Home View from Underground On the waterfront, $3 billion for redevelopment

On the waterfront, $3 billion for redevelopment

by Benjamin Kabak

The city has released a $3 billion plan to revitalize the waterfront with 130 different urban planning projects.

The lasting image many people have of the New York City waterfront comes from a movie of a similar name. The miles of waterfront property coulda been a contender, as Marlon Brando once put it. Instead, the city has a tenuous relationship with its shoreline. At various points, multi-lane highways, industry and infrastructure have laid claim to prime waterfront spots, and while a port city needs its access to water, development north of the port has been slow.

That all will change if Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way. As part of his third-term effort to leave a lasting impact on the city’s landscape, the Mayor announced earlier this week a $3 billion plan to redevelop the waterfront. I hesitate to call it a comprehensive one because it gathers numerous projects at various stages under one roof, but by and large, it would allow for the city to return access to the waterfront to people.

The driving force behind this effort is a 190-page document entitled “Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.” The city has identified 130 projects — along with an expanded ferry service introduced last month — that planners hope will “catalyze waterfront investment, improve water quality, and expand public access” to the city’s shore.

Those in charge of the city’s economic development policies are happy because waterfront space is indeed a valuable commodity. “The waterfront represents an enormous opportunity for economic growth throughout the five boroughs,” EDC President Seth Pinsky said. “By investing in and expanding the working waterfront, we will be creating immediate job opportunities for New Yorkers as well as a source of long-term economic growth for New York City. Developing our waterfront infrastructure, so that we can expand industries like container shipping, will allow us to stay competitive with other waterfront cities around the world.”

Michael Howard Saul from The Journal had more on the details:

The $3 billion-plus initiative includes the development of more than 50 acres of new waterfront parks, the creation of 14 new waterfront esplanades and new ferry service.

Many of the projects are already in the city’s capital plan, and while these types of initiatives are often delayed—sometimes indefinitely—aides at City Hall said the mayor and the speaker are determined to make these 130 a high priority before their terms in office expire in December 2013.

The most expensive portion of these projects, a total of $2.57 billion, will be overseen by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which is funded largely through water rates. The remainder of the projects, valued at more than $700 million, are funded directly by city taxpayers.

Other projects include pier renovation and reclamation work; development of 50 acres of waterfront parks; more miles of greenway; and a push to bring more jobs to the Brooklyn Navy Yard space. “New York City’s waterfront has always played a major role in its history and is one of its greatest assets – we have more miles of waterfront Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland combined – but for decades New Yorkers have been blocked from it and it’s become less and less a part of their lives,” the Mayor said. “We’re committed to making it a part of New Yorkers’ lives again by completely revitalizing the waterfront and waterways.”

Yet for all the back-slapping that went on during this week’s press conference, Steve Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York had an interesting statement on the proposal. “The question is how to you get people to the waterfront—to live or to the work or to play,” he said. “You need this blend of open space and infrastructure improvements, as well as the ability to attract investors to help pay for the ongoing cost of maintaining the waterfront.”

For $3 billion, Bloomberg’s proposal is noticeably short on answering Spinola’s question. The issues of getting people to the waterfront have long bedeviled New York’s city planners. Part of that is a historical happenstance: As roads developed, subway routes didn’t reach the waterfront. But part of that is geography: The land around the waterfront cannot support subway infrastructure. So the city will turn to ferries and hope that people are walking.

I can’t complain about waterfront development. Incorporating the views and riverfront space back into the daily routine of urban life would be a welcome development for New Yorkers. But for $3 billion, the city should make sure it can get people to the waterfront in the first place. Building up without adequate transportation is the recipe for an empty esplanade.

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13 comments

E. Aron March 17, 2011 - 7:50 am

I recently watched an interesting documentary called City of Water, released in 2007. In it, they raised important points, like the inaccessibility of the actual water even from new waterfront developments. Part of that comes from the threat of tort actions – but what’s the point of another waterfront esplanade with a 4-foot high metal fence between you and the river where you still can’t get into the actual water?

One particular law I found fascinating is that the federal government has to maintain the safety of the activities the local population chooses to partake in in the waters, so the best thing we can do for our rivers is to get in them! I hope to see development on the waterfront such that people have actual access to the water.

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Christopher March 17, 2011 - 11:47 am

I grew up in Chicago which admittedly has a lot of beaches but there’s also a good stretch of the waterfront that is just rocks. It’s nice to be able to be near the water in either form. Honestly. You can’t (and wouldn’t want to) swim in Potomac but it’s a great river to run and bike along. Similarly with Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. You don’t have to swim in it to appreciate it. And enjoy being near it.

That all being said: aside from Baltimore it’s hard to get to Chicago’s lakefront via transit or the Potomac. These are areas you walk or bike to.

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E. Aron March 17, 2011 - 4:46 pm

There are lots of activities that we could enjoy in our rivers here – kayaking, canoeing, rowboating, etc., that are simply impracticable given the way we currently construct waterfront esplanades. I’d like the waterfront to resemble nature more than another bike path or esplanade where people stroll around and look at the water. Our rivers are amazing physical resources that go under (or barely) utilized by the general public, in part due to the way we’ve developed waterfront areas.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 17, 2011 - 9:12 am

[…] How Will New Yorkers Get to Their Redeveloped Waterfront? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

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JK March 17, 2011 - 9:30 am

How about this — all future development on the waterfront will include a value capture tax adequate to support ferry operations and other infrastructure. City transit riders should not be stuck subsidizing ferry service for condo owners while their own bus and subway service is being cut.

Also, note that the city’s own global warming studies predict much of the waterfront would be underwater during future hurricane storm surges. The public should be extremely wary of city subsidies for future waterfront development. The city economic development process is highly political. Underlining this, the waterfront report comes the same week that the Yankee Stadium parking garage owner defaulted on hundreds of millions of city supported bonds.

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Jeff March 17, 2011 - 10:44 am

As long as the waterfront highways remain standing, any improvements made will just be lipstick on a pig. You would have a more pleasant waterfront experience trudging through the rubble of a torn-down FDR with zero additional investment than you would sitting on a brand-new bench in a beautifully renovated park, squeezed between six lanes of traffic and the waterfront.

The issue of access to the waterfront is simple: As long as you have the highways, the waterfront simply cannot be seamlessly integrated into the existing urban fabric.

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Christopher March 17, 2011 - 11:44 am

I’m someone who likes those spaces under expressways so take this with that grain of salt. But the blog Pruned did a whole series on reclaimed parkland below expressways. There are ways to make that land and those spaces more attractive and not just spaces for parking. (I’d love to see the same done with the space under the Metro North tracks through East Harlem. Much more cost effective solution.

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Scott E March 17, 2011 - 4:13 pm

Very true. Trenton, NJ recaptured some of their waterfront property with an “open-sided” tunnel (if that makes any sense). Essentially, they built Route 29 somewhat close to the water, with the southbound lanes open to the Delaware River side, and the northbound lanes in a true tunnel. Above sits a park with at-grade connections to the rest of Trenton. (See more here).

It’s not too different from the park above the FDR drive in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

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Yankees368 March 17, 2011 - 11:42 am

Wouldn’t this be perfect for lite rail? If the subway get get there because of the land not supporting, but the rails on the ground.

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BBnet3000 March 17, 2011 - 4:20 pm

New York seems to have an aversion to anything but the extremes. If its not a full subway, its a bus, almost always running in mixed traffic.

BRT is barely getting off the ground, light rail or streetcars are non-existent (though there was an idea for one line in Brooklyn), as are trolleybuses.

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al March 18, 2011 - 11:00 pm

It would be strong enough for an elevated subway. Demo the existing deck structure and use the piles, columns, and some of the girders for a quiet concrete elevated line. There are some grade and open cut lengths on the FDR so those might be turned into tunnels and covered rail sections.

Too bad we built the new South Ferry Station. It would have been interesting for them to make the East River Drive a subway line. The 1 could had looped up the East Side to East Harlem.

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SEAN March 17, 2011 - 12:52 pm

What an insentive to add ferry service as a supplament to the existing subway network. Ferries could reach parts of Queens, Brooklyn & Thhe Bronx including Riverdale, Spuyten Dival, Throgs Neck, The Rockaways & other neighborhoods. Services could serve existing ferry terminals in Midtown & lower Manhattan, or new terminals could be astablished as well.

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Heywood Jablomey March 17, 2011 - 8:22 pm

Funny that there’s no mention of a Hot Topic in Brooklyn & Queens these days, relocation of the NYCT Access-A-Ride operation and Emergency Response Unit from the waterfront Crosstown Depot, in Greenpoint. NYCT agreed to move 7 or 8 years ago, as soon as the City provided turnkey replacements for both functions. Local residents & Pols blame the MTA for not moving, but the City has wasted nearly a decade waiting to identify a site or sites and to construct suitable replacement facilities. Hopefully, this program heralds funding for that effort. But it isnt specifically mentioned – which could lead one to believe that the City will simply wait for the potitical pressure to get so great that NYCT will knuckle under and walk away from the site, which will be a cost-free amenity for the adjacent speculative development.

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