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Documentary City of Water screens today; a provocative look at NYC's waterfront dilemmas

The half-hour documentary City of Water (video trailer and more here), produced by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA) and the Municipal Art Society (MAS), will be screened on Channel 13 today at 1:30 p.m. It's well worth a look for its portrait of an aspect of New York (especially Brooklyn) in rapid transition, its highlighting of the tensions between development and other waterfront uses, and its reminder of how we use and (too often) don't use an underrated asset.

The film features interviews with former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Daniel Doctoroff, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, MacArthur Prize winner Majora Carter, author Phillip Lopate, Sandy Hook Pilots Captain Andrew McGovern, among others and includes footage from Jamaica Bay, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and many other places on the waterfront, as the promotional material states.

Doctoroff, Mayor Bloomberg's point man for the Olympics bid and other ambitious plans, is, relatively speaking, the "bad guy" in the film, though he acquits himself reasonably well, leaving viewers with an appetite for further drill-down reporting on the contours of specific controversies.

(There will be a panel discussion on the future of the East River waterfront, moderated by Roland Lewis, President and CEO of the MWA, on May 6 at the Museum of the City of New York. Scroll to bottom for details.)

The changing city

Early on in the film, Doctoroff sets the stage, explaining, "The city was a city of a working waterfront. Gradually, of course, the port function, as well as the industries that grew up around them, were driven away by global forces. There's very little that, in our view, is more important than reclaiming that waterfront. We have a moment in time when we think we can do it politically. We are seizing it with a fury that is uncharacteristic for New York development. This is a major, major effort to open the waterfront to the people of New York City."

Note that it wasn't simply global forces that drove the port from city limits; as Marshall Berman explains in New York Calling, it was also local political decisionmaking.

Doctoroff's clear counterpoint comes from Velazquez, who represents Red Hook, among other areas: "There is this rush from the part of the government to 'reclaim' the waterfront. But we sometimes do not understand what they mean by reclaiming the waterfront. What we see is building something at the expense of something else. Destroying one part at the expense of the other."

Well, change often requires such tradeoffs; the question is how wise they are.

Looking at Brooklyn

Doctoroff points to the place of greatest change: "Look for example at Brooklyn, where almost every inch of the Brooklyn waterfront, right now is undergoing some sort of transformation. I would suggest that, within ten years, almost none of it would be recognizable."

Indeed, the camera at one point sweeps past the Williamsburg Bridge and the shuttered Domino Sugar Factory; the film doesn't have time to explain the massive New Domino plan to bring some 2200 apartments to an 11-acre site encompassing former Domino property. One selling point for the project, by the way, is the provision of public access to the waterfront.

Velazquez gets a response: "I do not know how New York City can survive just by building luxury buildings everywhere. We need to diversify our waterfront. We need to have a waterfront that will allow for the different stakeholders to be part of it. It is so important that we educate our public, because once it's done, that will be it. The waterfront will be gone."

The political grease that has helped ease luxury development on the waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint has been the provision of a bonus for affordable housing, and the New Domino developers seek a rezoning for their project that would offer a similar tradeoff. But Velazquez was talking more about jobs than affordable housing.

Later in the documentary, she says, "The communities, they are the experts." That actually suggests a tension: sure, communities should be consulted, but how to balance community input with issues of city-wide importance? We're still working on that.

What went wrong

The lack of access to the waterfront derives from the city's history. As a manufacturing city, New York needed the waterfront for factories. The waterways, we're told, were the "superhighways" of their time. And master builder Robert Moses, as Doctoroff reminds us, built highways around the edge of the city, further cutting off access even as industry declined.

So Doctoroff tells us: "The nostalgia for the port, the nostalgia for manufacturing along the waterfront, is gone. And what's left are hulking warehouses and rotting piers that could be a real asset when we're growing very rapidly. So we have an imperative to actually find places for people to live and, also at the same time, to give them places for recreation."

Staying "maritime-specific"

The earthy McGovern provides a bit of a corrective: "The city of New York, especially Manhattan, has forgotten about the port, forgotten about how vibrant this port still is. And unfortunately, they don't know the importance of the marine transportation system to their lives. The goods actually go in now to the large terminals that are mostly based in New Jersey. But it is still one operation. This port needs a very large support arm. That arm is based almost entirely within the city of New York. Those are the tugboats, the barge companies, and the repair facilities.

Velazquez chimes in: "Throughout the history of New York City, it has been a working waterfront. There are meaningful jobs and blue collar jobs that should and must be protected."

McGovern adds context: "There's a lot of areas within this port that are not viable to support the maritime industry. Those areas everybody's more willing to give over to recreation, parkland, housing. Not a problem. There are certain areas that need to stay maritime-specific. Once it reverts to a different use, we will never get it back. The port will die. For instance, we have lost of one of our repair facilities to a box store. We have a backlog in this port, last I heard, of about two years on getting into the remaining repair facilities. That repair facility was greatly needed."

After all, as he explains, without the working waterfront, the city couldn't function, as roads would become crowded with trucks and air quality would suffer.

That "box store" he mentioned almost surely is Ikea in Red Hook, which filled in a valuable graving dock for a parking lot, even though alternative plans were suggested. (Photo from the MAS's Save Brooklyn's Industrial Heritage page.)

Finding the balance

Doctoroff sounds reasonable enough: "I don't think the working waterfront is doomed. I think it's future is just limited. Land is our most constrained resource. We'll have that working waterfront where it makes financial and spatial sense. Where it doesn't, we've gotta let it go."

And so we see visions of towers and esplanades. But Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan (and a member of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Advisory Board), warns that "humongous towers" don't provide real interaction between the waterfront and the street. He criticizes Battery Park City as feeling "like a somewhat suburban office park" (even though it's considered a better example of urban planning than, say, AY) and says Hudson River Park is more a backdrop for development than anything else.

New parks

The film describes two heartening case studies in which communities prevailed over unwise plans, though it may be that political forces have further shifted. Residents on the east side of Manhattan beat back Riverwalk, a project that would've brought sterile towers to the waterfront, and turned a garbage-strewn zone into an "environmental theme park," explains Joy Garland.

In the South Bronx, the lush green grass of Hunts Point Riverside Park covers a lot once held 10,000 discarded tires. Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx (and Doctoroff antagonist in the post-Moses debate), reminds viewers of the old saying, "The community doesn't plan to fail; they fail to plan."

It was challenging, she said, to ask residents of the impoverished community to dream of a better future, but they did--and the result is an oasis in a neighborhood still seen as a dumping ground and one suffering from an enormous amount of truck traffic.

Getting our feet wet

Perhaps the most intriguing segments of the film bring us boaters, swimmers, and others who treat the waterfront not as a scenic backdrop but an asset in which we must immerse ourselves.
The notion of the "esplanade" only goes so far, says sailor and sociologist William Kornblum. At South Cove of Battery Park City, he reminds us, rescue workers on 9/11 had to use acetylene torches to cut through fences to get people into boats. He calls the incident emblematic of how planners allow people to the edge of the waterfront but keep them away.

Cathy Drew, founder of the River Project, drily explains how the easiest solution is to build a wall to separate land from water: "Engineers like that, and lawyers like that, and therefore developers like that."

What next

Rohit Aggarwala, director of the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, talks about how we need a better transportation system and to beef up our capacity to handle CSOs, the combined sewer overflows that release untreated sewage after heavy rains. He suggests that the city's shellfish resources could also play a part in cleaning up the water.

Drew asserts: "New development should be linked to the capacity of our infrastructure to support it. And all of our treatment plants are already over capacity. As a society, we would want more sewage treatment plants, but no one wants it in their backyard."

(Note that a report prepared for Forest City Ratner and part of the Final Environmental Impact Statement asserts that, thanks to stormwater detention and water conservation/reuse, AY "would result in a net decrease in CSO volumes to the Gowanus Canal and a minimal increase in CSOs to the East River." The state review finds "no significant impacts;" community critics disagreed.)

Velazquez suggests "a sound, balanced planning process for the waterfront." Lopate posits creative ideas to bring people to the waterfront, such as a nightclub, movie theater, or even casino at a dock.

One of the more delightful scenes in the film shows kids from the South Bronx rowing their way around the water. And boater Erik Baard gets the last word, reminding us that the waterfront is "our wilderness" in a city where there's never enough parkland. "It should be a wonderful smorgasboard, y'know, of water activity," he states. "It should be something as diverse as New York is."

Balance possible?

Co-director Jasper Goldman of the MAS appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show in January to discuss the film. The host asked him, "So, is this mixed use that you advocate possible? Can we walk the line between wealthy residential waterfront development and keeping New York a commercial port city and using the waterfront for public recreation as well?"

Goldman responded, "Absolutely… The waterfront is, firstly, enormous. There's 578 miles of waterfront. So it's a very big waterfront. We really can have a diverse harbor where we can have it all... We can keep our port function vibrant, but we also can also have plenty of space for housing, for parkland. Really, the important thing is for New Yorkers to get involved… That's why [we] made this film… If we don't, we may end up with something mediocre. This is a tremendous opportunity, but we really need to take it and not let it slip by."

(Loren Talbot is the other co-director.)

MCNY program

On Tuesday, May 6, at 6:30 PM, the Museum of the City of New York will host a panel titled "The East Side of the East River Waterfront: Transforming the View." Readers of this blog can get the member discount ($5) if they mention "Atlantic Yards Report" while reserving.

The description:
The development of the Brooklyn and Queens East River waterfront is underway. Learn about plans to transform former industrial sites to beaches, parks, promenades, and housing. How will infrastructure and transportation improvements meet the demand created by business and residential development? Will there be true waterfront access or “esplanadia”? How will neighborhoods that have always mixed manufacturing and affordable residences survive? Roland Lewis, President and CEO of Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA), will moderate a discussion with Gayle Baron, President of the Long Island City Business Development Corporation and Executive Director of the LIC Business Improvement District; Tom Fox, President and CEO, New York Water Taxi; Milton Puryear, Co-founder, Brooklyn Greenway Initiative; and Phaedra Thomas, Executive Director, Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. Co-sponsored by the MWA. Reservations required. $5 Museum members, seniors, and students; $9 general public.