In a city as large and connected as New York, it may be tough imagining it as a network of islands surrounded by water. It has been over two decades since New York City began rethinking its shorelines, but is all development equal?
Three waterfronts that exemplify the inequality in how quickly and thoroughly development gets pushed by the city are the Williamsburg-Greenpoint, Sunset Park and Port Morris waterfronts—the latter two featured as a couple of the New York Times' next hot neightborhoods. They demonstrate a cross-section of affected income brackets, levels of economic impact and change in quality of life.
Years of planning have gone into developing waterfronts across all five boroughs to generate economic prosperity and create desirable, recreational areas for communities to enjoy. Since 1992, mayoral administrations have propelled plans and proposals claiming that the city’s waterfront is a “valuable but still untapped resource” and have referred to the surrounding waters as the “sixth borough.” The first comprehensive plan, later reworked under the title “Vision 2020”, established goals to primarily ensure safe, public recreational access to waterfronts, create housing and jobs for diverse income levels, and onsite environmental protection.
As plans have been revised time and again, the desires of some communities have become an afterthought as the city develops waterfronts in their neighborhoods.
Source: American Community Survey 2014
Park-goers admire and take shots of the scenery
Sunset Park was one of the original neighborhoods recommended in the first Comprehensive Water Plan and has been a fixture for projects through city initiatives for years. But not all development will be beneficial for local residents. Neighborhood advocates were disappointed when the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) received a "Master Lease" from City Council on South Brooklyn Marine Terminal property.
Guesnerth Perea, 32, enjoys Bush Terminal Park once a week.
The lease allows the NYCEDC to bypass the Council, which has a legal obligation on behalf of the people to review such contracts, according to Sunset Park Restoration President Tony Giordano. The civic group has monitored the site and its uses since 1980, and said the Council nor the NYCEDC met with the community to discuss the lease’s misleading uses of the term “local” when discussing new jobs and improvements to the environment.
"Personally I don't believe our waterfront will ever be a location for many high paying jobs—although they say the opposite," Giordano said. "There are zero pros for Sunset Park. Limited job opportunity if any."
Bush Terminal Park, once a brownfield site, finally opened in winter of 2014, after being in the city’s planning process since the late 1990s. In 2005 the city formally announced the plans to transform the unused land into a recreational space, but action was delayed for several years much like action for the Randall’s Island Connector in South Bronx. Though tucked away from Sunset Park’s main avenues, the park has an athletic field, a short walkway and bike path and sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan.
"I want more people to know about [the waterfront] but then it would lose its quietness. But you know, it’s good for people in the neighborhood who may be of lower income to have this access.
-Guesnerth Perea, 12-year Sunset Park resident
Source: American Community Survey 2014
A walk straight down Lincoln Avenue and across an active train track brings you as close as you can get to the water without going to Randall’s Island Connector. Above the graffitied barricades is a sign warning visitors to stay away during wet weather as the water contains harmful bacteria.
Junancarlos Tainao, 80 discuesses community
Though waterfront access is lacking, new businesses like Charlies have popped up in the streets leading up to the waterfront. South Bronx has popped up on gentrifiers’ cultural radar, most recently garnering attention from a developer who deemed the area the “Piano District” and developed residential sites in Williamsburg and Bushwick several years prior.
In South Bronx, the Port Morris waterfront development has stirred up uneasiness in more ways than one.
Juancarlos Taiano, member of South
Bronx Unite, shows map for
community proposed boardwalk.
Somerset Partners, a real estate developer, has plans for two areas of the neighborhood to build upscale residential projects. The developer has been caught up in controversy with the community over the past year through attempts to rebrand this particular area around the water the “Piano District. A new identity isn’t particularly what the community has in mind for new economic development surrounding the waterfront.
One positive waterfront pursuit that has been accomplished in Port Morris is the Randall’s Island Connector, which was opened after almost a decade of planning by the NYCEDC. But to some in the community, this project had been a long time coming and is only a small step forward in really achieving their goals for waterfront access and recreation.
The Mott Haven-Port Morris Waterfront Plan has been listed as a priority project by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Open Space Plan, but has been waiting on the governor’s approval since added in 2013, according to South Bronx Unite leader Mychal Johnson. He said the South Bronx, notoriously known as “Asthma Alley” and home to high rates of obesity in children, needs this green space and access to water to increase the neighborhood’s quality of life — an initiative he said the city has not been willing to take up.
“Will an increase in quality of life increase the speed of gentrification?" Johnson said. "People are scared and nervous about this development because they've seen displacement across the city, but we need this access for our children.”
“I have a newborn son, we can't go anywhere in the community yet that's close to the water with him and when we do, it stings because the air is so toxic,”"
-Mychal Johnson, co-founder of activist group South Bronx Unite
"I’ve brought my three kids here nearly every weekend for the past three years because there’s space for them to play soccer, go on the waterfront rocks, get good eats and have really good family time. Years ago, this was a big abandoned lot and you could enjoy the waterfront like this.”
Scott Hill, 46, Resident of Bed-Stuy for 20 years
The North Brooklyn waterfront, along with Brooklyn Bridge Park, have some of the most direct pathways and streets leading down to the water. Wooden boardwalks, greenery and shiny steel seating and tables are plenty along the guarded rails, providing safe and comfortable access.
Source: American Community Survey 2014
Mayor Bill De Blasio’s streetcar waterfront route would also serve North Brooklyn, with hopes of allowing people of all incomes to experience the city’s shorelines.
Down the stream is the neighborhood known for being everything but mainstream: North Brooklyn. With a five-year-old ferry system and booming cafes, restaurants and boutiques, Williamsburg and Greenpoint are home to one of the most upscale waterfronts in New York City. In what might have been be one of the fastest City Council rezoning reviews, North Brooklyn rezoning plans took less than a year to be completely processed, compared with other waterfront access initiatives accomplished in the last decade.
Williamsburg residents and their pets enjoy walking
across the waterfront.
During rezoning, Brooklyn Community Board 1 foresaw the neighborhood's growing population, but only approved the building of new tower developments with the condition of getting Bushwick Inlet Park. Slated to be a 28-acre park right by the water—comparable to McCarren Park's 35-acre spread deeper in Williamsburg—Bushwick Inlet Park is a currently a third of the size the city promised. At the center of the unfinished property is a parcel of land owned by a private developer, which the city was unable to secure. Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn, established in 2008 to ensure this park's implementation, also takes care of the waterfront’s WNYC Transmitter Park and Newtown Barge Playground.
Joe Mayock, executive director of the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn, said the fact that the city made this commitment and didn't follow through was considered a real disappointment to the community. North Brooklyn has one of the lowest ratios of park land changed benefits of redevelopments. Mayock also attributed the strong group of organized citizens fighting developers off to the members of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park.
“They have not been keen toward compromising for residential development on the park site like seen in the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront. They fought of a waste transfer system in the early 90s and a large-scale power plant in the early 00s.” Mayock said.
"They originally opposed rezoning due to concern with the amount of development and additional people coming to overload the infrastructure, but we have partnered with them to make sure we get this park."
- Joe Mayrock, executive director of Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn
All in all, it is difficult to parse through the Comprehensive Water Plan and all of its revisions. The role and involvement of different city departments, agencies and authorities are intricately intertwined to the point of where certain changes and promises are gridlocked from occurring in the timely manner residents hope for.