Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union


Who Owns the "578 Miles" of Waterfront, and How Are They Being Used?

(April '01) The first official measurement of New York City's waterfront, so the story goes, took place during the Lindsay Administration. Mayor Lindsay was asked the extent of the city's shoreline, forcing staff members to take ruler and string to a city map. Absent scientific method and computerized mapping techniques, these 'experts' determined that 578 was the official number of miles.

That is a reasonably good metaphor for what could charitably be called the spontaneous approach that the city long has taken towards one of its most spectacular resources.

Back then, the city's waterfront was decaying and its waters were notoriously polluted. Today, the waters are cleaner, the shore more accessible, and water-related activities on the rise. A new focus on coastal issues has emerged. Knowing who uses and controls the "578" miles is more important than ever.

Surprisingly, as it turns out, city residents own the vast bulk of waterfront lots. Three-quarters of all shorefront parcels are zoned residential. This ranges from eighty-five percent in water-enveloped Queens to thirty-five percent in highway-girded Manhattan. Still, perhaps fifteen thousand residences are located on the city's shores.

Lot size and use varies. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residences with private docks and boats in far-flung corners of Queens and the Bronx. There are large swaths of the city's coast covered by park. The waterfront, in other words, is not all industry or commerce. This is the discovery of a report on shoreline use and ownership by a group called Community Cartography prepared for the New York City Partnership.

There are 274 "park" parcels comprising one-third of all waterfront acreage in the city. While considerable in the aggregate, these park acres are distributed unevenly around the city's littoral. For example, more than ninety-seven percent of the 3652 acres of park waterfront in the Bronx is located in the Northern and Western Bronx. In the South Bronx, for eight waterfront miles, ringing perhaps a half-million residents, there is virtually no waterfront access. No other coastal strip in the city is so devoid of access.

There is discontinuity in Queens too. The National Park Service, through the Gateway National Recreation Area, administers a vast empire of bay and beach acreage around Jamaica Bay. Public access to much of this land is sharply limited. While some of these lands are wildlife refuge that must be protected, much of this waterfront is in effect locked up. Though motorized craft have the run of the waters, the park service limits and discourages launching of hand-powered craft. Meanwhile, under the park service aegis, waterfront communities such as Breezy Point have access to public lands that are virtually unavailable to the bulk of the public.

Old military bases and coastal strips in all five boroughs are in the hands of city, state and federal agencies. Unfortunately, these agencies move at a glacial pace when it comes to turning over and providing public access to places that they no long use, such as Fort Totten in Bayside, Manhattan's West Side waterfront, the Brooklyn piers, and Governors Island.

Waterfront lots zoned for manufacturing or commercial uses comprise about a third of citywide coastal acreage. These working waterfront parcels include airports, power generation facilities, petroleum storage depots, sewage treatment plants, and shipping companies from barge and tug operators to cruise ship lines. Commercial uses vary from a very few waterfront restaurants to a surprising number of private beach clubs and marinas to tourism, eel fishing and many, many, parking lots.

The report shows that twenty percent of all waterfront acreage is vacant or abandoned. That is more vacant acreage than the acreage of all the waterfront parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx combined.

Sounding Off

While it is obvious that vacant waterfront can not be moved to the places where most people live, the statistics tell a powerful story about who has access to this important part of urban quality of life. Most of New York City's vacant or abandoned waterfront land is public. Many undeveloped parcels and many slow-moving government waterfront projects are in the heavily populated parts of the boroughs. There is an imbalance and disconnect between the amount of city waterfront and the public's perceived access or practical access to it. Public policy should turn in the direction of immediately opening up the coasts.

As the weather warms, it should be noted that there are only fourteen miles of public beaches, barely more than two percent of the 578- mile shore.

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.


Fifteen years ago, the Koch Administration, with a push from a private ferry operator, helped launch the modern era of private ferry services in New York harbor. Five years ago, the Giuliani Administration pushed hard to spur new private ferry services to Yankee Stadium. The city has substantially completed a multi-million dollar reconstruction of Pier 11. Pier 11 is the Wall Street hub for the harbor's private ferry operators. At present, there are four private operators and over 30,000 passenger trips a day.

Support, whether legal, administrative or infrastructural, for the activities of the private ferry companies has been a hallmark of the "private" ferry revival of recent years. In addition to New York City, the State of New York, the Port Authority and the State of New Jersey have partnered with these and other private ferry companies.

Into this public/private froth comes the Harbor Ferry Loop proposal. This idea, a vision from the non-profit Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, calls for a fleet of eight vessels, each with a capacity for 99 passengers, circling the upper harbor as a commuter service on weekdays and as a recreational/cultural loop on weekends. The loops would connect sixteen waterfront "commuter" stops and over twenty harborside cultural landmarks. Key transfer stops would include lower Manhattan, Exchange Place in New Jersey and St. George in Staten Island. These stops connect to mass transit hubs. The proposed one-way fare would be $1.50.

These loops highlight a truism held by waterfront advocates that at its heart the city is a maritime metropolis. The loops would allow New Yorkers, people from New Jersey and millions of visitors to discover hidden wonders of the region's shores beyond the crowded straight line that links the Battery to the Statue of Liberty. Many of the proposed stops should be major destination sites and would be if they were easier to get to. Such sites include Governor's Island, Fort Wadsworth, Liberty State Park and Fulton Landing. National Park Service sites outside these loops including Riis Park, Fort Tilden and Sandy Hook in New Jersey might one day also be connected by ferry.

These waterborne connections open the promise of linking local residents to a city much larger than they now know. In the same way that the subway, a century ago, linked a newly consolidated city to its distant parts, ferries at the millennium can unite the metropolis with its far-flung maritime extensions.

Of course, these visions require money. The proposal of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance assumes outside assistance of about $20 million to finance the vessels and build the landings. It also assumes an operating subsidy to augment the proposed fare. Unlike most other ferry proposals where private companies sought limited public assistance, the Alliance's plan has no private capital at this stage.

Sounding Off

At present, the city and the region subsidize many transportation services. From the heavily subsidized PATH trip to the barely subsidized subway trip to the lavishly subsidized commuter express bus trip and the free Staten Island ferry trip, New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority frequently contribute both operating and capital funds.

While subsidies sometimes do go toward bottomless pits, they can also be used to stimulate market creation or serve as catalysts for development. Successful efforts may depend on the exact mix of public assistance and private interest. In the Yankee Stadium service, the private operator provided the boats and took the economic risk. The city and state provided access and paid for many physical improvements.

If the Harbor Loop is built will they come? A market study is needed. Who would use such a service? How often? At what price? Will they use it in the winter? Will they overuse it in the summer? Are loops the way to go?

Private investment will likely follow a firm belief in a significant market of future users. The Visitor's Bureau, the Port Authority or the ferry industry should fund the study. If the right questions are asked, the harbor's potential for recreation, culture, transport and commerce will match a considerable untapped market demand.

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.

Turbine Turmoil

The New York Power Authority's plan to install 10 temporary, gas turbine generators around the city in preparation for next summer's predicted energy frenzy has been met with resistance by environmental justice activists in Brooklyn and business leaders in Queens. The activists point out that the generators, which pour smog-causing nitrogen oxide into the air, are, as usual, being placed in low income and minority communities: two on 23rd St. and 3rd Ave. and one on River Street. Silvercup Studios, producers of HBO moneymakers "Sex in the City" and "The Sopranos", has said it would abandon plans to build studios on its acreage along the East River in Long Island City because of its proximity to two of the proposed generators.

But the Power Authority's plan limits the generators' capacity to 79.9 megawatts, falling - not coincidentally - just shy of 80 megawatts, the threshhold at which facilities undergo a siting process that includes a comprehensive environmental review and funding for groups that want to challenge the placement. While Silvercup Studios may be able to throw its financial interest into the fray and have the generators located elsewhere, the agency is nonetheless sneaking its agenda through the system, leaving neighborhood and environmental concerns without a forum.

At least a few of the temporary generators will employ General Electric's turbine technology. As reported in Newsday, GE is funding a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign aimed at undercutting a federal program that places strict pollution controls on new power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already issued draft guidance and a background paper that suggests power plants that install specific turbine technology - like GE's - might not need to include emission controls that can cut nitrogen oxide and other pollutants by as much as 90 percent.

The Power Authority intends to use the temporary generators for two years, at which point private energy companies looking to break into the city's deregulated energy market will begin to supply power from new and rebuilt plants around the city. Several of those new plants - including a 500 megawatt unit at the Poletti facility in Astoria and a 750 megawatt facility in Riverhead - will employ GE's turbine technology. If GE is successful, those plants will be free to spew forth their pollutants into the city's already destitute air. Their cost-cutting will cost New Yorkers plenty.

Michael Burger is a freelance writer and native New Yorker. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Earth Times, Terrain, Artbyte, and other magazines."

The Missing Marshes of Jamaica Bay

Jamaica Bay's marshes are shrinking. According to the Eco-Watchers, a Queens citizens' organization, the Bay's saltwater marshes have shrunk by over 1200 acres (one and one-half times the area of Central Park) over the past seventy-five years. In the last five years, the rate of loss is said to be five times the rate from 1924-1974. Their statistics suggest that by 2024, the salt water marshes of the central bay will cease to exist.

Though the rate of loss is not universally agreed to and the causes for the shrinkage are incompletely understood, there is agreement that such a loss would be catastrophic for the ecology of Jamaica Bay. Dr. John Tanacredi, Natural Resources Chief for the Gateway Unit of the National Park Service states, "salt water marshes are the most productive areas for biomass production, feeding, and breeding for birds and fish". Tanacredi adds "one-fifth of all bird species in North America" migrate via Jamaica Bay each year. The Bay with an area roughly equal to all of Manhattan, though unknown to many New Yorkers, is a critical, probably irreplaceable, stop on the Atlantic flyway.

For the Eco-Watchers and for their chairman Dan Mundy, who calls himself "an environmentalist with sanity", Jamaica Bay is well known. For decades, these citizen naturalists have explored the bay. Over time, they began to share their separate observations of marsh loss. Eventually, they banded to measure the marsh extent and chronicle their loss. With maps in hand, they contacted government agencies and politicians. Their research was corroborated when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation released maps of the Bay's marshes that echoed the Eco-Watchers' estimates.

Fearing annual losses exceeding fifty acres, Mundy and his group asked the United States Department of the Interior to intervene. Though it is not exactly what they wanted, a "blue-ribbon panel" of marsh, weather and coastal scientists will convene in March to assess causation.

Tanacredi notes that sea level rise may be the culprit. He cautions that "marsh accretion and erosion are natural processes and getting in the way of natural phenomenon may not be desirable." He wants to establish a five-year research agenda to establish cause and effect scientifically. He also notes that the National Park Service lacks funding for significant interventions.

Mundy is wary of the study approach. He is also concerned that the Park Service might allow a "Yellowstone" by letting natural causes destroy the marshes he has fished and explored for half a century. Mundy wants immediate action. The Eco-Watchers and their allies believe that sediment deprivation is a likely cause of the marsh erosion. To redress that condition, he advocates experimental sediment restoration efforts (dumping sandy soil onto de-vegetated marsh areas) in selected locations. Mundy urges that "pilot projects should begin now."

For a decade, the Army Corps of Engineers (the federal government's official and best-funded muck-moving entity) has been planning a Jamaica Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project. The Corps recently selected twelve Bay sites for study. Two sites, suggested by the Eco-Watchers were added, but the central bay marshes remain off the list. According to the Corps' Robert Will, "we hope to have funding from Congress in 2002, if they like our sites". He notes that the Army Corps' official position is "we can do nothing immediately to stop the (marsh) erosion problem."

Sounding Off

So will the muck stop here? It is hard to say. Government agencies, no matter how well meaning, move slowly, though perhaps with wise deliberation. The passion of focused citizens can move elected officials to take necessary, though perhaps hasty, positions. Science is often non-conclusive. Nature moves in mysterious ways. Man's action cause problems. Man's reactions cause problems. What is certain is that habitat destruction for animals has been a hallmark of human "progress".

The wildlife refuge in Jamaica Bay centers on the large contiguous marshes of the central bay. This is the place striped bass, turtles, ducks, geese and hundreds of species of birds call home even if just for a day. Their bed and breakfast in the bay is a matter of life or death. For them, why not try a few pilot projects now? If nothing else, such experiments will provide an expanded array of observations for the scientists to consider.

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.

Light at the End of the Rail Tunnel?

When the Port Authority of New York was created some seventy-five years ago, it had among its primary purposes the construction of a rail tunnel under the harbor. Such a tunnel would have linked the now scattered parts of the New York area waterfront. Goods and perhaps people would have avoided congestion by moving beneath the surface. The port itself might have benefited from the interconnectedness. Area road tunnels, bridges and roadways would have been spared much wear and tear. All sectors of the local economy, consumers, producers and shippers would have benefited from price competition between rail and truck. Nationwide, today, 30 percent of goods for urban areas move by rail. In the New York metropolitan area, the figure is three percent.

When Mayor Giuliani formally proposed a new version of this idea, it had a mixed reception. Detractors talked about how nothing big can be built anymore in New York. Proponents noted the importance of his vision. Today, three years into the planning process, it remains to be seen if there will be light at the end of this tunnel.

According to Seth Kaye, Executive Vice President at New York City's Economic Development Corporation, the tunnel makes sense and may well happen. The Draft Final Report, for the Cross Harbor Freight Movement Study, states that there is a market that would amount to forty trains a day (over three thousand railcars). That volume of rail traffic would lead to a reduction of one million trucks a year at crowded Hudson River Bridge crossings. To best develop that market, the city has asked the financial community for an expression of interest regarding innovative mechanisms through which the tunnel could be operated and financed. The report suggests that federal funds be sought for infrastructure improvements to existing rail facilities east and west of the tunnel.

The proposed two-track tunnel is estimated to cost $2.3 billion including a half billion dollars for infrastructural improvements. A one-track tunnel would cost $1.5 billion with improvements. In addition to the federal sources, the proposal assumes some amount of state and local revenue including a toll surcharge on trucks, charges to the rail users and revenues from right-of-way sales.

Jim Tripp, General Counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund sees "significant advantages to a tunnel that operates efficiently". He cites likely reductions in air pollutants such as the particulate matter generated by diesel trucks. Al Appleton, Senior Fellow, at the Regional Plan Association adds, " the rail tunnel is the key to any major shift in travel mode." Rail under the harbor " would offer congestion benefits to New Jersey and it would enhance the value of the port as a whole." Appleton noted that Alameda, California addressed a rail corridor improvement project as a congestion reduction and economic development opportunity.

Chris Ward of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey remains unconvinced. He noted that the Port Authority questions the capacity of local roads near proposed Brooklyn and Queens rail depots to handle the volume of truck traffic. He suggested "that there would be significant land-use issues" to be faced. Ward also noted that the study's support for expanded rail float barge operations was worthy of further review. In particular, he mentioned the expansion of interport barge operations to Baltimore, Albany and New Haven.

Bringing light to this task will ultimately depend on cooperation between the governors of New York and New Jersey. According to Kaye, "the congestion reductions in New Jersey and the overall port improvements speak for themselves". He believes New Jersey will see the light. Of course, the cast of characters will change. Governor Whitman will be out of office in fifteen months. In New York City, Mayor Giuliani will be also be replaced in November 2001. Governor Pataki's fate is uncertain. Seeing the light may well depend on whose eyes are focused on freight down the road.

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. 

Election Special--The Major Local Issues, from dredging to access

Election 2000 finds the waterfront a more heavily used and more important resource than it has been for generations. In New York, more citizens use the water's edge than vote. But many do both.

The major-party candidates for the U.S. Senate have both shown interest in the Long Island Sound. Rick Lazio has a record of support for issues affecting shoreline preservation in the Great South Bay and relief efforts for the beleaguered Long Island Sound lobstermen. Hillary Clinton indicates her support for clean-up efforts in the Sound.

But there are a half dozen important waterfront issues that are directly connected to New York City:

Dredging. If the New York port is to expand, or even operate efficiently at current activity levels, muck from the harbor bottom must be dredged and dumped somewhere. Shipping the muck by train out of state is expensive. Placing it in pits within the harbor or even in "dumps" outside is fraught with environmental issues, affecting fishermen, ecologists, local communities and relations with neighboring New Jersey. The Clinton administration has attempted to balance New Jersey and New York concerns. Would a President Gore lean toward Senator Clinton on this matter?

Water Quality. The water is markedly cleaner due to regulations on industrial pollution and municipal waste release. The Clean Water Act is given much of the credit. Hillary Clinton supports marine research of water quality issues. Rick Lazio is considered a moderate on many environmental issues. His Republican Party is much less so. Can a junior Republican resist calls from his party's leadership to weaken these laws? Few did when the GOP challenged many environmental laws in 1995.

Governor's Island. For years, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's idea that the federal government should sell Governor's Island to New York for use as a public resource has languished in studies, delayed by Pataki-Giuliani rivalry. The promised one-dollar purchase price may expire in ninety days as President Clinton and the senior senator fade from the scene. At any higher price, the island may have to be sold to those, like Donald Trump, who can afford it. Universities, park uses, historical preservation would all suffer. Senate Republicans have tried to price the Island at $500 million. Would Senator Lazio resist? Presumably Hillary would seek to keep the promised price, but would a President Bush give her such a plum?

Access. Who can get to the water and where? The proposed new Hudson River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park are getting many millions of dollars. What about other waterfront communities? The South Bronx, hemmed in by highways, seeks funds for waterfront renewal. But swimming, sailing, kayaking, and sitting by calming waters have statewide appeal; Erie Canal towns from Tonawanda to Waterford are also seeking funds. Neither candidate has focused directly on water as "quality-of-life," though Clinton has expressed support for waterfront revitalization and restoration through legislation that promotes public-private partnerships.

Remediation. Harbor muck ranges from muddy and brown to horribly toxic. The toxic material can be left alone, capped or cleaned up. Costs are high. Private companies such as General Electric have resisted full clean-ups. PCB's released by GE decades ago sit in muck on the Hudson River bottom. RFK, Jr. supports Clinton. Governor Pataki has moved slowly on GE. Would Lazio break ranks?

Industrial. The building of a tunnel beneath the harbor is perhaps the most important single step New York is taking for its economic development and infrastructure. Neither candidate has had much to say about it. Whoever is elected will get many, many chances to do so.

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.

In the News: A Ban on Jet Skis?

They're fast, furious, they're loud, they're dirty -- a threat to the environment, a menace to wildlife, and, increasingly, a danger to human beings.

That is how more and more people are seeing personal watercraft.

"Call them Jet Skis, Waverunners, Sea Doos, Waterbikes or Water Scooters, they're all personal watercraft," according to the website of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

Kawasaki introduced the Jet Ski, the first commercially successful personal watercraft (or PWC) in 1974. There are now more than a million in the United States, manufactured mostly by five companies. And they are increasingly under attack.

Responding to the complaints, many federal, state and local authorities are taking action. The National Park Service banned them from most of its parks this spring, And now, right before Labor Day, Governor George E. Pataki signed a law that will allow local governments to decide whether or not to ban personal watercraft on New York's waterways.

It might be difficult for the landlocked to understand how so much outrage, condemnation and government regulation could be directed at something that's supposed to be fun.

But the statistics provide the answer: In 1993, there were 26 deaths throughout the nation connected to these watercraft according to a 1998 report from the National Transportation Safety Board. By 1997, the number of annual deaths had increased to 83. Unlike other pleasure craft, these deaths were not caused primarily by drowning, but by "blunt force trauma" - collisions, accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of injuries connected to personal watercraft was 8.5 times higher than the rate of injuries from motorboats

In New York State, while these craft comprise less than ten percent of the state's registered boats, they are involved in nearly 30 percent of all accidents, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Prserveation.

"Controlling jet-skiers is one of our biggest safety concerns," says Emilio Velazquez, of the New York State Parks Police, which operates in city waters. In the last year, over 300 citations were given to recreational users, mostly powerboats. Over a third went to jet-skiers. The charges were as minor as inadequate markings, but also included operating too close to other vessels, or too close to swimmers.

A recent scan of local water-oriented list serves detail clashes. A kayaker wrote of being "buzzed" off Liberty State Park by a four-person Jet Ski. The kayaker called for more enforcement and prosecution. While highly stable in general, kayaks can be easily swamped by the wake given off by the powerful motors of personal watercraft. According to list serve writers, along Brighton Beach and Coney Island, jet skiers "pass the white markers, at least once a day - weaving among the swimmers".

Recognizing that recreational user conflict is partly a matter of education, city and state agencies have introduced mandatory courses in water safety aimed at new or young power watercraft users. Eventually, all users will fall under the new regulations that will be phased in by 2004.

The personal watercraft industry agrees with the need for education, regulation and enforcement, as do advocates of diverse recreation. Shared use of the water's refuge only works if all users obey the rules. To obey the rules, one must know the rules. The rules ought to reflect today's shoreline scene, a place of peace, refuge and fun for swimmers, paddlers, sailors, fishermen, pedestrians - and powerboats too, when they respect the rights of others less powerful.

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.

City Beaches: Safe for Swimming?

There was a time when a hot-dog vendor working on the beach at Coney Island could sell 250,000 hot dogs in one day.

That, at least, is what one of them told Sergey Fedorovskiy recently. Fedorovskiy is a lifeguard at Manhattan Beach for the summer and a student in computer science at Staten Island College the rest of the year. On a recent Friday, the small beach next to Fedorovskiy's chair had maybe 50 people spread out on blankets and beach chairs. Only a dozen or so were getting wet. Few were eating hot dogs.

So far this summer six million people have set foot on one of the city's seven beaches3Orchard Beach in the Bronx, Coney Island and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens, South Beach, Midland Beach and Wolfe's Pond in Staten Island. But last summer the attendance was much higher, approximately 10 million by the end of August, according to the New York City Department of Parks.

For the three years that he has been a lifeguard, Fedorovskiy has noticed the number of beach-goers dwindling.

"It could be the ecology," he speculates. "The water's not that clean. Or maybe it's the neighborhood or the maintenance of the beach."

A few years ago, needles were washing up on the city's shores, millions of gallons of sewage regularly colored the waters and popular beaches were declared off-limits to swimmers. How safe is it today to swim at New York City beaches? How clean is the water? A lifeguard shortage was announced at the beginning of the season. Did it affect the safety of the beaches? And is the West Nile virus discouraging people from getting into their swimsuits?


It rained heavily this summer and heavy rains can mean sewage run-off into our beaches. New York City's sewage pipes are combined with stormwater runoff pipes in a single system. In the event of heavy rains, the additional rainwater can cause run-off of untreated sewage into the city waterways.

A report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, "Testing the Waters, 2000: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" faulted New York City for not making greater efforts to inform the public about combined sewage runoff and its relation to heavy rainfall

Brooklyn and Bronx beaches are tested weekly by the New York City Department of Health, and the Rockaways once every two weeks. But even when levels exceed the standards, the public is not notified, says Mark Dorfman who authored the Natural Resources Defense Council report.

The New York City Department of Health responded that there is an ongoing wet-weather advisory posted on some Bronx beaches warning bathers of the dangers of going in the water should rainfall exceed certain amounts. These amounts vary by borough because of the sewage infrastructure (see Wet Weather Advisory chart). This advisory can also be found at the Department of Health's website.

Wet Weather Advisory:
Private Beaches, Eastchester Bay area, BRONX
Refrain from swimming in the water for 48 hours following rains greater than .2 inches in two hours or .4 inches in 24 hours

Manhattan Beach, BROOKLYN
South and Midland Beach, STATEN ISLAND:
Refrain from swimming in the water for 12 hours following rains greater than 1 - 1.5 inches in 6 hours in previous 24 hours


According to the National Weather Service, precipitation in the city for the month of July (August not yet available) exceeded the safe rainfall standards on several days. Though the city has not yet released how many beaches were closed this year, they said that none of them were closed due to sewage. But the last year figures were available (1998), 59 beaches were closed either because bacteria levels were exceeded or there was a known "sewage release."


The Natural Resources Defense Council also criticized New York City, and all but one county of New York State (Niagara), for their testing process that uses fecal coliforms (found in human waste) as the indicator of potential disease causing organisms in the water. The EPA recommended in 1986 that the presence of enterococcus organisms be used as the indicator instead of fecal coliforms because their presence is most often linked disease-causing organisms. A bill is presently making its way through the Senate and Congress to make the EPA recommendation mandatory for all states. "You can't test for every possible disease causing organism," said Dorfman, "but enterococcus is the better indicator of contamination of swimming waters."

John Gadd, a spokesperson for the Department of Health maintained that fecal coliforms were an effective and efficient indicator of the presence of bacteria. "Coliforms are always present in waters that have too much sewage," Gadd explained.

In addition to water testing, the Department of Health monitors sanitary conditions on the beaches. They would also conduct epidemiological investigations in the event of an outbreak of disease caused by unsafe waters, "which to my knowledge has not happened," assured Gadd.


Meanwhile, the City's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is applauding the efforts of its own Enhanced Beach Protection Program that monitors, analyzes and performs preventative maintenance on the wastewater facilities and sewage bypass outlets near City beaches during summer months.

According to the DEP's soon to be released Harbor Water Quality Survey of 1999, DEP found fecal coliform bacteria to have decreased from 2000 cells per 100 milligrams to levels below 100 cells per 100 milligrams from 1974 to present.


The last report of needles washing ashore was in 1998 and the Department of Parks was not aware of any more recent appearances. "The beaches are very clean" said Amy Chiu, a spokesperson at Parks and Recreation, "and we are taking good care of them."

Perhaps anxiety over the West Nile Virus contributed to the reduced numbers at the beaches, but if so, needlessly. "The types of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus are most active from dusk to dawn," explained Gadd from the Department of Health. The precautions to cover up only apply to those hours.

Swimming after dusk can also be hazardous. A mother and her six-year old daughter drowned while swimming after seven at night at Rockaway Beach on June 25th. The lifeguards go off-duty at six. And an 11-year old boy also drowned this summer on a private beach in the Rockaways outside the city's jurisdiction. There was no lifeguard.


Fear of a lifeguard shortage at the beginning of the season sparked a massive recruitment effort outside of the city, including a call to "able bodied American's everywhere: Don't you owe New York something for all it's done for you," mentioning fashion, Broadway and Seinfeld as good reasons to "give back" and become a lifeguard. Although the Department of Parks couldn't say how many lifeguards they employed from out of town, apparently this effort paid off and all the beaches were covered.

It was starting to look like rain again as Sergey Fedorovskiy was relieved from his lifeguard chair. He stretched out for his break on a reclining lounger at the foot of the lifeguard station. "We like the rain," he said, and smiled, as he closed his eyes. Fewer people at the beaches make at least some people happy.

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.

The City's Crowded Waterways

Giant oil tankers, passenger ferries, freight ships laden with Toyotas all navigate the narrow channels of New York's harbor. So, increasingly, do sail boats, jet skiers and kayaks.

The waters are not always calm between the traditional commercial and the new recreational users. "You can not see them until it is almost too late", says one tugboat veteran of the kayaks and jet-skies. "They seem to steer right toward us", said one kayaker of the ferries.

"Everyone has a right to use the waterways," says Chip Lopez. "Kayakers have just as much right as tug boats."

Lopez is a lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard. He is leading the effort to make sure the recreational and commercial users avoid knocking hulls or knocking heads.

Lieutenant Lopez works closely with the Coast Guard's Vessel Tracking Service, a mostly modern facility tucked into the Fort Wadsworth complex on Staten Island. Computer screens show harbor images to trained Coast Guard officers. Cameras located at critical harbor crunch points send back live pictures. The CG has the resources to watch the big ships and the danger spots. Small vessels and most of the harbor's small waterways are "off the radar screen."

Adam Brown, president of the not-for-profit Working Waterfront Association, works to balance a rising tide of usage with the traditional ways and routines. "Pleasure craft are the smallest, least maritime educated and fastest moving users", he notes. Mr. Brown has entered the fray between kayakers and ferryboats, jet skiers and container ships, maritime tradition and recreational freedom.

Brown observes that "this is the smoke before the fire". Commercial traffic is up. Pleasure use is rapidly emerging. "We need to educate and we need to plan". Brown supports efforts to educate users by promulgating nighttime lighting schemes for small boats and creating color-coded harbor maps showing the shipping channels. A test program to identify conflict points has been proposed.

While safety is the primary mission of the responsible authorities, enforcement is also necessary. The Coast Guard, the New York State Marine Police and the New York City Police Department Harbor Units share jurisdiction. None of the entities has adequate resources resulting, in gaps in enforcement. The mix of federal, state, and city waterfront regulations lead to overlap and confusion. The harbor itself is vast. New users are untrained in maritime practice.

On a recent afternoon, million gallons of oil headed through the Arthur Kill even as a dozen kayakers paddled on a free boat trip to the Statue of Liberty. On this trip, their routes did not cross.

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.

In The News: Trashing the Littoral

Few New Yorkers are aware that the waterfront begins at their doorstep. In fact, the quality of City beaches and water is related to consumption and use of water at home. City streets connect to the waterways through catch basin, storm drain and combined sewer systems. A cigarette butt casually tossed to the ground in Manhattan can wind up in a wildlife refuge in Brooklyn or on a Staten Island or Queens beach. Motor oil dumped in a catch basin in the Bronx can find its way to Manhattan shores. Everyday actions of New Yorkers, many of whom rarely think of the City's waters, affect City shores dramatically.

According to Andrew Willner, of the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, "industrial and institutional polluters were the biggest threat to the waterways." "Now," he stresses, "'non-point sources' are the most significant water discharge issue we face." Non-point sources include easily disposed items such as paper trash, oil products, plastics, dog feces (scooped and then dropped down a catch basin) and cigarette butts.

On a visit to the marshes of Bayside's Little Neck Bay, cigarettes float in abundance alongside fluttering plastic bags and bottles bobbing on the tide. The marsh is urban habitat for turtles, bullfrogs, red fox, geese, swans and striped bass. "Over 320 species of birds live in or migrate through the area" says Lora Harris of the nearby Alley Pond Environmental Center. The floating pollution migrates from the Long Island Sound and from catch basins in Northern Queens. These 'floatables' become caught in the wetlands' high marsh grasses. Though jostled by the tides, the trash accumulates becoming a threat to wildlife as well as an eyesore.

The Bronx River, the City's only true fresh water stream, is afflicted with extraordinary accumulations of trash that detract from the considerable natural beauty of that scenic, canopied watercourse. In water that ducks, herons and muskrat call home, Snapple bottles, Dunkin Donuts Styrofoam and Burger King paper form a trash flotilla.

Not content to let their nascent canoe route be befouled, fifty civic groups and government agencies including the Department of Parks, Partnership for Parks, Bronx River Restoration and The Point Community Development Corporation have organized clean-up efforts and river festivals. Presently, they are attempting to create boat launches at key river sites. Urban Park Rangers offer canoe lessons and tours (800-201-PARKS) focused on water safety.

Such efforts publicize the improbable amenity that is the Bronx River. These actions create access for nature lovers and for recreation. Trash ranging from junk food wrappers to junked cars is being removed. Jenny Hoffner, coordinator of the Bronx River Working Group, described the work. "Last year, we removed eighty tons of debris and twenty-seven cars. Twenty-two blockages were also removed." Eleven community groups have now adopted stretches of the river ensuring ongoing stewardship. According to Ms. Hoffner, "Partnering has been phenomenal. The Parks Department has been instrumental."

In Jamaica Bay, residents also face a complex challenge though in a much larger ecosystem. The issues include beach cleanliness, bay water quality, commercial and recreational fishing, wastewater flows, wildlife protection and dune erosion. Recently, on a Jamaica Bay list serve, residents and organizations prepared for beach clean-ups, trash awareness campaigns with elected officials and public education about the link between storm drains and the shores. An educational conference on litter has also been proposed. According to Shino Tanikawa of the NYC Soil and Water Conservation District, a clean up of the bay's many abandoned boats will kick-off on June 10th.

Some list serve participants have suggested a renewal of abandoned efforts to stencil catch basins throughout the city as part of a floatables educational campaign. Stenciling drains, under permits granted by the Department of Environmental Protection, alerts passers-by to the connection between the street and the sea. Stenciling also aims to deter dumping of motor oil and restaurant grease by would-be polluters.

Peter Sounds Off:

There used to be a bumper sticker that read "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance." The average New Yorker lacks awareness of the waterways that surround the City and his or her role in protecting them. In this highly urban environment, it is easy to forget that New York is encompassed by a natural world. The water itself is an amenity offering open space, recreation, and alongside its industrial and infrastructural roles. City shores offer wildlife refuges, beaches, parks, and marinas serving a multitude of urban purposes.

Managing the City's shores and waterways for multiple use must be the goal of the responsible city, state and federal agencies. In particular, City Parks, DEP, the NYS Department of Conservation (the agency with enforcement power) and the National Park Service should expand efforts to make the public aware of ITS role in protecting these valuable water and shore resources. Prevention is far less expensive than remediation.

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.

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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