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 Midtown.
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 Newtown Creek.
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 that 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