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.