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In The News: Pier Pressure

In recent weeks, while the weather still spoke more of winter than spring, the Hudson River Park Trust severed a number of Hudson River piers. With little fanfare, HRPT contractors cut a fifteen-foot slice out of three piers thereby creating three long flat islands off the coast of the West Side. It's been a long time since Manhattan was made smaller.

West Manhattan is not the only city coast where access to the waterfront is at risk. In neighborhoods surrounding Jamaica Bay, local residents are warily watching a State proposed plan to place contaminated dredge spoils in bay waters. The Bay's Channels have unused depth creating space on the bottom for unwanted muck. Bay residents, protectors and users fear for the health and safety of that diverse waterway and wildlife refuge.

In the South Bronx, the City is rebuilding the Tiffany Street pier. Its predecessor, an innovative plastic pier built five years ago, burned after a lightning hit only two years after it opened. The City promises to re-open the pier for the summer of 2000. During the two years the plastic pier was operational, it was a heavily used community resource. It was also the only place along more than eight miles of Bronx coast where residents of the South Bronx could access their shores. Along that lengthy stretch an industrial iron curtain severs half a million people from water's edge.

Access to the water's edge has markedly improved at two sites in the Brooklyn harbor. At Red Hook, a new pier at the end of Coffey Street offers its users a fine view of the Statue of Liberty. Alongside the pier is a small sand beach -- one of a very few harbor sites from which kayakers and other small boats can access the harbor. The return of small boat access reconnects New York City to hundreds of years of its maritime past. In Brooklyn, the 69th Street Pier is being rebuilt. Opening is expected for the summer of 2000.

Fort Totten, in Northeastern Queens is at the other end of the City. This 120-acre waterfront site is a former U.S. Army Base. Though the Army is mostly gone, the base is largely closed to the public. Almost entirely surrounded by water, Fort Totten includes the "Old Fort", an abandoned nineteenth-century fortification set into the highest point along the Queens shore. The forts, old and new have commanding views of the East River and Long Island Sound.

A Reuse Plan for Fort Totten would provide public access to some of the old base. Plans suggest making 35-50 acres public open space. Access to the base' waterfront esplanade, to the bluff that encompasses the "old fort", and to the docks or small boat launching sites near the existing parking lot would create a fine waterfront amenity.

Peter Sounds Off:

Not since the glaciers rearranged Manhattan has any force voluntarily eliminated real estate on that valuable and crowded island (Marble Hill may be the exception). Never mind that HRPT says that the piers will be rebuilt in just a few years. Manhattan is now smaller. Its links to the sea have become more tenuous. Many West Side residents are nervous about the Trust's commitments and funding. Many regret having to wait for years.

Piers are traditional and obvious link to the water. Severing them reduces waterfront access while increasing crowding on the already cramped shorefront esplanades. In this bustling metropolis, access to the waterfront for fishing, strolling, sunbathing, boating, solitude or open space is an antidote to urban ills and a catalyst for the imagination.

The good news is, providing access is relatively inexpensive, and is often a capital expense. Lightning aside, piers, bulkheads, esplanades and beaches last for a very long time, needing little in the way of ongoing maintenance.

Waterfront space, in all boroughs, is heavily used and appreciated. Uses tend toward the creative. Recently, I saw two running dogs take their leash-holding rollerboarding owner for a West Side esplanade stroll. Such accessible waterfront space is still limited. Thus, in the Bronx, fishermen walk out on rock jetties surrounding landfills to find solitude.

The City has a great deal of idle or inaccessible waterfront on the slow track toward beneficial use. With the land and streets safer and the water markedly cleaner, it is time to accelerate and fund access to this unique and timeless source of urban quality of life.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.


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