With a wide brush stroke rarely seen in city land use policy, Mayor
Michael Bloomberg announced a massive rezoning of the waterfronts of
Williamsburg and Greenpoint in North Brooklyn from manufacturing to
largely residential and commercial. To some the announcement comes as a
relief; much of the area proposed has long been proposed as the site for power
plants or waste transfer
stations. Given New York's limited experience in reinventing its
waterfront, can we really make it what it deserves to be?
Getting There from Here
Possibly the single greatest barrier to waterfront redevelopment in New
York has been the lack of transportation. It is not so much a conspiracy
as perhaps an unanticipated consequence of engineering; when bridges and
tunnels were built a century ago, each was required to cross high over
rivers or far beneath riverbeds. As a result, waterfront neighborhoods
in the city generally have fewer options than upland neighborhoods,
where the subway system meets the streets. Greenpoint and Williamsburg
are no different, with only two subway stations (G at Greenpoint and L
at Bedford) serving the waterfront area, and no direct connection to
Water transit can help, but even with New York Waterway and upstart New
York Water Taxi enjoying increasing ridership each year, the land-based
system of streets and buses in the area leave much to be desired: there
is really only one wide street running east-west (Greenpoint Avenue)
that has bus service already, and on the waterfront at the end of the
street lies a web of copper wires and mesh from the former WNYC
transmitter that awaits removal before this area can be safely converted
to public use.
Still, north-south movement within the area leaves a lot to be desired.
The circuitous route of the G Train towards downtown Brooklyn Waterfront
does not really serve the waterfront district, and connections to Long
Island City could be improved with new or improved crossings over
Some say the answer to the transportation problems that afflict not just
these areas but as far south as Red Hook and even into Sunset Park might
be a waterfront light rail line similar to the one that the State of New
Jersey has built connecting Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City and Bayonne
just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Please, Not the Upper East Side
Over the 20th Century, New York developed a relatively limited design
palate for waterfront revitalization. Early on, Robert Moses created a
legacy of Parkways (like the Belt), in which the waterfront was set
aside as green swath adjacent to a high-speed highway. Some say Hudson
River Park is essentially this same model. The other alternative
created towers on the water, and Waterside Plaza sits just across the
East River as a massive, staid example of how private housing encroaches
on waterfront public space. All along the Upper East Side the
residential and hospital towers extend almost to the water's edge,
leaving little room for "other" users or uses.
Battery Park City was a blank slate, whereas Greenpoint and Williamsburg
are solid communities that have simply been deprived of their own right
to access the waterfront. Will private residential developers be any
more inclusive of other neighbors than previous generations of industry?
On the Upper East Side exist wide streets and bus routes every
half-mile. Clustering developments along the east-west corridors makes
sense in that higher densities can be served by transit just outside the
front door. But with a 19th century street grid, Greenpoint Williamsburg
has few such axes that can accommodate high volumes of traffic without
flooding neighboring streets.
Of course, Battery Park City is often mentioned as New York's premier
waterfront redevelopment, and given the involvement of Planning
Commissioner Amanda Burden in both projects, hopes for design excellence
are being raised higher. But the difference in Greenpoint and
Williamsburg is that there already exists a palpable texture in the neighborhood
stretches down almost to the waterfront.
Because diversity in building material and architecture is what makes
the neighborhood interesting, special efforts should be made to
save the formal or local landmarks that are worth saving. Between the
Greenpoint Terminal Market, 19th century loft buildings (including one
reportedly designed by Cass Gilbert) and even the Department of
Environmental Protection Sludge tank, there exists numerous and
interesting building types and forms that could be incorporated into the
new fabric this massive rezoning will weave.
But to make it better than Battery Park City, public officials and
developers alike must remember that the water itself is the most
critical piece of this puzzle. Rather than elevated promenades that
provide great vantage points but virtually no access, the East River
itself should be incorporated into the revitalization of these
waterfront parcels. Obvious resources already exist. Bushwick Inlet
could serve a whole host of uses along its three banks. The juncture of
Newtown Creek and the East River create an eddy in the wake of Hunters
Point where in-water activity could be accommodated with less worry and
consternation than other open stretches of the East River. With a little
imagination, area developers could even look abroad and find ways to
actually bring the waters farther into the land by carving out new coves
or inlets as Battery Park City did. In any case, the water should be the
life of this neighborhood, and this rezoning represents a once-in-a-150
year opportunity to create a waterfront we can all live with for the
next 150 years.
Looking back, Looking ahead
Early in the 19th century, much of this waterfront was actually a
resort, a respite from the bustle of Manhattan and the ferry districts
to the south. With steam engines and railroads, soon came the Industrial
Revolution and by mid-century this entire stretch of northern Kings
County became home to at least 49 oil refineries. And the legacy of this
use still exists in dozens of tanks that remain in Northside as well as
pollutive underground plumes.
This stretch of the East River included the shipyards from which the
first Yankee Clipper ship was launched. As much as any single invention,
the Clipper Ship became New York's greatest contribution to 19th century
overseas commerce because of the great new sailing speed it enabled.
With a fleet of clipper ships, New York became the hub of time-sensitive
shipping, a business model that exists today in the forms of FedEx and
Airborne Express. How ironic it is now that an area that spawned
transportation innovations may be limited by the few options the 20th
century has left it
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