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Waterfront 'Access' May Actually Keep Public Out

by Tom Angotti, Feb 18, 2004
 
 Over a decade ago, New York City made sweeping changes to its zoning rules that require the construction of public esplanades in new residential and commercial development along its 580 miles of waterfront. The zoning also requires that developers keep open streets that lead to the waterfront.

But the new rules do not apply to industrial areas, and they are now being used in a back handed way to justify conversion of industrially-zoned land to residential. Industrial areas were not required to have public access under the faulty logic that it necessarily interferes with industrial activity. But if decent public access had been required, residents might be more tolerant of their industrial neighbors. What remains of the working waterfront is too often used for warehousing or garbage transfer, or lies vacant while speculators wait for the city to rezone it. This might not be the case if the city had from the start adopted a policy of making these areas more appealing to everyone.

In Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the City Planning Department is selling its scheme to rezone the industrial waterfront for market-rate high-rise housing by using the upside-down argument that this is the only way the community will get public access to the waterfront. They say that only expensive housing yields developers enough profits so they can build and maintain an esplanade and public access.

The outcome of the rezoning may very well be just the opposite. Even with certain contextual design features built into the zoning, high rise housing is likely to create a wall of luxury apartments sharply separated from this low- rise neighborhood. Luxury rents will put pressures on and displace tenants and homeowners in upland areas without providing new units affordable to people with modest incomes. Without protections for industry, the neighborhood will change even more rapidly from vibrant mixed use community to swank bedroom enclave. Residents now looking forward to a chance to get to the waterfront may discover that the public access they were promised does not work for them or that they cannot even afford to stay in the neighborhood. But by then it will be too late.

Years ago people who now live and work in Williamsburg and Greenpoint came up with a more sensible notion of how to get public access. They developed waterfront plans that call for a mixture of low-rise housing, compatible industry, retailing, and public access to the waterfront. The plans were approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council. The city's rezoning, however, would give them a luxury residential enclave on the waterfront.

Attractively redeveloped waterfronts all over the world include lots of low-rise development with intensely utilized public greenways. In Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen government played the leading role, creating opportunities for private development without compromising the public character of the waterfront. Government there does not wait for new development but builds public esplanades in already established neighborhoods. London's Docklands, on the other hand, is a massive waterfront development that followed the private model. Government there had to step in to rescue developers from bankruptcy and eventually ended up spending billions to pay for public amenities.

Another part of the argument by New York City officials is that the old industrial sites are contaminated and soil remediation is so expensive that the costs can only be recovered by building lots of expensive housing. This is only a small part of the truth. The other part is that remediation costs vary widely and are not necessarily budget-busters. Also, nice subsidies are available for low- and mid-rise housing. For the last two decades the city has subsidized the construction of one- to three-family homes affordable to people with modest incomes through a program that was profitable enough to attract lots of private developers. But here is the biggest item that gets left out of calculations: by rezoning their land the city is giving developers huge windfall profits. The city could recover some of these profits and invest them in a way that implements the community's vision for a mixed use waterfront.

Public Planning and Public Money

Behind this logic is the premise that little or no public money should go to revitalize the waterfront. The downtown Brooklyn waterfront, for example, will have a few big commercial developers to pay for a public park that allows people to stroll along the riverfront. The Hudson River greenway would not have been built without its godfathers.

This logic goes back to the 1970s fiscal crisis, which immediately followed the demise of the port. Unfortunately, long after the city's fiscal comeback, the idea that private development is the only option for the public remains a cornerstone of city policy. Even civic and community groups that have been fighting for decades for a public waterfront have come to accept this privatizing logic. The newest generation of community activists has no memory of a time when it was normal for people to expect government to put up the financing for a public benefit.

While communities are told they cannot have subsidies, developers are finding new ways to dip into public coffers to fatten their deals. For example, say you want to build a stadium or convention center with deep public subsidy. You create a public corporation to issue tax-exempt bonds (a form of subsidy), condemn land (a form of subsidy), and limit tax contributions (a form of subsidy). You can also say the bonds will get paid back by taxes on the private owners some time in the distant future, knowing full well that the privates can decide to go elsewhere, end up in bankruptcy court, or plead for public subsidies decades from now when no one will remember who made the promises.

Planning in the public interest should mean that everyone knows the costs and benefits involved. Our elected officials, public servants and communities should make decisions on the waterfront based on a mutually accepted vision of the future, not somebody's bottom line.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.


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