Community Engagement and the New East River Waterfront Plans

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On March 28, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) convened a panel to present the ongoing plans for redeveloping the East River waterfront between the Battery Maritime Building and East River Park. It was part of the LMCC’s “Access Restricted” series.

The panel, “On The Waterfront: Re-Imagining the East River Waterfront Esplanade” included representatives from the city government, SHoP Architects, local community groups Hester Street Collaborative and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, and the Architectural League of New York.

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Currently, this area along the East River is something of a wasteland-dilapidated sheds, either abandoned or housing the city’s Sanitation Department, bus parking underneath the grim, elevated FDR Drive-with little access to the river. This is in contrast to the shiny, elegant park spaces along the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, which is a more affluent neighborhood. The residents of the Lower East Side feel this contrast acutely.

The plans for the waterfront include better access to the river and improved views from further inland, new park spaces with location-specific seating areas (for example, high bar stool-style seats along some stretches of the railing at the edge of the river), and new commercial spaces on renovated piers and in pavilions underneath the FDR.

Dylan House of Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) and Victor J. Papa of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council (separately) have been solicitous of the concerns, desires, and dreams of the diverse local population for the waterfront renovations. According to them, they have been quite successful in lobbying for their communities; they report-refreshingly-being pleased with the city’s and the architects’ respect for and interest in local voices in this process. A new park on Pier 42, reflecting a plan by a coalition including HSC, has the vocal support of US Senator Chuck Schumer and NY State Senator Daniel Squadron.

Two Bridges has been proactively advocating the East River Waterfront renewal since 2000, and their ongoing success is impressive. The goals of the East River Waterfront Coalition, which they initiated, have been to:

improve access to the waterfront promenade, encourage recreational and educational use of the area, and promote the waterfront as a tourist destination for the benefit of local entrepreneurs.

HSC has used especially creative means of community outreach. They have been focused directly on a specific element of the larger waterfront redevelopment plan: the park on Pier 42, at the northern end of the zone, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge. HSC has reached out to the diverse Lower East Side community in English, Spanish, and Chinese to get the local residents involved in thinking about optimal design and programming of the new park. They were active in developing “A People’s Plan for the East River Waterfront,” an amazing, community-minded document, created in response to early waterfront plans that ignored the residents.

Waterfront on Wheels

One of the best creative approaches HSC has taken to engage local Lower East Side communities is their “Waterfront on Wheels.” It is a portable model of the stretch of the waterfront around Pier 42 that hitches to the back of a bike for grass roots teaching activities. The Waterfront on Wheels travels to parks and schools where it is used as a tool to teach kids about what is going on at the waterfront and engage them in the planning process. When HSC brings the model out into the community, kids have the opportunity to use art supplies to create their own versions of the ideal park.

It is a good sign for the future success of these parks and esplanades that politicians, planners, community activists, and even neighborhood residents are all engaged, cooperative, and optimistic about the new waterfront.


“Access Restricted”

LMCC’s “Access Restricted” series features panels in which

artists, writers, and scholars [. . .] explore the relationship between the artistic imagination and the urban landscape, its history in Lower Manhattan, and its role in envisioning the future.

These are interesting, thought-provoking free events. You should go. (Next year. The 2012 season of “Access Restricted” is over.)