On The Waterfront: All Shiny and New?

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By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
[email protected]

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When Henry Hudson sailed off course in 1609 — he had been hired by the Dutch to find a northeast passage to the Orient — his 3,000-mile detour revealed a bounty of unexpected wonders, sowing the seeds for what eventually gave birth to the greatest city on earth.

Sailing the Halve Maen (Half Moon) — a replica of which can still be glimpsed along the river that bears his name — into what later became known as the New York Harbor, the rustic waterfront must have sparkled to Hudson with the promise of an uncut diamond. Crawling with beaver — whose pelts would soon be converted by Europe’s lucrative fur trade into gold — the riverbanks were preposterously rich in flora and fauna alike. And the salty water slapping at the hull of the ship as Hudson cut a swath through the uncharted waves teemed with a roster of fish and shellfish even more exhaustive than the daily menu at the Oyster Bar.

In fact, according to Pete Malinowski, who oversees the Oyster Restoration Research Project at the newly minted Harbor School on Governor’s Island, the waters into which Hudson sailed were so densely populated with life that the thicket of oysteries would have posed a “navigational hazard” to a less experienced captain. And while New York City’s waterways, battered and barren from centuries of dredging and pollution, may never again boast such an embarrassment of riches, Malinowksi told me in a recent phone interview that by 2050, the Harbor School hopes to see “5,000 acres of oyster beds” reintroduced along Gotham’s shoreline.

Before you conjure an image of plucking succulent bivalves from the harbor’s briny water for a little al fresco dining, be aware that the oysters they’re planting are not intended for our culinary pleasure. Instead, Malinowski explained, these newbie shellfish are to serve as a catalyst in a broader effort to attract other aquaculture which, in turn, biologists believe will help improve water quality throughout the harbor. So forget the platefuls of oysters crowded by shiny little serving cups brimming with vinegar and horseradish. These are serious oysters purposed to entice a whole new underwater community whose residents will be expected to pull their own weight.

From the shipping industry to the world’s greatest fish market, as much as every aspect of Gotham’s waterfront has played a key role in building what remains the global capital of commerce, it’s easy to forget that we really do live in a coastal environment. After all, depending upon where you’re standing, it can be just as hard to see the water for the skyscrapers in Gotham as it is to see the trees for the forest in Vermont.

Vision 2020, the city’s comprehensive waterfront plan that bills itself as a blueprint for all 578 miles of its shoreline, aims to change all that. Now, before Paul Goldberger gets all lugubrious, let me be perfectly clear: There is absolutely no evidence that Vision 2020 contemplates anything even remotely resembling historic Williamsburg on the Hudson or Charleston on the Gowanus. Quite to the contrary.

Rolled out last April by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Vision 2020 — draft recommendations for which are online — intends first and foremost to widely expand public access to the waterfront on public and private property while strongly encouraging redevelopment along its 578 miles of coastline. It aims to “enliven the waterfront with attractive uses,” and to create a “one-stop shop, for waterfront permitting” to streamline waterfront construction.

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Vision 2020 does mention historic sites. But the draft recommendations fail to commit to an actual inventory of historic resources along the waterfront as part of the plan. That’s one reason some preservationists fear the plan has already gotten off on the wrong foot. The current language in the text — which, according to an email from the Department of City Planning (DCP), is still subject to change — is far too vague to satisfy the concerns of many preservationists.

Qualifying sentences in the text, such as “However, substantial challenges can exist in adapting these [historic] structures to contemporary uses,” make Anthony C. Wood, author of Preserving New York, worry that Vision 2020 may be more than just a bit myopic. Wood told me in a phone interview that the language in the aforementioned sentence creates “a loophole so big, one could drive a bulldozer through it.”

As to the DCP deflecting critics by pointing out that the city will take public comments (via the Internet) on Vision 2020 until November 12 (the final plan is due by year’s end), Wood countered that waiting for the public to raise the issue is “half-ass backwards.” The city, he added, should have committed right off the bat to identifying historic resources along the waterfront as part of its plan. To leave it up to public comment is just not very “plannerly.”

Phillip Musegaas, an attorney with Riverkeeper, the clean water advocacy group that serves on the DCP’s Maritime, Infrastructure and Permitting Group (MIP) along with 30 other waterfront stakeholders all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome of Vision 2020, agrees with Wood that the city should conduct a historic survey along the waterfront now rather than wait until specific development plans bump up against Gotham’s historic fabric. And because, according to Musegaas, Vision 2020 “will potentially lead to rezoning” along our vast waterfront, “it makes perfect sense for the city to identify historic resources at this stage of the planning process.” With less than 2 percent of the city’s structures surveyed to date, Musegaas wondered, “How can the city accurately prioritize without even knowing the full breadth of historic resources along the waterfront?”

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), shared similar concerns with me in a recent interview. He fully expects the city to provide plenty of lip service, but doesn’t believe historic preservation will ultimately play a meaningful role in the Vision 2020 plan. They are “coming from a cleared-site perspective” he said.

Indeed, fresh off HDC’s thwarted efforts on behalf of the Cedar Grove Beach Club — which the city plans to demolish despite a formal determination that this unique collection of waterfront houses is eligible for the state and national registers of historic places — Bankoff is convinced the city wants “a tabula rasa upon which they can project their own vision regardless of what is already built.” Vision 2020 is “not looking to heal the waterfront,” he said. It’s looking to create something all shiny and new. With more than a whiff of regret, Bankoff intoned, the city is “thinking with the bulldozer.”

Rather than the classic examples set by Williamsburg, Virginia or Charleston, South Carolina, Bankoff fears the model New York City is using is more akin to Atlantic City, New Jersey — which, after initially attracting a gush of reinvestment, is now saddled with muted casinos and white-elephant high-rises. Bankoff’s remark about Atlantic City seemed facetious at first. But after the bombshell dropped by New York State Inspector General Joseph Fisch on Oct. 21, it appears he may be on to something.

The 308-page report Fisch unleashed — subsequently referred to state and federal prosecutors — accuses the leaders of both the New York State Senate and Assembly of a grand-scale corruption scheme that makes the bidding process for New York City’s first casino look like Tammany Hall Gone Wild. Few were surprised by the assertion that the public process was manipulated by strategic campaign donations. New Jersey certainly has no more monopoly on casinos than on the pay-to-play paradigm. What has raised a few eyebrows among those worried for the future of Gotham’s waterfront is the fact that this nascent gambling venture — 4,500 video slot machines to be installed at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens — is expected to generate more than $1 million a day in tax revenue. At a time when the city and state are desperately seeking a new spigot, the prospect of cashing in casino chips to plug up the holes in municipal budgets could prove a very powerful aphrodisiac, indeed. Just imagine the TV commercials: “Why go to Foxwoods when you can gamble on The Cyclone.”

A closer look at the Vision 2020 draft bolsters Bankoff’s apprehension. Sounding more like an essential mandate than a mere recommendation, it reads:

“To support the particularly high maintenance costs of waterfront public spaces, the City should explore the implementation of potential revenue sources, such as the incorporation of revenue-generating uses, special assessment districts or other innovative mechanisms.”

After declining repeated requests for an interview for this column, the DCP finally offered to answer questions in writing. But once the DCP saw the questions (which asked things like “Does the city intend to inventory historic resources as part of Vision 2020?”), it reneged, saying the city could not answer any such questions until after the plan is finalized and simply referred me again to the boilerplate on its website.

Toward the end of my conversation with Malinowski, he shared with me one of the more vivid reasons he remains jazzed about the prospects for healing the murky water in New York’s harbor. Malinowski claims that on a recent dive, seahorses were playfully dancing atop the oyster cages that were earlier set along the harbor floor. The experiment is working, he said. Oysters are attracting new life.

With an image as hopeful and magical as the one tucked beneath a harbor long tainted by industry and raw sewage, perhaps anything really is possible in New York. So following Malinowski’s optimist lead, instead of adding to the doleful drumbeat, I am going to invite you all to contribute your two cents — not to a video slot machine, but to the Department of City Planning: All you have to do to hold the city’s feet to the proverbial fire is click on this link and tell them that for Vision 2020 to best serve the public’s interest, it must include a commitment to inventory, to protect the valuable historic resources that so significantly inform New York City’s 578 miles of waterfront.

Our waterfront may never again look as it did when Hudson first arrived. But God forbid if Gotham were to wind up ringed by high rises and one-armed bandits.

Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life.

The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.