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

by Peter Fleischer, Apr 01, 2001
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(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.

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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.

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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.




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