New York started with a single island. That first island was not Manhattan, but "Nut" Island, now called Governors Island. But the colonists soon expanded to Manhattan and then to Brooklyn. For more than three centuries, the focal point of life in New York City was the bountiful triangle of water, bounded by Brooklyn, Governors Island, and Manhattan. What was once the heart of the city now offers an extraordinary opportunity once again - if we take it.
The first European colonists in our area only took Manhattan after they had a secure foothold on Governors Island. Now, the roles are reversed. Earlier this year the state and city announced the formation of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. As part of the deal with the federal government which allowed the return of the island to state control, some type of educational facility is planned. A family entertainment center and artisan workspaces also seem to be on the list. Just last month, the new preservation corporation opened the gate to the island for public tours which are available to both individuals and groups. Wildly popular, (with long waiting lists each week) the collaboration between the preservation corporation, the National Park Service, and the handful of civics involved in organizing the tours (now extended through October) bodes well for the creative problem solving that the island demands. But will the novelty wear off?
Redevelopment of the island is hamstrung by two factors. The first is that nobody uses it now; it is not part of modern New York. Then, the island is accessible only by a ferry from Lower Manhattan and the price of this centuries-old disconnect grows higher. One way to cultivate visitation might be to link with other harbor attractions now. If art and craftsmanship is part of the future of the island then perhaps links to the gallery districts in Chelsea or DUMBO could be created. If tourism is anticipated to become a driving force then the 3+ million annual visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island may want to come learn about New York's colonial history as well.
Brooklyn is close by, with a silent fleet of barges, lighters and container ships passing through Buttermilk Channel daily. Just last year, the state, city, and Port Authority took an important step in creating Brooklyn Bridge Park by consolidating Fulton Ferry Park with a patchwork of city and Port Authority controlled piers (numbered one to five) and other properties between the Manhattan Bridge and south almost to Atlantic Avenue. Now a second phase of planning has been initiated to the south along Piers six to 12 extending down around Atlantic Basin and into Red Hook.
Before any new structures have been built, concerns about commercial development versus open space are growing loud. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for example, has expressed its intent to sell its building on Furman Street, and this prime waterfront property could tie together two currently separated areas of the waterfront (Piers one to five, and Piers six to 12).
South of Atlantic Avenue along Buttermilk Channel, the wave of waterfront redevelopment seems to be crashing up against the bulkhead of Brooklyn maritime activity on Piers six to 12. At this confluence of the Channel, the East River, and the harbor the ecology within the water is almost as complicated as the political ecology on the land. The crux of the issue seems to be whether maritime and port land use still makes sense in this area (a report is expected in late September). Divergent visions for this area defined by Atlantic Avenue to the north and Atlantic Basin to the south range from a new Carnival Cruise Terminal, a beverage distribution center, or a southward extension of Brooklyn Bridge Park. A recent planning exercise by the New Amsterdam Development Corporation showed how low-scale housing might look where containers are now stacked four and six high.
The undeniable physical reality is that on an island home to more than seven million people, maritime trade and transit has to make sense somewhere. In a city where traffic congestion approaches lunacy levels on a near-daily basis, we have to cultivate and stabilize water- based alternatives not just for people but for goods as well.
East River Piers
Across from the Brooklyn Piers are the East River Piers of Manhattan. The canal on Broad Street that brought trade right to the door of today's Stock Exchange has long been filled in, and the river segregated from the prime office district of Lower Manhattan by a highway that is simply too big for its place in the city. Recently the Bloomberg administration convened an advisory committee to ponder new plans for the area that emphasize housing. A consultant is being sought to help think through the challenge of appending this waterfront to the body of Lower Manhattan. While housing needs are pressing, we can't forget what brought us to this spot on the island nearly 400 years ago: transportation.
Yes, Lower Manhattan is important for the commercial, cultural and corporate identities that are all embedded in the words "New York City." But this stretch of Lower Manhattan is even more significant because it's the one place in the city where the water and land transportation systems come together -- where the subway comes right to the water's edge.
Between the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and the Pier 11/ Wall Street Ferry pier lie probably the most underutilized stretch of waterfront in any part of New York City. This area was the commercial and transportation heart of New Amsterdam, largely because it was where the East, the Hudson, and the Harbor converged. Today, the Staten Island Ferry, the Battery Maritime Building (terminal for the Governors Island Ferry), the Port Authority heliport, and the Pier 11 Ferry Terminal at Wall Street make for a linear transit district that could be the basis for tremendous growth if they can be better connected, and possibly bolstered with new transportation uses.
What the Dutch knew and we seem to have forgotten, is that the value of waterfront lies not just in the return on investment, but how the water itself is used. From the founding of New Amsterdam on Governors Island to the creation of the first regularly scheduled ferry service between the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1642, the connections that were made between these areas over a just a quarter century fueled the growth and enabled a prosperity that lasted over 300 years. We have an opportunity to bring this area to prominence once again.
Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.