Reflections on Waterfront Usage

On a recent trip to Copenhagen and Amsterdam I've been struck by the extent to which both cities are transforming themselves from the waterfront in.

In both cities, former seaport areas have been turned into major new commercial and residential areas. New transit and ferry systems provide access to formerly inaccessible and unsightly waterfront areas. Major new cultural destinations — including Copenhagen's elegant new opera house, national theater and national library facilities — are on former waterfront industrial sites. These transformations have been made possible by the relocation of shipping and warehousing facilities out of center city locations to new container port and logistics centers far removed from downtown waterfronts.

Ironically, New York was one of the first major cities in the world to remove shipping facilities from central waterfront areas. This was proposed in RPA's 1929 Regional Plan, and largely completed by the Port Authority by the 1950s, when new container technology created an economic imperative to relocate activities from the West Side of Manhattan and the Hudson County waterfront to Newark Bay where there was sufficient space to handle the containers. This made possible the transformation of the West Side's waterfront from Tribeca, to Chelsea into the city's most desirable residential areas. A similar transformation occurred on what we now call the Jersey "Gold Coast" stretching north from Jersey City to Weehawken. Relocation of the port has also made it possible to build the new Hudson River, East River and Brooklyn Bridge parks in New York, and Liberty State Park in New Jersey. The rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint and redevelopment efforts in Long Island City, while slowed by the current recession, are transforming the East River shoreline.

But making these waterfront revitalization projects work requires more than high density housing and public parks. Far from existing subway and rail connections, these new neighborhoods require accessible transit services. Part of the answer could be offered by the creation of efficient new ferry services. In New Jersey, a number of ferry services were introduced to connect the "Gold Coast" to both the Lower Manhattan and Midtown Central Business Districts. Then in 2000 New Jersey Transit opened the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which acts as a circulator along the waterfront and a feeder service to the various ferry landings. The same level of investment to develop transit connections to the waterfront has not been made in New York City. In limited number of areas, existing subway service provides some level of circulation. However, most of the waterfront is poorly served and in many cases is only accessible by slower local bus services. The City and the Port Authority (with help from RPA) are both studying the need for expanded ferry services, and more importantly, the public's interest in subsidizing them. NYC DOT is currently in the process of evaluating potential routes for the next phase of Bus Rapid Transit investments, a possible north/south route along the waterfront could go a long way to providing the connectivity that the area is currently sorely lacking. Another part of the solution is creating safe and attractive pedestrian links, like the 14 mile Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. Building off street walking and bicycling routes into the fabric of the waterfront makes it a real alternative for everyone.

The rebirth of similar waterfronts in Copenhagen and Amsterdam provides inspiration of the transformations that await large areas of New York's and New Jersey's waterfronts if we can get these transit services right.