Waterfront Parks

by Anne Schwartz, July 01, 2000

As the tall ships sail in New York Harbor once again, it can still be a challenge to get close to the water to watch them. But the city's waterfront seems poised to enter a new era. An astounding number of parks and restoration projects -- as many as 150 -- are being planned along the 578 miles of the city's shore. From mammoth and controversial undertakings like the Hudson River Park (running south from 59th Street) to the grassroots transformation in Hunts Point of a street that dead-ends onto the Bronx River, a tremendous momentum is building to reconnect the city to its watery edge.

Not everybody is happy with all of it, of course. The growing interest in greening the waterfront has inspired debate over the lack of parks in minority neighborhoods, the need to protect wildlife habitats, and the proposals for commercial development that accompany some of the park plans. Some oppose the changes that the parks would bring to their neighborhoods; others suspect ulterior motives: Opponents of the Hudson River Park, for example, have dismissed it as a "$400 million boondoggle" for politically connected contractors and developers. Whatever the disagreements, though, it seems clear that people all over the city are working to reclaim the shore.

The History: From Nature to Industry to Dump to Nature

From its beginnings, New York was a port city, situated on a great natural harbor at the mouth of the navigable Hudson River. Its economy driven by commerce on the water, much of the City's shoreline became a working waterfront of piers, factories, warehouses, and railways. Later, highways were strung alongside the water as well. The natural shoreline, with its marshes and inlets, was largely filled in, walled off, and built up. Sewage, garbage, and chemicals discharged to the sea all but wiped out the once abundant fish and wildlife of the rivers and harbor. New York's waters were not an inviting place to boat, or swim, or fish. Cut off from the water, New Yorkers largely turned inland for recreation.

By the mid-1900s, the City's importance as a port had waned as the development of larger, containerized ships made New York's port facilities obsolete. The waterfront industries declined, leaving miles of abandoned factories, warehouses and piers.

Beginning in 1972 with the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act, the City began to clean up its sewage and industrial pollution. With its water cleaner than it has been in a century, the harbor has seen a remarkable resurgence of wildlife. Now, some 60 species of fish can be found, and 4,000 breeding pairs of herons, ibises, and other large wading birds nest around the harbor.

The tremendous opportunity offered by the post-industrial shore for open space and recreation has inspired the residents of waterside neighborhoods, as well as environmental and boating groups. It has also raised some serious issues.

Environmental Justice

Many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are looking to the waterfront to provide much-needed open space and recreation, making waterfront parks an important cause for advocates of environmental justice.

Harlem on the River. In 1998, West Harlem Environmental Action Team (WE ACT) mobilized Harlem residents to defeat several development proposals for the Hudson riverfront around West 125th Street. Then, WE ACT and Manhattan Community Board 9 came up with its own plan for a park that would connect to Riverside Park. It includes rebuilding three piers for fishing and recreation, the creation of a bikeway and walkway along the water, and economic development away from the river. Based on the community's recommendations, the City is now drafting a master plan for the park, which is estimated to cost between $20 and $30 million.

Hunts Point. In the neighborhood where the Bronx River joins the East River (site of the huge produce market, 24 waste transfer stations, and just 15 acres of parks), residents Majora Carter and Alexie Torres-Fleming of The Point Community Development Corporation have a vision for a greenbelt all along Bronx River, as reported in the Village Voice. To start with, they have turned a street dead-ending into the Bronx River into the first new park the neighborhood has seen in 60 years. Called Hunts Point Riverside Park, the site is now going through the review process to be designated a City park.

There are many other plans for such community waterfront parks, some of which are detailed in an article in the City Sierran, the newsletter of the Sierra Club New York City Group. This group has formed partnerships with inner-city community groups working on waterfront parks. They are just one of the "big greens" (national environmental organizations) that have gotten involved in waterfront parks in minority neighborhoods. In some case, this has led to tensions between the local and national groups, the focus of an article in City Limits, "Green with Envy."

Park or Development?
Some people are calling the two new large waterfront parks being planned--the Hudson River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park--the 21st century equivalents of Central Park or Prospect Park. Others aren't so sure. To them, the parks look more like "development." Government is increasingly unwilling to fund the maintenance of the public parks, and both park plans were agreed to with the understanding that they must generate the income to pay for their upkeep. Hence the commercial elements.

The Hudson River Park, to be built on piers and a thin strip of land along the Hudson River from Battery Park to 59th Street, has been particularly controversial. Several groups oppose the plan as being too expensive and luxurious, and too dependent on income-producing commercial ventures; they also believe that the construction of the park would damage fish habitat in the river. The Army Corps of Engineers recently approved the permit required for work to begin on the piers, but opponents may challenge the ruling in court. A Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week looked at both sides of the controversy. Also check the new web sites of the Hudson River Park Alliance and of Friends of Hudson River Park.

The proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park, too, is supposed to fund its own maintenance, a condition required by the Port Authority when it agreed to give the community a chance to come up with a park proposal for underutilized piers in downtown Brooklyn. The park has wide support from Brooklyn residents and civic groups, who participated over the past year in a number of park-planning workshops with the project's designers. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation expects to present the final master plan to the public this summer, and submit it to the Port Authority for approval by September. In June, the city pledged $64 million over four years toward building the park. some of this money is contingent on obtaining an additional $80 million from the state and the Port Authority.

A group of Brooklyn Heights residents have raised objections, however, to the inclusion of restaurants, a sports complex, parking, and other commercial elements and the additional traffic they would bring through their neighborhood. Also see Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition.

Wildlife Habitat in NYC?

The recovery of the harbor has fueled the efforts of groups working to protect and restore wetlands and other wildlife habitat along New York City's shores.

In Marine Park in Brooklyn, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation recently opened the $4 million Salt Marsh Nature Center, an education center and natural wetlands on Jamaica Bay. The Parks department cleared out abandoned cars and other trash, and built trails through the wetlands; next year, it will restore the grasslands and salt marsh, now "a monoculture of phragmites grass that supports a monoculture of rats and mosquitoes," says Mark Matsil, director of the Parks Natural Resources Group. Matsil says the Natural Resources Group has a $75 million budget this year for restoration projects, including many natural areas along the water.

New York City Audubon's Harbor Herons project monitors breeding populations of large wading birds on islands near Staten Island and in the East River, as well as around Jamaica Bay, and identifies habitat that should be protected. Working with the Trust for Public Land, NYC Audubon has helped preserve a number of key city wetlands as parkland.

NY/NJ Baykeeper advocates for the Hudson/Raritan Estuary. Its Baykeeper Boat Auxiliary consists of volunteers who use their own boats to monitor environmental conditions in New York/New Jersey waterways.

Regional Plan Association has created maps of the parks and natural resources of the New York/New Jersey Estuary to promote open space conservation, as part of its H20 (Highlands to Ocean) project.

Access to the Water

Even as parks are being planned, New Yorkers are already finding ways to get on the water. Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project is planning a floating boathouse at Swindler Cove along the Harlem River in northern Manhattan. The boathouse is an extension of the NYRP's youth boat building and rowing projects as well as its work to restore neglected parks in upper Manhattan.

In Brooklyn, the Parks Department dedicated a new official boat launch in Red Hook off the recently restored and renamed Valentino Park Pier.

The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club ventures into a waterway just beginning to recover from notorious chemical contamination.

The Downtown Boathouse has a free volunteer program that helps non-boaters get out on the water in a kayak.

Coalitions and Parternships

Environmental, community, and civic groups formed the Waterfront Park Coalition, in mid-1999 under the auspices of the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. The coalition has inventoried more than 150 potential new waterfront parks, which it plans to track so political support or technical assistance can be provided when needed.

Waterways & Trailways, an alliance of Partnership for Parks, the National Park Service, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, helps communities create or protect public access to parks, natural areas, waterways, and trails in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. One of its projects is the restoration of the Bronx River and its shoreline.

Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance links organizations and individuals interested in a range of issues involving the Hudson-Raritan Estuary and the New Jersey highlands, and publishes the e-newsletter Waterwire.