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Citizens Union

Campaign 2005: Three Ways The Next Mayor Could Improve The Waterfront

The transformation of the waterfront may seem remarkable to those who live in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but what is most remarkable about it is how little is happening in the other three boroughs. A couple of scattered improvements include the new Hunts Point Riverside Park on the Bronx River and the new esplanade along the Upper Bay, and Kill van Kull on the North Shore of Staten Island. But much more should be done – and could be done, if the next mayor focused on three ways to create real momentum for improving the waterfront.

1) Make Albany and Washington DC work for New York

Part of what makes the waterfront such complicated terrain is that it is governed by state and federal laws and agencies. For too long this regulatory complexity has been looked at as a limitation rather than an opportunity.

For instance, the Water Resources Development Act that was approved by the United States House of Representatives in July authorizes federal funds for waterfront improvements throughout the nation. In our area, Perth Amboy, Carteret and Bayonne are all named beneficiaries, but little is named in New York City other than Flushing Bay and, for the first time, Newtown Creek.

Federal money could do much for the East River, where miles of crumbling esplanade are restricting access, or even Pugsley Creek, which is proof that not all parks are actually park-like. The same kind of federal aid that is going to restore the New Jersey Meadowlands would go a long way to help Jamaica Bay, whether solving the mystery of the disappearing marshlands or creating access along the east side of the bay where communities are walled off by JFK Airport.

In Albany, legislative leaders have hatched a bond issue to appear on the ballot this fall that hopes to authorize billions for transportation projects statewide. There are a handful of intelligent projects, such as the $19 million proposed for the Bronx River Greenway. But there is nothing for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, nothing to address the chronic traffic congestion in our central business districts, nothing that addresses the movement of goods in the city. Perhaps most unfortunate is the neglect of water transit, another missed opportunity.

2) Focus mayoral agencies on constructing community improvements alongside their new and expanding facilities

Both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Sanitation have massive capital projects in various stages of planning or development. The environmental agency has set the bar high with their work at the Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant, which includes not just cost over-runs (covered well by the daily newspapers), but also (ignored by the press), a canal walk along Whale Creek, a little-known arm of Newtown Creek. Such a community improvement, when developed alongside an infrastructure improvement, illustrates the balance that public agencies throughout the nation are increasingly taking to help offset the traditionally negative impacts such facilities have on local communities.

A logical next step would be for the agency to look at similar improvements alongside the gargantuan retention basins being built to capture the combined sewer effluent which pollutes our waterways during heavy rains.

A more pressing public works project is the planned retrofit and expansion of the city’s marine transfer stations by the Department of Sanitation. The long term solid waste management plan approved in June constitutes a giant step towards a smarter garbage policy. The importance of this work cannot be overstated, because since Fresh Kills landfill was closed by the last mayor (who did not take the time to create another plan), the amount of funding that New York City taxpayers are spending to support the transportation of garbage is even greater than the amount we are spending through the city budget to support New York City Transit subways and buses.

Looking ahead, this case offers two lessons for the next mayor.

The first is to work openly with community and interest groups to address pressing public issues. In the case of the solid waste plan, the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods led the way towards a more enlightened policy that places a greater emphasis on water and rail-based transit and eliminates thousands of miles of truck trips each day. Affiliated groups such as the Waste Prevention Coalition helped create pressure not just for more intelligent transportation, but also a different way of looking at garbage – we could reduce the 13,000 tons of residential waste we produce each waste.

Lesson two is that even your own agencies, Mr. Mayor, may not be able to do what you expect of them. Virtually every community activist has a war story to tell involving Sanitation pick-up schedules, or performance, and while these stories are increasingly tempered with good news about low-sulfur diesel fuel, or collaborative district managers who send a truck right when it is needed, history shows that the Department of Sanitation’s expertise is in pick-up and transportation, not recycling, not waste reduction, and certainly not the design or construction of facilities which anyone would call community friendly. In developing the long term solid waste management plan the city brought in the Economic Development Corporation to shepherd the project, but one has to wonder whether an organization classified as ”quasi-governmental” is the appropriate one to lead and manage perhaps the most expensive and complicated multi-borough construction project started since the wave of new sewage treatment plants came along more than 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, the new solid waste plan could also be a citywide waterfront revitalization plan if the next mayor makes it a point of focus.

3) Harness State-ruled Agencies such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to work more constructively with and for the city

The city's relationship with the Port Authority is too narrowly defined. While some say the Port Authority is merely an automatic teller machine for city or state elected officials, the reality is that the agency has much more to offer the city than just cash.

The current administration missed a tremendous opportunity during the negotiation over the leases for JFK and LaGuardia Airports. While the income to the city from the leases is laudable, both Flushing and Jamaica Bays are complicated environs that the city hasn't done enough to steward or revitalize.

For an agency charged with planning and developing facilities for the movement of goods, it is obvious the Port Authority could also meaningfully contribute to the development of the city's solid waste management plan -- if they were asked.

Perhaps much of this tradition of limited engagement stems form the fact that the Port Authority is governed by a board appointed in Trenton and Albany. New York City has no voice on the board, and no power to make appointments. The next administration should seek to change this.

Waterfront Improvement Districts?

The common thread in all these recommendations -- getting more out of Washington DC and Albany, using the capital projects of mayoral agencies to fund community amenities, and engaging the Port Authority in more strategic and direct collaboration -- is that the waterfront needs a massive infusion of resources and funding.

If the rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg is the wave of the future, then will the price of creating public waterfront access be limitless creation of luxury residential development? Hopefully not.

Perhaps the next mayor will look at the success of our Business Improvement Districts and create Waterfront Improvement Districts that are funded, at least in part, by tolls on bridge crossings. After all, it is ironic how the very areas where these bridges grace our shores are also the areas that need the most waterfront improvements.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. 

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