When the Manhattan waterfront greenway opens in just a few weeks
Mayor Michael Bloomberg will have achieved what 25 years of planners and
policymakers could not: a nearly continuous waterfront
esplanade (in pdf format) for
walkers, cyclists, joggers, skaters, birdwatchers and many others in the
world's most famous borough.
With this esplanade the mayor will have wiped away more than two decades
of attention deficit disorder that plagued previous administrations, but
the key to harnessing the waterfront to benefit the long-term growth of
the city lies well beyond this thin green line. Here’s why:
Popular visions for the waterfront of the future generally swing between
two extremes. The first is the sweeping green ring around the water’s
edge in places like Little Neck Bay, East River Park, or along the Shore
Parkway. The second vision of the waterfront is the “Gold Coast” model,
where the remnants of industry are replaced with glistening towers in
glass and steel.
Each of these models falls short in certain respects. One, the ribbons
of green were in reality little more than decorative trim, a green lace
edge alongside the massive investment of waterfront highways and
parkways which themselves really cut communities off from the
waterfront. The development of Hudson River Park is the most recent
version of this thin green edge. The “Gold Coast” model similarly
short as a community development tool because it generally only
accommodates the high-end of the income spectrum. Herein lies the
Catch-22 for post-industrial waterfront revitalization: can new life be
brought to the waterfront in ways that accommodate all city-dwellers
as residents and users, or will this new investment physically and
economically exclude most people in favor or higher income brackets?
The city’s rezoning proposal for the waterfront of Greenpoint and
Williamsburg will test this limit, and largely determine whether those
casually referred to in the popular media as “inner-city” dwellers
in fact be relegated to literally inner city districts laden with asphalt and
stricken with highways, or whether the city's emerging vision of a new
waterfront will serve poor folks too.
One of the problems with a continuous ribbon of green is that it defies
the reality that we are a city of islands. As such, we should be embracing
modes of transportation that harness the waterways. In Manhattan, the
city is making great efforts to expand ferry transit, with a slew of new
or upgraded terminals ring the island from East 90th Street south around
the Battery and north to West 38th Street (all connected by the
greenway). There are efforts afoot to improve or expand landing
facilities further north along the west side even as far north as Dyckman
Street. But in addition to the city’s need to create new options for
white collar commuters, there is a tremendous need to improve the movement of
in and through Manhattan, home to two of the three largest
central business districts in the city.
When the trend toward containerization carried the port to New Jersey
nearly a half century ago, it inevitably took a lot of manufacturing and
distribution facilities with it. All of these activities continued the
seemingly irreversible trend towards highway and truck transport. Since
that time, as traffic has increased exponentially, no new freight
connections have been created. Getting a truckload of computers or
foodstuffs from New Jersey to Brooklyn relies wholly on the same bridges
and tunnels that existed back in the Great Depression more than 70 years
ago. And Canal Street sure shows it!
While the Manhattan waterfront greenway celebrates the fact that we are
an island, it doesn’t help us address the fact that in the grand scheme
of highway-dependent economics Manhattan is nothing more than a
congested through route to I-95, the Cross Bronx, or the Long Island
Expressway. Yes, pedestrians, cyclists, and birdwatchers vote, but it’s
the tens of thousands of trucks passing through Manhattan each day that
are literally and figuratively paying the freight. Just as the first layer of
this new path is being laid, neighborhoods such as Washington Heights
and Chinatown are still suffering the effects of noise, vibration, and
air pollution of this perpetual truck dependency.
One of the greatest benefits of the greenway plan is that it will
connect activity and opportunity that already exist at the
water’s edge. Fort Washington, the Battery, Stuyvesant Cove and Harlem
River Park will be linked to Riverbank and Hudson River State Park as
well as dozens of other attractions. Surely every waterfront
neighborhood needs such green destinations at the blue water’s edge,
but the city also needs places for less-appreciated activities such as the
transport of garbage or generation of energy. The pending sale of the
Waterside Generating Station by Con Ed, for instance, has already placed
pressure on the Lower East Side by causing the expansion of the East
River Generating Station. The development of Hudson River and Riverside
South parks on the West Side are only creating added pressure to
relocate facilities such as the 59th Street marine transfer station
which moves thousands of tons of recyclable paper every day.
These facilities shouldn’t be closed, they should just be engineered
perform better. In reality, Lower Manhattan probably needs a state of
the art marine transfer station far more than it needs more luxury housing.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Manhattan waterfront greenway will
not be the greenway itself, but the chain reaction of land-use pressures
that heat up on the waterfronts of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Now
that Mayor Bloomberg has vanquished twenty five years of inaction for
Manhattan, let’s hope he puts forth ambitious and positive plans for
waterfronts of the opposite shores that have been abused or ignored for
Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.
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