As New York Reclaims its Waterfront, Problems loom under the surface
An op ed article by Ronald Lewis of the Waterfront Alliance as it appeared in Crain's NY Buisness
Conflict at the waterfront: It's an age-old state of affairs, with modern real estate wars replacing yesterday's military skirmishes and labor-management clashes. Do tall buildings belong in Brooklyn Bridge Park and at the South Street Seaport? Do we need a new performance space in Hudson River Park?
Whichever side you take on these issues, you're missing the real fight: Man versus Nature.
The waterfront can be a challenging and even hostile environment. Currents flowing through our tidal estuary eventually erode most anything built at the water's edge. Even so, New Yorkers are flocking to the waterways for kayaking, oyster cultivation, new ferry service, environmental education and much more. At the same time, our huge, natural harbor remains a vital hub of commerce and employment for the region.
And yet, as we develop a 21st-century waterfront that rivals any other in the world, we have not been realistic about the upkeep required for challenging natural conditions. We are paying too little, partly because the maintenance required for piers, bulkheads and waterfront access is literally hidden below the surface.
To continue to use and enjoy our magnificent waterfront, we must confront nature, and we must tackle the challenges equitably. While tony neighborhoods in downtown Brooklyn and on Manhattan's West Side can afford to cross-subsidize their waterfront parks with luxury development, this is not the case in many poor and working-class communities. Deferred maintenance is common in under-resourced areas, exacerbating inequity at the water's edge.
This is not an academic point. In recent memory, a kayak dock in Harlem sank into the Hudson, and Cromwell Recreational Pier in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, and the East River edge of Rainey Park near Ravenswood Houses in western Queens both collapsed into the water, leaving residents of all those communities with holes on their waterfronts.
A handy solution is already in place. The Bloomberg administration financed the No. 7 train extension through the increased property taxes it will generate. The de Blasio administration has proposed a similar strategy to fund the BQX streetcar. Across the city, waterfront development is resulting in massive increases in property values. Let's use a small portion of the new tax revenue to provide for upkeep of the shoreline—a dedicated waterfront maintenance fund to be used for shoreline parks. Commonly called "tax increment financing," or TIF, this method of capturing a small slice of the wealth created by increased development for dedicated purposes has been used from coast to coast and could be employed here in New York City.
The old maxim "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is true for all infrastructure, but especially at the waterfront. Millions spent today will save hundreds of millions tomorrow and provide new opportunities for enjoyment and recreation at the water's edge. We're seeing that play out right now at Hudson River Park's Pier 40, where the electricity to the cathodic protection system was disconnected in the 1970s to save money. The resulting corrosion will cost more than $100 million to repair. That cautionary tale should inform the debate upriver about Barry Diller's proposed addition to the park, Pier 55. His 20-year commitment to pay for maintenance is generous, but after that, who will foot the bill when the river takes its toll?
The bottom line is we must acknowledge nature's extraordinary power as we enjoy this great harbor of ours. We have to be realistic about what it takes to maintain our waterfront—not just where luxury condominiums can help foot the bill, but also in places with few resources—making our harbor a shared resource for all.
Roland Lewis is president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of more than 900 organizations that advocates for the region's waterways and shoreline.
A version of this article appears in the May 23, 2016, print issue of Crain's New York Business.