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Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance-2015-Horatio Hownblower-Hudson River-NYC-9Hell Gate Bridge, Photo by Mai Armstrong/Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy forced us to reconsider how we view the many billions of gallons of water that surround us in this city of islands. While we are still rebuilding from the destruction it wreaked on our habitat, it also reminded us that we maybe haven’t been addressing it so intelligently over the last couple decades. The ocean is right in our backyard (and front and side yards), and while sometimes threatening, it can also be quite useful, and we need to learn how to live with it and treat it better.

That was the general sentiment espoused at the 2015 Metropolitan Waterfront Conference earlier this month, an annual convention of over 700 scientists, planners, academics, builders, seamen, and various others interested in the relationship between surf and turf in the New York City area. Aboard the Hornblower Infinity, panelists argued, elected officials orated, and young professionals imbibed, against a backdrop of Lady Liberty, Governors Island, the East River bridges, and Roosevelt Island sailing by.

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Just one hurricane season short of Sandy’s three-year anniversary, the prevailing mood on board was not so much regret for past mistakes, but excitement about future opportunities, not only regarding storm preparation, but also building by the waterfront, restoring maritime industry, and getting around by water.

A few weeks prior, Mayor Bill De Blasio released OneNYC, his administration’s 354-page vision for a sustainable and equitable New York City. Buried in a short paragraph in the transportation section is a proposal to expand the city’s ferry network. This came as a surprise to some. While waterborne transportation has been around much longer than cars, bikes and trains, attempts to reenact a robust system have been stymied in the past. The five-year old East River Ferry, however, has surpassed its ridership goals in large part because it connects to new waterfront apartment towers in Long Island City and Williamsburg that are themselves just a few years old.

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As transportation planner Sam Schwartz pointed out, some of the biggest jumps in subway station ridership since 2010 were at stops just on the other side of the East River from Manhattan (Bedford L, Marcy J/M/Z, Vernon-Jackson 7) precisely because new waterfront-dwelling commuters are walking inland to catch subways heading back toward the city in the other direction. The successful East River Ferry is an example of what ferry consultant Roberta Weisbrod calls “urban linear” systems, that don’t simply cross a body of water back and forth, but connect various points along a strip of water. These complement and parallel existing—often congested—mass transit.

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In 2017, three new routes are planned to begin service to communities underserved by existing transit options, with two more to follow in 2018. Unlike expensive, decades-long rail development projects, ferry service is easy to modify once up and running, and station landings relatively cheap to assemble. The City says it has already earmarked capital funds for some of these. But Schwartz thinks there could be more. For decades, the man nicknamed “Gridlock Sam” has been advocating for the politically unthinkable: a reinstatement of tolls on the East River crossings (Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges), with reductions on others, to raise an estimated $1.5 billion a year for upkeep and new capital projects.

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While flashy new waterfront apartment towers are great for the ferry industry, they also serve as a reminder of the long, painful decline of New York City’s working waterfront. In its heyday in the first half of the 20t century, as many as 60,000 longshoremen walked to work at the docks ringing lower Manhattan. In the 1960s, the industry began leaving Manhattan for Brooklyn and New Jersey, and in the 1970s, containerization decimated the port workforce.

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Dockworkers won’t be returning to the region’s ports in significant numbers anytime soon, but the economy surrounding goods coming and going through our waterways is not insignificant, and is under pressure.

Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents parts of lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn, aired a strong endorsement for the preservation and expansion of Red Hook Terminal, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s last remaining cargo terminal in Brooklyn. Some have called to close and sell the terminal, which sits close to a newly hip residential area. Two thirds of the goods entering the region’s ports are bound for destinations east of New York Harbor, on Long Island and in New England. Currently, most cargo is trucked from terminals in New Jersey and Staten Island over the George Washington Bridge to the other boroughs and points east. This dependence on a single thoroughfare not only exacerbates congestion and pollution, says Nadler, but poses a vulnerability that makes the bridge a tempting target for terror attack.

A 1999 study conducted by the city’s Economic Development Corporation found 2.5 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) passing through the port that year. The report also suggested development of an 800-acre container port in Sunset Park, a plan ignored by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg but gaining renewed interest under De Blasio. Just 15 years later, the port network is already handling over double its 1999 throughput, with the same amount of real estate.  Just 3.5 miles of New York City’s 520 miles of waterfront is all Nadler says is necessary for a new Brooklyn terminal.

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This jostle for space was the subject of the last discussion of the day at the Waterfront Conference. As New York’s waterways have cleaned up (city comptroller Scott Stringer said they are the cleanest in over a hundred years), several industries not directly related to goods movement have located and thrived near the water.

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The 300-acre Brooklyn Navy Yard, the wartime hub of US shipbuilding, has become an industrial park home to whiskey distillers and movie studios. Owned by the city and operated by the non-profit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, rents there are subsidized for companies who promise to create jobs. Between 1966 and 1996, the city invested just $3 million in the Navy Yard, as employment there shrunk to a low of 300 jobs, from a mid-century high of 66,000. Since 1996, $250 million has been invested there, and employment is up to 7,000, with an aim to double that in ten years. Vacancy is at 0%, so the Navy Yard is busy planning new buildings, says chief of staff Clare Newman.

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They are also implementing a stormwater recycling system, replacing asphalt with permeable pavers, and making rooftop space available for solar panels and urban farms. The Durst Organization is building a wastewater treatment plant and a cogeneration plant on-site at its development in Hallets Point. These are model waterfront neighbors thinks resiliency consultant Jamie Springer. Too many developers still address flood mitigation with hard edges and increases in elevation. And it is out in the boroughs where the most architectural innovation is happening, says Jay Valgora, an architect who has worked on waterfront projects up and down the East River.

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“New York is becoming an aquacentric city,” says Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia and the conference’s keynote speaker. We are at our happiest and healthiest when among nature, he believes, and as we live in cities more and more, we need to restore the natural environment to our everyday lives. The urban experience is not and cannot necessarily be an unnatural experience. It sounds obvious post-Sandy, but the more we learn to live with the water, the less disastrous the next big storm will be. And hopefully, in the mean time, we’ll begin to see that previously scary, dirty, dark expanse as a fabulous place to swim in, sail over, wade through, breathe in and gaze upon.

Read a recap of last year’s Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, where the WEDG waterfront design principles were revealed and where we spotted the demolition of the South Street Seaport Mall.

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