NYC’s Waterfront Washes Up in Debate

Event: Berlin-New York Dialogues: City of Water: A Documentary and Panel Discussion about the Future of New York’s Waterfront
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.30.07
Speakers: Majora Carter — Executive Director, Sustainable South Bronx; Carter Craft — Director of Programs and Policy, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance; Greg O’Connell — Manager, Pier 41 Associates; William Kornblum — Sociology Professor, CUNY Graduate Center
Moderator: Daniel Wiley — Community Coordinator for Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez
Organizers: AIANY; Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance; Municipal Art Society
Sponsors: Underwriters: Digital Plus; RFR Holding; Patrons: Eurohypo; IULA-International Urban Landscape Award; Lead Sponsors: Carnegie Corporation of New York; Tishman Speyer Properties; Supporter: The German Consulate General New York; Friends: Aucapina Cabinetry; bartcoLighting; Getmapping; Osram Sylvania. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

City of Water

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

We are in an era where NYC’s waterfront is seemingly up for grabs. The maritime industrial trade that literally pushed and pulled the city to prominence has been relegated to back-of-the-house status and sent to New Jersey, leaving the shoreline infrastructure abandoned and prime for redevelopment. With development already underway along the Long Island City-Greenpoint-Williamsburg stretch of the East River, advocates including U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez are expressing concern that the public’s basic right of access to the water is being ignored by private developers. Many dismiss Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff’s vision of an emerald necklace as a “Disneyification” of the waterfront, where a promenade in the shadow of a 40-story building produces a sterilized environment virtually eliminating the public’s physical interaction with the water. As a counterpoint, the town dock often becomes a vibrant nexus of community interaction and does what the ever-present promenade does not — allows people to get into the water (gasp!).

These issues, among others, are captured in City of Water, a documentary produced by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. The three opening scenes of the film set the stage: first, a stoic workhorse of the harbor, a McAllister tugboat pushes a gravel barge in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge; next, Doctoroff appears promoting the current redevelopment of NYC’s waterfront at an historic rate; and finally, Velazquez counters, stressing the need for public access and use of the waterfront.

A proposal from the Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) for the Oak Point Maritime Eco-Industrial Park seeks to appease all three players in waterfront development. Majora Carter, executive director of SSBx, describes the project as an opportunity to create living-wage jobs, promote a clean-tech economy, and utilize inter-modal transportation opportunities (barge and rail). Sadly, the city currently has other plans for the Oak Point site — a 2,000-inmate jail.

The slow burn of the city’s last major redevelopment of the waterfront — Robert Moses’ asphalt necklace known as the West Side Highway and the FDR Drive — has prompted waterfront advocates to speak with a louder voice this time around. Unfortunately, the odd man out in this debate seems to be those hoping to enhance the working waterfront in the city, prompting fears that the workhorse that got us here may soon be tossed overboard.