NYC’s Waterfront Awash in Change

Event: Lecture and Movie Screening: City of Water: Examining the Past and Future of New York’s Waterfront
Location: Museum of American Finance, 02.21.08
Speaker: Kent Barwick — President, Municipal Art Society & Secretary, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance
Organizer: The Downtown Alliance

Hudson River Park

Hudson River Park may inhibit future growth of the NYC waterfront.

Jessica Sheridan

A combination of zoning changes, developer incentives, and a booming residential market have transformed NYC’s waterfront from a series of working docks to a string of recreation-driven promenades. Still, the best lesson to be learned from this recent transformation is that today’s planners should leave room for change, according to Kent Barwick, President of the Municipal Art Society and Secretary of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (the organization that produced the documentary, City of Water). The city’s original waterfront gradually grew as an organic extension of ship-related industries; it should not be hastily re-envisioned by one or two city administrations as just an amenity for locals.

This recent transition to a more resident-friendly waterfront has been seen as an asset for NYC. Many communities, such as the South Bronx, are actively lobbying for better connections to their neighborhood waterfronts. But while communities derive benefits from these greened edges, establishment of a series of continuous waterfront parks actually serves to penalize the long-term economic flexibility of the city. For example, Barwick deemed the creation of Hudson River Park a potential mistake, since its location along the West Side of Manhattan precludes delivery of high value airfreight from the water. Though once unthinkable, there may be a time when NYC will again welcome a resurgence of commercial traffic in its ports.

While some future changes can be partially foreseen, others cannot. Asked how the city’s waterfront might fare in the face of global warming, Barwick responded that “no one has thought through yet what this will mean.” Many edges of the city would require radical adjustment to accommodate rising sea levels, proving that even today’s best-laid plans may be subject to unknown forces.