The Suburbanization of NYC’s Waterfront

Recently, a bunch of us took a bike excursion along the East River waterfront from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn to the new Water Taxi Beach in Hunters Point, Queens. Traffic was light most of the way and street life relatively heavy.

Though currently dominated by old industrial buildings, the thriving neighborhoods adjacent to the waterfront seem poised to reclaim and reinvent this last urban frontier. Unfortunately, many of the city’s current redevelopment plans threaten to bring deadening, one-dimensional uses to the City’s valuable waterfront.

The car-oriented entrance to Schaefer Landing, a new waterfront condo tower in Greenpoint-Williamsburg.

Much of the new waterfront development is being defined by large car drop-off areas, vast amounts of parking, passive walls and expansive "open space" — designs that deter public use and distance the new buildings from their neighbors. We are, essentially, suburbanizing our waterfront.

Similar luxury high-rise developments and elaborate design schemes are degrading urban waterfronts like Barcelona’s Diagonal Mar development and Toronto’s new highrise waterfront.

Here in New York, the new residential towers are being sold as bringing a built-in constituency to the waterfront, but they will inevitably house a small, well-heeled population intent on keeping any other constituencies out of the surrounding public spaces. The towers themselves and the large open spaces that surround them will also reinforce exclusionary goals.

Teardrop Park is a $17 Million public park that serves primarily as a private courtyard arboretum to the surrounding high-rise development.

Even the celebrated Battery Park City does not really work for the public in the areas around the residential developments and there is really not that much to do there. The public spaces that work better there like Rockefeller Park and the plazas of the World Financial Center were put in before the high-rise residential and are extremely well managed and programmed for public outcomes. The newest part to be developed around Teardrop Park reveals that this lesson has not yet been learned.

The most recently completed suburban, "tower-in-the-park" developments include Schaefer Landing in Williamsburg and Queens West. More "luxury" residential is sure to follow with the advent of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning. The most egregious planned development is approaching finalization on what could be Brooklyn’s and perhaps NYC’s most promising waterfront stretch.

The current plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park lacks the entrances, connections and destinations of successful parks and seems designed more for the private needs of the residents of Brooklyn Heights and the planned luxury towers.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, is a development project masquerading as a park. I have recently written a more in-depth critique of this plan and the park design. Most of these efforts seem to be driven by the Empire State Development Corporation but are also supported by the city. They all are threatening to preclude public access and ownership of our waterfront while bringing more traffic and private control of public space.

The fact that the buildings are placed at the entrances to the waterfronts and the parks and are surrounded by highly-trafficked roads, car-dominated entrances and large swaths of passive green space ensures that these crucial areas will clearly belong to the high-rise residents and not the people of Brooklyn.

It does not have to be this way. Before these narrow development interests dominate the public process and public right-of-way any more than they have already been allowed to, there are copious opportunities to stake claim for more public uses and public access.

It is not too late, the face of Brooklyn can still be its front porch showcasing the character and diversity of brooklyn rather than a suburban backyard.

Looking at the best waterfronts around the world, few have high-rise residential at the waters edge and many have been able to keep some existing light industrial uses and integrate other more public uses while maintaining a financially self-sustaining model.

Will our new waterfronts become the face of our great neighborhoods, bringing more public access and public benefit, or will they resemble more suburban values with private control of land use and more car traffic?

The scale of buildings bordering a waterfront should not be towers but a continuous line of 4- to 8-story buildings that actively engage the public spaces. Towers, where appropriate, can be back from the first line of buildings. Otherwise, towers can dominate and "control" waterfront destinations. Likewise, contrary to popular belief, parks do not usually work as major waterfront destinations but can be used to connect more defined urban waterfront destinations. Many places outside of NYC offer strong models for alternative waterfront development that could easily be applied to many locations in NYC.

Vancouver’s Granville Island has many revenue-generating uses that also serve as great public space and cultural destinations, while providing very limited parking and the lowest possible level-of-service on its streets.

Vancouver’s Granville Island – This difficult to access island industrial site has become Canada’s most successful development. Run publicly and breaking even financially, the development has a full range of publicly focused uses, from artist live/work spaces that spill out on to streets, to a community center, shops and the world’s highest performing public market per square foot — and a negligible amount of housing.

Circular Quay, Sydney, Australia – a world famous urban mixed-use waterfront with many destinations, throughout, the public spaces come first.

Rhine River Promenade, Düsseldorf, Germany – A shrinking budget ended up creating a better waterfront

Porto, Portugal – A historic model of an urban waterfront as the soul and center of a city.

Miami’s Design District – This brand new district was quickly transformed from an inaccessible industrial area. It was a near immediate economic success, building itself around a pedestrian scale, with widened sidewalks, curb extensions, low residential density, and a strong 24-hour artist community.

The Water Taxi Beach was of course the highlight of the trip and turned out to be a refreshingly good example of a more entrepreneurial approach to waterfront planning while maintaining a broader public purpose. It is brought to you by the same person who created Peir 63 and was involved in many of the successful parts of Hudson River Park.

The new Water Taxi Beach is open to the public and draws people from all over while costing the city nothing.

  • Greenpoint

    Just a small correction. The neighborhood designation noted in the article should actually be Greenpoint-Williamsburg. It’s is unfortunate that some try to manipulate the order for some kind of a burg-centric insecurity. Greenpoint-Williamsburg has always been the official designation for the City of New York. This has only been noted because recently more Burg-centric bloggers have tried to claim Greenpoint’s McCarren Park as their own. For those who think this is a ridiculous argument, then why don’t we just call the whole of northern Brooklyn, Greenpoint.

  • Check out the Water Taxi Photo Contest before you take this ride:

  • Williamsburg

    WTF? Williamsburg-Greenpoint or Greenpoint-Williamsburg – it makes no difference, either is correct. There is no “official” city designation – they are two separate neighborhoods.

    FWIW, both neighborhoods were originally (18th century) part of Bushwick. Williamsburg was laid out in the early 19th century, and includes all of the numbered streets and up to the Bushwick inlet. Greenpoint was laid out about two decades later, and originally included only the “letter” streets (Ash to Quay).

    So – McCarren is in BOTH Williamsburg and Greenpoint. In fact, most of the park sits on the swampland that used to be part of Bushwick Creek and used to divide the two neighborhoods.

  • Greenpoint

    The neighborhoods are in fact separate, but the community board is the Greenpoint-Williamsburg CB 1. The McCarren park is in fact entirely in Greenpoint. The park was originally named Greenpoint Park when opened. The postal zip code for Greenpoint goes south to N12th street. Again, this is not really important except for the fact that each community has landmarks, highlights and points of interest which help promote the community to the outside world. B’burgers have developed a lot of places to promote. Or should we just rename the Williamsburg Art and Historical Society something like the Greenpoint Williamsburg Art and Historical Society just to avoid being divisive?

  • Maddy

    It happened in the 70s and 80s to East End Ave. Manhattan. Mayor Koch encouraged circular driveways on towers that offered great views and blocked access to the river. Yonkers used to have a concrete waterfront plaza, run down but now there is a luxury hi rise with its own car ramp and public space disappeared. What political corruption that these developers redefine the waterfront. No one can stop them as we see in the tear drop park. I never found it when I looked. No wonder from the aerial view it is an allyway of these private buildings and not open to the public at all. Empire development and the mayors office have usurped the people’s wishes.

  • Aside from all the sniping between commentators, the point of the article is that land development can be a blessing… or a threat. Its important to be involved when possible, and speak your mind about this at hearings, via petitions, and to write your local representative. Make your voice heard! Living in Williamsburg in the heart of hipster-doofus, I’d hate to see a wall of tall buildings — which seems to be the plan. They’re building a nice park on the water by North 7th, or.. are they. Unfortunately developers AND representatives do all they can to lock out the neighborhood from the planning stages, so do a little research and don’t be afraid to sign a petition or send an email at the very least. Local representatives can only be in touch with people as much as the public is in touch with THEM. Make some noise — not just below my window, but where it counts!! Patti Smith sang The People Have the Power. Can we prove it to be so?

  • Great post. Not that it matters much, but the Water Taxi Beach was open last summer as well. It’s too bad you didn’t make it up to Socrates Sculpture Park, perhaps the best use of waterfront in the city.

  • It also should be mentioned that the Ikea and Fairway in Red Hook and the big box stores in Sunset Park are extreme examples of suburbanization of valuable waterfront.

  • Vince

    The collision between pedestrians and vehicles leave the pedestrians the looser. Water front park development must have as an absolute standard the emphasis on public use not ground transportation needs. The transportation focus must shift to water born access so that the waterway becomes the “road” by which water front access is achieved. Wakes from vessels plying our waterways need to be controlled so that the waterfront infrastructure is protected. We had it right up until the advent of a automobile dominant decision making process. Having come full circle lets keep going and get back to what works.

  • Wilma

    It’s all well and good to encourage people to become involved and active in the development of their surroundings, but please encourage people to become EDUCATED about it before firing off some ill-conceived e-mail, letter or post about an issue.

    I agree that over-development, or the wrong kind of development, is a danger that we need to look out for. But particularly in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge Park… I just find opposition to usually be so naive and uninformed, it’s almost painful to read.

    In that particular case, I find it so frustrating when people chalk it up to a playground for the luxury housing. If you look at the grand scheme and the scale of the entire project, I can’t imagine that thought running through my head. To some extent, park’s ARE the neighborhood playgrounds! Is that so terrible? What’s being proposed is a very long stretch of land that is by NO MEANS lined with luxury housing, and I find that to be just as welcoming as any other park I know of.

    Isn’t Central Park lined with amazing, luxury housing that I could never possibly begin to afford? Does that stop me from utilizing the beautiful space there? Even the existing park in DUMBO: don’t you think rich people already live there in their prime real estate, being all rich and such in their primo condos? Does that stop other people from utilizing the park and coming down for public programming? Go to some of the events there, and you tell me if free movie nights or concerts or performances that bring thousands are really being exclusionary.

    Also, you’re completely overlooking the whole idea of public programming being planned for the park! All of this space that you have already declared flat and pointless is still in the beginning stages of being used in plans for programming. It’s just all very ignorant sounding when you don’t take it all into account.

  • The Central Park argument is one that keeps getting used to justify the compatibility of housing and parks in Brooklyn Bridge Park and elsewhere. A better analogy to the current plan in BBP would be if Donald Trump was allowed to build luxury residential towers inside from Grand Army Plaza at the most important entrance of Central Park (or inside from GAP in Prospect Park). Clearly, if development inside CP had been allowed as the only way to pay for maintaining Central Park, this would have been a travesty and a very negative precedent for the rest of the world.

    Central Park is successful because of its great destinations and connections (something BBP could learn a great deal from). Its edges and entrances, in part because of the residential dominance, are actually quite weak. The vast majority of other successful parks and public spaces – especially waterfronts – in the world have active entrances and edge uses and are less compatible with significant residential.

    As for your other point about programming not being considered, unfortunately, most of the space for the new areas of Brooklyn Bridge Park (as well as many of these new privately controlled spaces mentioned above) are not designed flexibly for programming and actually seem to be designed to discourage any significant spontaneous or planned use. Also, the imminent luxury residential community is unlikely to be inviting towards a broader section of New York from participating in or defining the programming for these spaces.

  • Walt

    I’m not from the NY Metro region, so I honestly wasn’t keen on another Republican getting the keys to the Big Apple. After seeing all the projects that were going up in New York and environmental initiatives I became less concerned about it. Now, that I think about though Bloomberg as a Republican would totally try to usurp the wider city for inaccessible luxury housing near waterfront parks. Devil is in the details. I really you concerned folks would try to make sure these luxury places don’t take over the Brooklyn waterfront. At the very least make the waterfront spacious and accessible for the average person to enjoy.


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