pier 5 offer an ideal solution to the acute shortage of appropriate spaces for devotees of the "beautiful game," as soccer is known throughout the world. With literally thousands of players of all ages throughout our borough, finding adequate space to enjoy a friendly pickup game or an organized youth or adult league is often a study in frustration.
According to Brooklyn Bridge Park President Regina Myers, "starting March 1, we’ll be prioritizing youth and school programs but we’ll also be permitting [soccer play] for adults. We’re going to try to balance everybody’s needs so not one league or one school will dominate, but that we can accommodate as many [players] as possible."
Besides lots and lots of space, what distinguishes Pier 5 is availability throughout the day as well as all year. Myers stated the park will be open every day, and powerful overhead lighting will enable players to stay on the field from early morning until 10 p.m.
One major obstacle for local youth soccer programs is the seasonal nature of the New York City Parks Department permit process. Hewing to an academic calendar, access to multipurpose public space similar to Pier 5 is often determined by whatever the seasonal situation dictates.
For example: even though youth soccer groups typically schedule their season from April until November, the Parks Department prioritizes field availability during summer and fall months for a host of other sports—including football, baseball, and field hockey—leaving many soccer programs without consistent practice space.
According to Teresa Gonzalez, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Brooklyn Bridge Park, this will not be the case at Pier 5.
"Permits will be issued based on a series of criteria such as need, with youth play being the dominant criterion," Gonzalez said. "Permits will not be grandfathered in from season to season but will be re-evaluated each season."
While the fields are now open for general activity, BBP is currently accepting permits for the fields for the spring season. Gonzalez said that her organization is working closely with the Public School Athletic League to ensure that public schools have access to the fields.
In addition, BBP's partner organization, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy will also be organizing low-cost youth leagues during the spring and fall seasons, while free family field days will be available throughout the summer.
Young Rock’s Mukoro hopes that access to Pier 5’s fields remains fair for all who want to play. "From my experience, when it comes to shared space, larger organizations tend to have monopolies over certain areas, leaving smaller organizations with little or no space [to play]," he said. "I hope fairness has been taken into consideration when it is decided how to assign space and time of use."
Brooklyn Bridge Park plans to award permits at Pier 5 on a first come-first serve basis. As a new facility, this arrangement has many advantages, not the least of which being that groups currently without access to quality space will be on equal footing with more established clubs in getting permits to fields that they might otherwise not have claim to.
For Soccer Academy Chinantla FC, which wanders all over Brooklyn in search of practice space, Pier 5 offers a golden opportunity to finally have a home field for the club’s sixty players.
"I know how difficult is to find an appropriate location for our soccer teams to practice,” Chinantla Coach Eduardo Calixto said. "This will open new opportunities for our children to find an adequate place to practice here in Brooklyn.”
Access is also of great importance to Mukoro, as Young Rock—with more than100 players—practices at Brooklyn Tech Football field, the most heavily utilized athletic space in Fort Greene. He knows that Pier 5 will be a magnet for kids and parents from all communities.
"Local parents and their kids are really going to welcome these new fields," he said. "It’s been something that everyone has been craving for some time. Parents are always looking for appropriate places for their kids to play."
One other advantage of the proposed Pier 5 field availability is that there will always be open space for casual play.
"There will be time set aside for open play that will not require permitting," Gonzalez said. She noted that until spring begins, the fields are fully available for open play.
“BBP is currently determining open play timing," she continued. "We will not regulate this type of use except that there is a one-hour limit if others are waiting."
The situation at Pier 5 all adds up to nirvana for the soccer-starved masses of Brooklyn. As Mukoro sees it, "Kids are going to like this space. They’ve never really had place like this in Brooklyn where they can simply get together and play."