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Reinventing New York’s Iconic Canal System

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Along the Erie Canal (photo: @NYSCanalCorp)

The Erie Canal just celebrated its 192nd birthday on Thursday, October 26, the date in 1825 when it was completed and Governor DeWitt Clinton, the canal’s most ardent and persistent advocate, boarded a packet boat in Buffalo for a 10-day journey to New York Harbor.

Upon arriving that day, Clinton emptied two casks of Lake Erie water into the harbor. This triumphant “wedding of the waters”—linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean—was followed by the overnight success of the Erie Canal. It transformed the nation by providing a pathway for westward expansion. It created new markets by dramatically cutting the cost and time to ship goods and allowed New York City to become a reigning center of world trade.

Suffice to say, times have changed along the Erie Canal, as they have along the Oswego, Champlain, and Cayuga-Seneca canals, the other components of the New York State Canal System. Mules pulling barges filled with lumber, coal, and hay, as the song goes, have long been gone. So are most of the barges.

Now, most of the traffic on the canal is either by recreational vessels or the bikers, hikers, joggers, and cross-country skiers who take 1.6 million trips annually on the Erie Canalway Trail, the old towpath used by the mules.

Nobody disputes the Erie Canal’s iconic status. But it is much more than just an historic artifact. This is an active, vital waterway. But when the New York Power Authority assumed control of the Canal System this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sensed it was a crown jewel in need of some additional luster.

That’s why he tasked the Power Authority and the state Canal Corporation to launch a global competition to reimagine the canal system, so it can be embraced by more visitors and once again serve as an engine of economic growth.

While boat traffic on the Canal System is well off its historic highs, its water still matters even if you never set foot inside a boat. It helps irrigate crops and golf courses in Western New York. Factories rely on the water for cooling systems for heavy machinery. It serves as a source of drinking water in Utica. And it’s the home for 27 hydroelectric plants—including three owned by NYPA—providing clean, renewable power.

It is on that foundation that this competition rests. We’ll seek entries on two tracks. The first will solicit proposals for infrastructure so we can reshape the relationship between the canals and the 226 communities they pass through. That could include building new facilities or re-engineering existing structures.

The second track focuses on the best ways to increase recreational use of the Canal System and enhance the visitor experience by creating a new tourist destination or giving a reboot to one that currently exists. There’s also a lot of potential in creating signature events, like the ones we held this year across the state to celebrate the bicentennial of the Erie Canal’s construction.

Under Gov. Cuomo, NYPA and the Canal Corporation will award up to $2.5 million for proposals that demonstrate the best ability to promote economic growth, increase visitation and are sustainable over the long term. The competition is open to anyone from anywhere -- good ideas have no boundaries.

Admittedly, I had never traveled on the Eric Canal before NYPA assumed control of the Canal System from the State Thruway Authority. Like most Manhattan residents, it’s something I had only heard of. The nearest canal was north of Albany. But I quickly realized why the canals are so integral toward defining the essential fabric of what made New York The Empire State.

Communities take deep pride in their link to the canals. It’s not just the dozens of museums and historical societies in the canal corridor that feel this way. Visitors constantly remark about the warm welcome they receive in canal towns because the locals like to show off their links to canals that turned the U.S. from mostly a nation of farmers to an industrial superpower. Many of these towns sprung up along the canal banks. They have plenty of great stories to tell.

We should be proud of that legacy. But with this competition, as New Yorkers we can be prouder of what is yet to come.

Gil Quiniones is president and CEO of the New York Power Authority. On Twitter @GQenergy & @NYPAenergy & @NYSCanalCorp.

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New York City: A Potential Source of Enlightenment in A Time of National Anxiety

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Mayor de Blasio and the Statue of Liberty (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

New York City is arguably the nation's most historically significant and diverse city. People across the nation look to New York for leadership, enlightenment, and inspiration, particularly in difficult times. Americans these days seem to be experiencing a sense of drift, puzzlement, uncertainty, divisiveness, and apprehension, in part due to the political situation in Washington, D.C.

There may be several ways New York programs and institutions can help.

A bully pulpit
Mayor Bill de Blasio has used his prominent position as mayor to speak out on some national issues such as immigration. He might use the high-visibility position even more expansively to provide a New York perspective on other political and cultural issues. He would be following a precedent set by former mayors.

For instance, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a statement before the 9/11 Commission in 2003, eloquently described his city's cosmopolitan pre-eminence and why people look here for inspiration: "To people around the world, New York City embodies what makes this nation great. That's a function of our status as the world's financial capital, driven not only by Wall Street but our international prominence in such fields as broadcasting, the arts, entertainment and medicine....New York embraces the intellectual and religious freedom and cultural diversity that makes us truly the world's second home. We are a magnet for the talented and ambitious from every corner of the globe. In short, we embody the strengths of America's freedom."

Model blueprint for cultural enrichment and inclusiveness
On July 19 , the mayor and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs published CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for all New Yorkers. "CreateNYC is the first-ever comprehensive cultural plan for the City of New York," says the introduction. "It is intended to serve as a roadmap to a more inclusive, equitable, and resilient cultural ecosystem, in which all residents have a stake."

It is a brilliant plan with many facets that can serve as a model for other cities. But New York City's history is apparently not addressed as a cultural asset. CreateNYC might expand its purview somewhat to include consideration of the city's historical heritage and how it relates to culture generally. Alternatively, there might be a separate report focused on history.

Guidelines for historical memorials in public spaces
On September 8, the mayor appointed an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. It was in part a reaction to the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August and other issues that led to heightened public awareness and sensitivity about public statutes and monuments. The commission is charged to "develop guidelines on how the city should address monuments seen as oppressive and inconsistent with the values of New York City." It will issue its recommendations by the end of the year.

In looking at specific monuments, the commission should consider the context and significance at the time they were erected. For instance, the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle was dedicated on Columbus Day, 1892, as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of his voyages that included parades, pageantry, and city-wide celebration. Speakers praised Columbus, but most of the emphasis was on New York's Italian-American heritage and the historical connections between Italy and the United States. Former Civil War general and historian James Grant Wilson, accepting the statute on behalf of the city and the state, told the assembled dedication crowd: "May it ever stand as a symbol of lasting friendship between Italy and the United States."

But the commission's work, including historical investigations, will not be simple. Columbus is a complex historical figure. A year before the dedication, in 1891, historian John Fiske's “The Discovery of America” was mostly positive about Columbus. But in the year of the dedication, 1892, historian Justin Winsor published “Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery,” which disparaged the explorer.

The panel apparently is not charged with providing guidelines or criteria for what should be commemorated via monuments in public places. Its charge should be expanded to come up with such criteria which, in turn, could serve as a model for other cities.

Calling attention to real "New York values"
The Monuments and Markers Commission is charged with evaluating potentially offensive items against "the values of  New York City." Last year, during the Republican presidential primaries, Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke scornfully of then-candidate Donald Trump's alleged "New York values." This led to an assertive response from Mayor de Blasio and many others about what "New York values" really are, e.g., creativity, diversity, openness, inclusion, tolerance, and resilience. These exemplary values seem like ones the country needs to embrace more fully these days. The commission, or the mayor,  might revive, expand, and deepen that discussion.

Education, historical understanding and civic consciousness
One of the best ways of building a capacity to understand and learn from history and develop interest in civic participation is through social studies in the schools. Here, New York City Department of Education guidelines and standards are particularly important, including the guidelines for grades K-8 and separate ones for grades 9-12. Other cities might review them for ideas on how to teach about historical awareness, cultural diversity, and citizens' civic responsibilities.

Guidance and inspiration from public history programs
Of course, New York City has some of the strongest public history programs in the nation. Historical programs and exhibits can help deepen historical perspective on current issues and controversies.

For instance, the Museum of the City of New York has an exhibit on "Activist New York.” According to the exhibit's description, "in a town renowned for its in-your-face persona, citizens have banded together on issues as diverse as civil rights, wages, sexual orientation, and religious freedom. Using artifacts, photographs, audio and visual presentations, as well as interactive components that seek to tell the story of activism in the five boroughs past and present, Activist New York presents the passions and conflicts that underlie the city's history of agitation."

New York is a model of diversity at a time when the concept is being questioned or even assailed in some places in this country. There are lots of historical programs that show New York's model leadership here. One is "Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson's Legacy." On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the professional baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base. "Featuring a wonderful array of archival materials, photography, programs, and memorabilia, the exhibition will tell a story that continues to resonate today," says the exhibit summary.

Getting young people aware of and interested in their city's history can help promote civic engagement as they grow into adult citizens. New-York Historical Society's Dimenna Children's History Museum is an outstanding resource for doing that.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne lives in Guilderland, New York. He is the author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's  History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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In New Books on Bloomberg and de Blasio, Unreliable Atlantic Yards History

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(photo: Spencer T Tucker via the Mayor's Office)

"Atlantic Yards down the memory hole" is a phrase I coined to describe how the facts and history of the controversial real estate project -- which was renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn in 2014 -- regularly get mangled by journalists, public officials, and commentators, often buffing away the controversy so that people may eventually wonder why anyone ever cared.

Part of that surely relates to the project's complex, twisting path, with at least 11 more towers yet unbuilt, joining the Barclays Center and four apartment buildings. It's tough to get right, even for me, and I write about Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park every day.

Also, the documentary record includes newspaper articles and government statements that either were initially flawed or no longer remain correct. Add the pressure of tight deadlines, with little time (or perhaps inclination) to check on, say, whether an old New York Times article was superseded by new information in the mainstream press, or corrected by a blog they don't read.

It's doubly dismaying, though, when book authors err, because they presumably have more time for research and because a hardcover presentation adds gravity. Unfortunately, interesting new books on the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations get the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park history wrong, in both small and significant ways.

It's understandable that the authors give Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park short shrift, as it's but one controversy within a complex set of governing challenges, and authors have to pick their spots. It doesn't ruin these substantial books. But it suggests they've not given careful attention to this project.

Only former Bloomberg Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, in his Greater Than Ever: New York's Big Comeback, adds some new insights, but his triumphant narrative ignores some countervailing evidence.


Some authors make simple, though telling, mistakes, likely from sloppily surveying a clip file. Writes Chris McNickle, in Bloomberg: A Billionaire's Ambition, "Forest City Ratner, a national real estate firm, built the Barclays Center...on top of gritty MTA-owned railroad tracks." Put aside that Forest City Ratner was the New York arm of a national firm -- then Forest City Enterprises, now Forest City Realty Trust -- the arena was not built fully on (or over) the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard. The arena was built partly on the railyard. The tracks in the way were moved.

The other half of the arena footprint involved private (plus city/MTA) property and public streets. Had the arena site been limited to the railyard, Atlantic Yards wouldn't have sparked years of controversy and a battle over eminent domain to deliver some of that private property.

This error appeared frequently in the Times and other media outlets, and was only occasionally corrected. Probably the most egregious example was the enthusiastic appraisal of the original 2003 plan by Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp, who wrote, "The six-block site...is now an open railyard."

Doctoroff similarly writes that Ratner "would build a huge development on the railyard at the convergence of the two major thoroughfares in Brooklyn -- Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues -- right next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn's premier cultural institution." (Also, Brooklynites know that a huge mall and then the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building stand between the arena site and BAM.)


McNickle, to his credit, locates the Barclays Center "near Downtown Brooklyn." Doctoroff uses "Downtown Brooklyn" without the modifier, as do Joseph P. Viteritti, in his The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York, and Juan Gonzalez in his Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities.

The Times used that location a lot, but it also published a correction back in 2006 indicating that almost all the project site was in Prospect Heights. This might be seen as splitting hairs -- today, it could be argued that the Barclays Center extends the boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn, long seen as ending near the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, across Atlantic Avenue.

But the key issue is that the Atlantic Yards site was separate from Downtown Brooklyn, which New York City rezoned for high-rise buildings. After all, exiting from the back of the Barclays Center, you see Prospect Heights row houses across the street. Even Gregg Pasquarelli, the architect who redesigned the arena, called it "a big building in a residential neighborhood."


The overall amount of direct and indirect subsidies for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park remains murky, in part because the project's not finished. But these books don't help.

"The city contributed $100 million in cash, infrastructure support, and tax abatements to the private project," writes McNickle, not specifying the value of the latter two categories. The New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) estimated a package far more valuable than $100 million.

Writes Doctoroff: "When the financials of the deal deteriorated, the city and state upped our [cash] contributions to the project to $100 million apiece."

Actually, beyond that $100 million, the city later assigned $105 million to Atlantic Yards. Though city officials protested that a good chunk of that would have been delivered anyway -- and the IBO cautiously assessed a $150 million city total -- Forest City itself claimed it had secured $105 million more.

Why does that larger figure matter? Because the IBO, which in 2006 estimated that the arena would represent a net gain for city taxpayers, in 2009 projected a loss, based in part on new subsidy numbers. That goes unmentioned in Doctoroff's book, though the city, which embraced the earlier IBO assessment, attacked the later one. The overall impact remains inconclusive.

Beyond that, Doctoroff writes that, for the new Yankees and Mets stadiums, and the Brooklyn arena, "the city would fund only infrastructure costs, the stadium had to be financed by the team." Putting aside the controversial financing methods -- PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes -- that's not true regarding the Barclays Center.

The city's initial $100 million pledge could be used for infrastructure or for land purchases and, ultimately, it was used to buy arena land. In fact, Forest City's seemingly generous buyouts of condo owners -- prompting a front-page 2004 Daily News headline, "BONANZA," subtitled, "Brooklyn apt. owners offered $1 million-plus to make way for Nets arena" -- were funded by taxpayers, as I reported four years later.


"Because the project stood mostly over state controlled land," writes McNickle, "the city's normal review process did not apply." It's hard to fault him for conveying that typical explanation from public officials, though such state land is actually a plurality, not a majority.

Then again, some critics, including former City Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman, long argued that the city could have negotiated with the Empire State Development Corporation, the state authority (since renamed Empire State Development) that wound up overseeing Atlantic Yards, to use the city's more substantial Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Indeed, that's one mini-revelation from Doctoroff. "Although we would eventually become masters of ULURP," he writes, "at this point not a single rezoning had been approved and internally we had doubts about pulling off all we were trying to accomplish. Because the state owned much of the land, we decided that for expediency we would skirt ULURP and take advantage of the state's seemingly speedier process. With twenty-twenty hindsight, I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP."

He's got a point. The Bloomberg administration might not have placated all opponents -- many were opposed to the arena, period -- but likely would have made some concessions, leading to perhaps more legitimacy and more oversight for the project, as well as a voice for then-City Council Member Letitia James, who represented the area.


A more important revelation from Doctoroff is that, while he and the Bloomberg administration were public cheerleaders for Atlantic Yards -- “My role in this was to be as supportive and reassuring as possible,” he writes -- from the start in 2003 he questioned whether such a complex project would work.

Noting that developer Bruce Ratner had to buy the money-losing New Jersey Nets and navigate a complex set of approvals, Doctoroff “thought it was a crazy risk, but, hey, it was his money.” Actually, it involved public money too, as well as the opportunity cost of delaying alternative use for the public property at issue.

After all, given how much Atlantic Yards was sold to the public as providing solutions to the affordable housing crisis, didn't public officials owe us more candor about the risks of delay and nonperformance?


How long was Atlantic Yards supposed to take? That too goes down the memory hole. Viteritti writes that de Blasio "picked up the ball on real estate projects he inherited...he got Forest City Ratner, the developer of the massive Pacific Park Project...to accelerate the construction of 2,250 affordable apartments by 2025--ten years ahead of schedule."

To clarify: by 2014, there was a new developer: Greenland Forest City Partners, the joint venture owned 70% by Greenland USA, with Forest City the junior partner. That's worth noting, because community critics seeking a faster timetable tried to pressure the state before approval of that new majority owner was granted.

More importantly, "ten years ahead of schedule," while widely reported and not incorrect, is misleadingly incomplete. That timetable is ten years ahead of the previous schedule, which had been extended from ten years to 25 years.

So a 2025 completion date remains well behind the long-professed timetable. In fact -- and this was public knowledge before the author's deadline -- that target date is now in jeopardy, given that the developer last November paused market-rate development.


Doctoroff looks approvingly at Pacific Park so far, saying the arena opened "to (mostly) rave architectural reviews, with critics praising its proportions and its fit into the neighborhood." True, but critics' praise for the arena's innovative, elevator-based loading dock was followed by neighbors experiencing noisy truck lineups on residential streets.

The former deputy mayor also cites an increase in property values and busy restaurants, and none of the "feared terrible traffic congestion." The latter is true, but he should acknowledge that congestion fears were based on a project that had been built out faster, as well as far more fans driving from New Jersey.

Nor does Doctoroff acknowledge that impacts on the nearest residents can be brutal; one resident said she lives near "sh--show corner." He fails to mention that extravagant promises of local/minority/women hiring and contracting have never been confirmed.

"Thousands of units of desperately needed affordable housing are finally coming online," Doctoroff writes. The total is actually 781, in three towers, with new construction paused, and it's doubtful that all of the units are desperately needed.

After all, some 43% of the apartments built so far are aimed at middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income, far more than the income of the mostly low-income residents who marched enthusiastically for Atlantic Yards affordable housing. That translates, for example, into two-bedroom apartments costing well over $3,000 a month.

In fact, though the two already open buildings drew more than over 176,000 aspirants in the city's housing lottery, the developer was unable to fill all middle-income "affordable" units, presumably because of cost. So those apartments are now open to anyone who fits in the appropriate income category.


With affordable housing, the devil is in the details, though readers have no way of knowing from these books just how affordable the apartments are. Housing is called affordable if a household pays up to 30% of its income on rent.

The Atlantic Yards story deserves more nuanced attention generally. Gonzalez, in a few glancing mentions, does the best job of suggesting something was sketchy; Viteritti and McNickle acknowledge controversy.

Doctoroff claims success at a transformational project, scoffing at project opponents as brownstone owners wary of crowding, though he allows that we'll never know if Ratner makes money on the project.

What's missing, though, is a sense of the political skullduggery involved. For example, both books about de Blasio cite his relationship with the community group ACORN and its New York leader, Bertha Lewis. But neither mentions how, when the national group faced an internal embezzlement scandal and funders pulled away, Lewis (as ACORN founder Wade Rathke acknowledged) got her Atlantic Yards ally Forest City to deliver a loan and a grant, further cementing their relationship.

Also missing are issues of accountability, ones that will dog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park during its next phases, inevitable twists, and likely requests for more government assistance. As the project's history is still being made, we should see its controversial past more clearly.

Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter @AYReport.

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