New life pouring into the waterfront
A development just south of the UN, looking east across the East River.
By Michael Clancy and James Fanelli
March 30, 2007
Short, blue-collar and industrial, the East River has always been outshined by the majestic Hudson River. It's not even technically a river, but a brackish strait connecting the Long Island Sound and upper New York harbor.
But second billing for the East River may soon change. Its banks -- on both the Manhattan and outer borough sides -- are undergoing a profound transformation from underutilized industrial shoreline to the city's new Gold Coast.
"There is more land available and being developed now than perhaps any time in the city's history," said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society.
"More than urban renewal. More than Robert Moses. It's just an unbelievable amount of change."
More than 1,000 acres of East River shoreline are being redeveloped or slated for change as housing, parks and office space, creating millions of square feet of commercial, retail and office space along the river.
The sweeping changes represent an enormous opportunity to reclaim the waterfront -- a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration -- but advocates warn there is only one chance to get it right, to create an accessible waterfront that the whole city can enjoy, not just residents of luxury developments.
East River Waterfront Plan
A beach on the East River? That's just one of the new amenities planned for two miles of the neglected East River waterfront, from the Battery Maritime Building on the southern tip of Manhattan to the Lower East Side, which is slated to be revitalized with $150 million of federal 9/11 aid.
Parking lots, dilapidated piers and Department of Sanitation depots will give way to esplanades, walkways and even a sandy beach on the East River as the city reconnects the South Street Seaport, the financial district and Chinatown with the East River.
The city is working to get access to some of the properties, designing other portions, and moving other parts through the public review process, said Rachaele Raynoff, spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning.
Raynoff said to expect an announcement in the coming weeks that one of planned recreation spots will be open this summer.
Even the FDR drive, which hugs the East River, will get new lighting and sound-dampening material attached to its underside so that it looks and sounds a little better as New Yorkers pass under it to get to the river.
While the new leaseholders of South Street Seaport's Pier 17 haven't unveiled any final plans for the riverside site, it is nearly definite that some type of larger structure -- perhaps a high-rise -- will be proposed for the pier, which sits in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Meeting with Community Board 1 for the first time earlier this month, General Growth Properties outlined a rough vision for the pier and the former Fulton Fish Market buildings, which would include razing the mall, relocating the landmark Tin Building, shoring up the pier, and building a new mixed-use structure -- possibly a tower that rises 50 stories tall.
East River Science Park
A California-based firm that specializes in laboratory spaces, Alexandria Real Estate Equities plans to break ground next spring on the $400 million East River Science Park, a 1.1 million-square-foot complex that will house laboratories and office space for life sciences businesses and researchers.
The lot currently houses a Bellevue Hospital Center building and a parking lot. The science park will be built on 3.5 acres of city-owned land between 28th and 29th streets and First Avenue and the FDR Drive.
It is envisioned as an incubator for pharmaceutical and biotech businesses, which would find natural partners with NYU Medical Center, Columbia University, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center among others.
The first tenants are expected to occupy the facility by 2009. The city is expected to kick in about $14 million for infrastructure improvement, and the developers, who have a 49-year lease with two 25-year options, are expected to get tax breaks and other incentives worth more than $250 million.
Con Edison plant area
Along three empty parcels of East River waterfront, stretching from 35th to 41st streets, eight skyscrapers, some as tall as 69 stories, are planned as part of Manhattan's second-largest development after the World Trade Center site.
Developer Sheldon Solow seeks to build 3.54 million square feet of residential space, 1.3 million square feet of commercial space, 28,000 square feet of retail space and 120,000 square feet of 'community space' on the tracts, one of which used to be the site of a Con Ed power plant.
Renowned architects Richard Meier and David Childs are working on designs for some of the skyscrapers. A total of 3,000 new units is envisioned. The developer is preparing his final proposal to begin the zoning approval process.
After hearing Solow's initial plans, Community Board 6 asked that the development be scaled back and include more open space, commercial space, affordable housing and a school.
"It's a question of scale and what is overdevelopment," said Community Board 6 land-use chair Ed Rubin.
United Nations Renovation
Long delayed by bureaucratic red tape, political wrangling and the search for temporary office space, a new building should begin to rise this year as a $1.9 billion renovation gets underway on the iconic United Nations landmark Secretariat and General Assembly buildings.
After unsuccessfully searching for temporary 'swing space' in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, the U.N. chose to build that swing space on the northern part of its own campus.
The specific dimensions of the new building are still being hashed out, said U.N. spokeswoman Soung-ah Choi.The renovation, to be done in phases and completed in 2014, presents an opportunity to allow better public access to the waterfront -- a move lauded by open-space advocates but which poses security challenges.
In Elias Kazan's 1954 film classic, "On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando plays a guilt-stricken dock worker in a corrupt union who does nothing to prevent a mob rubout.
During the course of his torment, Brando's Terry Malloy delivers an elegiac speech about his washed-up boxing career, indelibly whispering, "I could have been a contender."
Malloy never got that chance at the title, but the inspiration for the film's backdrop, the gritty Brooklyn waterfront once filled with bustling wharves and smoking factories, has a shot at the big time.
Multiple projects are breathing life into miles of fallow land along the East River's edge, ultimately transforming the rundown piers and vacant factories into a tantalizing waterfront destination for thousands of residents and park-goers.
Fueled by sweeping city and state incentives and unprecedented public-private partnerships in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and land near the Brooklyn Bridge, the projects will bring as much as 12,210 units of new housing and 121.1 acres of parkland and esplanades to the borough's waterfront and surrounding area.
Though no time frame has been hammered out, the city also envisions an interconnected series of parks, esplanades and bike paths on the waterfront that will stretch between Newtown Creek in Long Island City and Owl's Head Park in Bay Ridge.
"We do have a vision for a continuous connection of parks and greenways," said Joshua Laird, assistant commissioner of planning at the city Parks Department.
The Herculean overhaul is not without its opponents. Critics have scrutinized some of the city's deals as too favorable to developers. Others like the Manhattan-based Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that has consulted on waterfronts around the world, warn that the emphasis on residential developments will ultimately keep people away from the parks.
"It's the suburbanization of Brooklyn," said PPS vice president Ethan Kent. "Residential buildings, especially high rises, are not really compatible with a waterfront. It may look nice and preserve a lot of parkland, but because of the residential adjacencies, they are preventing the parks from being used by the public."
But in an age where tight budgets and few dollars are readily available for public projects, city and state agencies argue that private housing is the most cost efficient and least intrusive way to spur the river's revitalization.
Here's a look at few of the projects:
In May 2005, the city green lighted a wholesale makeover of two miles, or about 175 blocks, of Williamsburg and Greepoint. Its inlands already rife with development projects, the neighborhoods' waterfronts were now open game to the real estate boom.
The rezoning of land to mixed-use will bring luxury condos where weeded vacant lots, old warehouses and factories now stand. Further rezoning also allows for residential developments in the neighborhoods' upland area. In total, 11,000 new housing units will be created, according to the city's Housing Preservation and Development.
There is a tradeoff to allowing 30-story-plus high rises on the waterfront.
Of the 11,000 units, 33 percent will be affordable. On the waterfront, 1,563 of the housing units will be for middle and low-income residents.
Twenty-three months after the rezoning, the waterfront vision is taking shape, with 459 affordable units that have begun or are about to begin construction, according to HPD. L & M Equities has already started work on the first phase of its development, Palmer's Dock, which will bring 294 units, with more than a third of them affordable.
The other community benefit of the rezoning is the creation of 44.1 acres of esplanades and parkland. Among the amenities will be boat launches and stone edges that slope into the water, allowing closer access to the East River.
Though each waterfront developer will build their own section, the Parks Department said it's working with the developers to a make a seamless, interconnected esplanade.
"We want to ensure that it not just be a daisy chain of unrelated esplanades," said assistant Parks Commissioner Laird.
Further incentives make it favorable for developers to deed over the esplanade in exchange for the city taking on liability. The city will also collect fees from developers that will pay for the parkland's upkeep.
While the city has insisted it has been updating the community on its progress, some Community Board 1 members and neighborhood groups say they've been left out of the loop about the rezoning and land being gobbled up by developers.
"There should be greater input in our end," said Christopher Olechowski, the Community Board 1 liaison to the mayor's advisory board on the Brooklyn and Williamsburg rezoning.
Other critics have voiced concern about the indefinite timeline for the creation of esplanades and parks since
"The esplanade won't be developed until the developments are completed," said Marisa Bowe, economic coordinator at Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, a North Brooklyn advocacy group. "That could be 20 years before it's completed."
Brookyn Bridge Park:
After more than 20 years of debating what to do with 1.3 miles of unused piers and empty land between Jay Street and Atlantic Avenue, the city and state agreed in 2002 to give $150 million to help create a scenic park that cuts under Brooklyn Heights' bluff, through the Brooklyn Bridge and ends at the Manhattan Bridge.
But the final product, which includes a marina and a bike path, hasn't settled well with some of the residents in the borough's toniest section or its surrounding neighborhoods.
While the Brooklyn Bridge Park will have 77 acres of parkland, eight acres will be set aside to develop as much as 1,210 luxury condo units, a hotel and other retail space.
Brooklyn residents had expected a portion of the park's upkeep to be paid for with private development, but some had expected it to be in keeping with a 2000 planning document that limited commercial space to restaurants and retail stores.
"This is the first time in the history of the state that private housing has been allowed inside the park borders," said Judy Francis, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, which is currently appealing a judicial ruling that upheld the project.
She said the earlier park plan provided for a skating rink, a pool and other amenities that have been scrubbed. She added that the 2000 plan would have had an annual operating cost of just over $9 million. Those costs would have been covered by a mixture of philanthropy and small commercial space, she said.
But the Brooklyn Bridge Development Corp., the state agency in charge of executing the plan, said costs would run higher. The state has pledged $85 million and the city $65 million to build the park, but annual maintenance and operation costs will be $15.19 million.
"The uses included in that 2000 Plan could not have covered the annual maintenance and operations of the Park," said agency spokesman Errol Cockfield. He added that out of all the self-sustaining park plans that BBDC examined, a mix of housing and a a small hotel was the most cost-effective.
"Housing occupies the smallest amount of land while generating the highest return," he said.
Domino Sugar Factory:
The Greenpoint-Williamsburg may have been a sweet deal for housing along the waterfront, but it does have its sticking points, including the preservation of a historic building in the neighborhood.
Built in 1884 and shuttered in 2004, the Domino Sugar factory remains an icon in Williamsburg for its illuminated curlicue sign. But because of its historical significance, the building has spawned a housing battle as its current owner, CPC Resources, determines how to turn the former factory into a residential development.
While some advocates want CPC Resources to build the maximum amount of affordable housing, others want the developer to preserve the factory as much as possible.
"We're trying to develop something that's responsible in terms of affordable housing and in terms of preservation," said Richard Edmonds, a spokesman for the CPC Resources, a subsidiary of Community Preservation Corp., an affordable housing developer.
Edmonds said the developer will unveil its plans in the coming weeks.
However, he did say that more than 20% of the development's units will be affordable housing.