David Belt

Bright idea: New-school urban playgrounds

Urban ice-climbing walls

A rendering of Belt's urban ice-climbing walls    Photo: Macro Sea and Vamos Architects

In July 2009, in a blighted junkyard along the borough’s Gowanus Canal, a tree grew in Brooklyn—actually, a tree, a bocce court, lounge chairs, and three swimming pools made from converted dumpsters. For the next two months, this lo-fi country club hosted barbecues, birthdays, and mixers, offering locals a taste of leisure life inside the hardscrabble city.

The project, called Dumpster Pools, was the work of David Belt, a 44-year-old real estate developer who grew restless a few years ago and decided to chart a new course. To that end, he began turning what he calls “junk spaces”—abandoned big-box stores, run-down urban lots—into inspired community rec centers and art projects. In May 2010, Belt and his ­colleagues at Macro Sea—a rotating crew of like-minded friends and designers—took on the “boring act of recycling,” as Belt puts it, by building a 20-by-30-foot clear box, with high walls made of steel and bulletproof glass, on a private Brooklyn lot. Locals were invited to smash bottles against the glass, which was wired to trigger nightclub-style flashing lights. The shards were all recycled.

Both projects were funded entirely by donations and built mostly by volunteers. In 2012, Belt is expanding, with new projects in Philadelphia (where he refurbished 27,000 square feet of an old warehouse and church as a rec-and-learning center) and Detroit (an industrial-wasteland skate park). The coolest of Macro Sea’s future visions: a series of five-story artificial ice cliffs for urban mountaineering, which Belt hopes to bring to Manhattan high-rises someday. The challenge is finding ice coils large enough to keep the walls solid for weeks at a time, but Belt doesn’t seem worried. “We’re not afraid of scale,” he laughs.

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