Throughout the world, a shoreline often is the centerpiece of a city, the scene of its grandest architectural achievements, the location of its most valuable and attractive property. The particulars vary, the product of local history and geography. Paris and London bring to mind picture-postcard images of the Seine and the Thames winding their way past historic monuments and centers of government; Hong Kong evokes visions of gleaming skyscrapers towering over the South China Sea; Barcelona leaves memories of the shops, theaters, and Olympic stadium that overlook the Mediterranean. Sydney is synonymous with its breathtaking harbor, surrounded by museums, restaurants, a zoo, the world-famous Opera House, and the most expensive homes in the city. So too in the United States: think of Chicago’s “gold coast” of parkland and fancy apartment buildings along the shore of Lake Michigan; Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a thriving hub of tourism and business featuring the city’s convention center and the National Aquarium; Boston’s downtown waterfront, with hotels and housing alongside the popular Faneuil Hall Marketplace of shops and restaurants; even Cleveland’s Lake Erie shoreline, with the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame set amid parkland and public esplanades.

By lamentable contrast, New York City’s waterfront has come to be regarded by New Yorkers mostly as a place to find cheap parking or to retrieve one’s car from a municipal tow pound, or simply as a wasteland of rotting piers, homeless encampments, garbage dumps, empty lots, and vacant warehouses to be avoided altogether. Bordering the city’s vast, intricate network of waterways, from the Hudson River to the Upper New York Bay to the Gowanus Canal, the New York waterfront largely languishes as a peripheral, forgotten slum.

As the waterfront has lapsed into inactivity and decay, public and private efforts to revitalize it have confronted formidable political and regulatory barriers. Competing objectives and priorities—new residential development, the creation of parkland and public space, the revival of traditional industry—have mired waterfront projects in controversy and litigation. Diverse proposals for development and renewal have run afoul of environmental regulations, zoning rules, and the fiscal constraints and bureaucratic inertia of the public-sector agencies that own large tracts of waterfront land. With plans and ambitions repeatedly thwarted, the waterfront has begun to recede from public and political consciousness, its current squalor accepted as normal or inevitable.

The opportunity squandered is enormous. New York’s 578 miles of shoreline—by far the largest urban waterfront in the United States—could make the city more prosperous and more livable. This vast shoreline could accommodate a broad range of uses, from popular parks and prime residential addresses to thriving centers of commerce, industry, and transportation. It could be a richly varied scene of restaurants on piers, of townhouses overlooking marinas, of tree-lined public esplanades with majestic river views. One can imagine hotels with their own docks for guests arriving by boat; small cargo vessels bringing goods directly to stores; water taxis carrying commuters and tourists to numerous points throughout the city.

Some of these possibilities may seem fanciful now, but similar things have been done in other cities or in New York’s past—or are taking shape in the city today. In several parts of New York, glimmerings of what is possible are beginning to appear, where entrepreneurial creativity and risk taking have broken through the general waterfront malaise: at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, for example, where an impressive sports-and-entertainment complex has just opened; in Brooklyn’s Red Hook section, where once-derelict commercial sites are coming back to life; on the Hudson and East rivers, along the routes of a resurgent ferry industry.

Such developments, led by the private sector, could mark the start of a waterfront renaissance, unlocking not only the economic potential but also the social, cultural, and aesthetic possibilities of the shoreline, New York’s most underused and unappreciated asset. Whether that happens, however, will depend on the political and regulatory climate—and on the public’s sense of what might be.

During the first half of this century, the shoreline bustled. Manufacturing and other industry lined the water’s edge, along with yacht clubs, ferry docks, and recreational piers. The increasingly luxurious ocean liners of the day departed from Chelsea’s well-appointed passenger terminals. Cargo ships converged on northern Brooklyn, tugboat-driven barges brought livestock to Manhattan’s meat district, and pleasure boats idled in the Harlem River. The deepwater harbor and navigable waterways—crucial reasons why the city was founded and developed here in the first place—remained integral parts of urban life and work.

Yet New York’s preeminence as a commercial port did not survive the advent of containerized shipping in the 1960s; much maritime activity migrated from Manhattan and Brooklyn to New Jersey ports whose large open spaces and rail and highway links suited them to the mechanized loading, storage, and transportation of heavy containers. The growing availability of airplanes rather than steamships, of bridges and tunnels instead of ferries, further diminished the vitality of New York’s port areas, and the construction of highways and other barriers effectively cut the public off from large sections of the shoreline. Eventually it became possible to live and work in New York with little awareness of one’s proximity to the city’s vast waterways.

Vestiges of the central role the waterfront once played remain: Riverside Park and Riverside Drive, with their grand Hudson River panoramas, are salient examples, as are office towers of lower Manhattan’s financial district and the public esplanade in Brooklyn Heights, with their sweeping harbor views. The elegant River House apartment building on East 52nd Street serves as another reminder of the importance once attached to waterfront property; originally including a dock for the convenience of its boat-owning residents, the building was later separated from the water by the FDR Drive. But it still provides some of the most spectacular East River views in Manhattan.

Overall, however, today’s New York shoreline provides barely a hint of its onetime hum of constant activity—the crowds that once strolled through Manhattan’s six officially designated recreational piers, with places for dining and exhibits (called “play piers” by Jacob Riis, who was the driving force behind their creation); the guests who once gazed out over the Narrows from Brooklyn’s now-vanished Grand View Hotel, an ornamented building with waterfront balconies and its own dock; the diners who enjoyed a meal overlooking the Hudson at the Claremont Inn, a converted country house that once stood just north of Grant’s Tomb; the steam ferries that departed from lower Manhattan to New Jersey, available at 11 points below 24th Street prior to the Holland Tunnel’s construction.

Just as the New York waterfront’s traditional activities were disappearing, political and regulatory trends were emerging that would end up deterring plans for redevelopment. The city’s 1961 zoning resolution designated about a third of the shoreline for shipping and manufacturing at the very moment that such activities were about to decline sharply. An ever-expanding range of federal and state environmental regulations, for land and water, began to complicate waterfront development further. Political and community opposition began to form toward projects deemed too large, too commercial, or too environmentally insensitive. And more and more waterfront property fell under public-sector ownership, where all too often it would lie dormant.

The most ambitious proposal to transform New York’s waterfront—one whose failure would have lasting repercussions—was Westway, the highway and development project announced in 1974 by state and federal officials for Manhattan’s West Side. Originally conceived by the Regional Plan Association, a private group that studies land-use issues, Westway was a truly visionary idea: a highway running through a tunnel under 181 acres of new landfill in the Hudson River; on top, there would be development sites and ample parkland extending to the water’s edge. The cost: $2.3 billion, to be paid by the federal government.

Yet Westway drew growing resistance from a coalition of West Side residents, environmentalists, and community boards, who opposed everything from the noise and disruption of construction to the impact of new landfill on the Hudson’s aquatic life. Westway’s opponents seized upon the presence of striped bass in the river as a means of stopping the project, arguing that the removal of deteriorating piers would deprive the fish of needed spawning grounds and “rest stops” for their annual migrations. This dubious argument—which sidestepped the question of how the fish survived in the millennia before the piers were built—succeeded in killing the project.

The law held Westway’s planners to an almost impossible standard: they had to prove that the project would not damage the striped bass population. In 1985 after more than a decade of litigation, a federal judge ruled, unsurprisingly, that they had failed to do so. The following year, with endless delays in sight and with Congress poised to withdraw funding, Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor Edward Koch abandoned the project.

The Westway fight set a citywide pattern of naysaying toward waterfront development by community boards, elected officials, and neighborhood groups, with similar consequences of major projects stalled or abandoned. The Riverwalk, a 1980s plan for 1,800 apartments, two marinas, a hotel, and an office tower for the East River from 16th to 24th Streets, was thwarted by opponents citing a range of environmental and community concerns. Such opposition has repeatedly delayed both Donald Trump’s Riverside South, a cluster of parkland and residences for the Upper West Side, and Queens West, a proposed 75-acre enclave of housing, parkland, offices, and hotels for the East River shoreline of Hunters Point, Queens. In Brooklyn Heights, the Port Authority’s Piers 1 through 5 and their attached upland have been another area of contention, with proposals for a new park and recreational area stalled by neighborhood recalcitrance.

Meanwhile, the city’s zoning rules further stymied waterfront development, with much property still designated exclusively for industry in areas where industrial activity has long been in decline, including many sections of the Brooklyn and Queens shoreline. Lately, the City Planning Department has begun to rectify this problem—for example, by allowing mixed-use development in Hunters Point. But such changes have occurred haltingly, and the costs and red tape involved both for the city and for private applicants seeking zoning changes are heavy. Over the years, moreover, some waterfront properties have fallen into disrepair while developers and city officials endlessly debated their zoning status. The former Eastern District Rail Terminal in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is a case in point: the 30-acre waterfront lot, site of various proposals for mixed-use development or parkland, has decayed into a wasteland of crumbling buildings, bordered by mounds of garbage from adjacent waste-transfer operations.

Federal and state Superfund laws further complicate waterfront development, for they impose open-ended cleanup requirements and sweeping legal liability on owners and operators of contaminated properties. Faced with the danger of long delays and costly litigation, developers often shun sites with even a hint of contamination, including many old industrial sites located by the water’s edge. Some properties, such as a 25-acre Brooklyn waterfront lot near the Gowanus Canal, officially known as “the rear of the Bush Terminal building,” languish for years on government lists of contaminated sites, their prospects for development virtually nil—even after inspections have determined that they pose no significant threat to the environment or public health. (See “When Cleanliness Isn’t a Virtue,” City Journal, Autumn 1995.)

Development projects involving “outboard” structures such as piers or platforms, or the use of landfill, must navigate through a thick fog of rules generated by the federal Clean Water Act, state wetlands preservation laws, and federal and state designations of protected fish and wildlife habitats (including, as a result of the Westway fight, expanded protections for the striped bass). Multiple agencies and levels of government must give their approval, making the revamping of existing structures an arduous task and the construction of new ones even harder. Little wonder that projects that would create new landfill or build offshore structures—such as the Riverwalk project for the East River, which would have been built partly on new platforms are rarely even proposed, let alone completed.

With much of New York’s waterfront in development limbo, the 1980s real estate boom largely bypassed the shoreline, even while producing some 50 million square feet of commercial space and 100,000 new housing units elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, in other cities, notably Baltimore and Boston, waterfront areas bloomed with development. “During the eighties, when nobody was able to get anything off the dime in New York, other cities got a lot done,” says Ann Buttenwieser, president of the nonprofit Parks Council and author of Manhattan Water-Bound, a history of the borough’s shoreline areas.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, once a rundown area of wharves, produce markets, and railroad yards, now features office towers, hotels, housing, parkland, and marinas, along with the National Aquarium, the Baltimore Convention Center, and Harborplace, a bustling complex of restaurants and small merchants. The result has been a revitalization not only of the waterfront but of nearby downtown Baltimore as well—even a transformation of Baltimore’s overall image, making the city into a popular center of tourism and conventions.

While both public and private investment fueled the transformation, the vital spark came from the private sector. The revitalization took shape back in the late 1950s, when the local business community raised funds for the drawing up of a longterm development plan for Baltimore’s Charles Center area, adjacent to the waterfront. The plan expanded to include the Inner Harbor, and the city government, private developers, and the Baltimore Development Corporation (a public authority) banded together to make it a reality. The development program also benefited from having begun in the 1960s, prior to federal and other environmental rules that would have complicated the demolition of old Inner Harbor piers.

In New York, efforts to create a similar public-private renewal along the downtown waterfront—driven more by the public sector than was the case in Baltimore—have produced the South Street Seaport and Battery Park City, virtually the only large-scale development anywhere on New York’s shoreline in the 1980s. The Seaport, a complex of shops, restaurants, and a “museum without walls” of tall ships and other maritime exhibits, opened in 1983 as New York’s answer to Baltimore’s Harborplace and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Officials brought in the Maryland-based Rouse Company, operator of the other sites, to manage the complex.

Yet unlike the Boston and Baltimore projects, which thrive on their location in busy commercial areas and their proximity to residential sites, the Seaport came into being in an isolated location on the periphery of Manhattan’s financial district. And unlike Harborplace and Faneuil Hall, which received ever-growing crowds as private development sprang up around them, the Seaport had the ill fortune of being in a city where, thanks to all the forces already mentioned, a broad trend toward waterfront development was impossible—and could by no means be sparked by this one project alone. Hence, far from revitalizing lower Manhattan, the Seaport has been beset with economic troubles, with high turnover among its retail tenants, and with still-dilapidated buildings in its so-called historic district. City government subsidies now float the maritime exhibits, originally intended to be financed by revenues from the complex’s shops.

The Battery Park City project has had more impressive results, creating on lower Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront a beautiful urban enclave of office towers, apartments, parkland, and a marina. Yet like the South Street Seaport, Battery Park City has not produced a broader downtown revitalization—indeed, by creating massive new commercial and residential capacity through government subsidies, it probably hindered the prospects for private-sector investment in the area, drawing prospective tenants away from other downtown properties and driving away businesses that had to pay higher taxes to fund the subsidies. Battery Park City, moreover, could not have been built without a spacious location on landfill—which, fortuitously, was laid down at government expense in the 1970s, before the political and regulatory reaction to Westway rendered such additions to the Hudson shoreline impossible. The state-run Battery Park City Authority also benefited from being exempt from city zoning rules (later adopting them voluntarily after much of the project was complete), a luxury unavailable to private developers.

A distressing consequence of the New York waterfront’s political and regulatory entanglement is that visionary thinking about the shoreline’s future is now in short supply. Among public officials and private developers alike, with rare exceptions, pessimistic, narrow views of the waterfront’s potential predominate, with ideas for its renewal hemmed in by considerations of what is politically possible, what is realistic under present regulatory arrangements, what can be done that will avoid a chorus of complaints from outraged environmentalists and community activists. The terms of debate have increasingly shrunk down to minor or incremental improvements that offend as few people as possible. Such constraints mark the post-Westway history of Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront between Battery Place and 59th Street, virtually all of which is state- or city-owned, acquired in anticipation of Westway. For several years after Westway’s demise, the area sat in limbo, the various agencies with jurisdiction over it shunning the controversy that would result from any new proposals. In the past several years, new plans for a riverfront park and related development have taken shape, but local political opposition has repeatedly stalled them or scaled them back. Hence, the five miles of shoreline from Tribeca to Clinton have mostly languished as a home to parking lots, gloomy homeless encampments, empty sheds, and drab municipal facilities.

The Hudson River Park Conservancy, a public authority set up by New York State and City in 1992, has just begun to develop a park along much of this stretch of shoreline. However, the project will use no new landfill or offshore platforms—a concession to the striped bass, as well as to politics: any proposal for altering the shoreline, even on a scale far smaller than Westway, would create a Westway-like uproar. Hence, as currently envisioned, the Hudson River Park will be located on existing piers and on the narrow strip of land between the shoreline and the outer edge of what is now the West Side Highway (which will be replaced by a tree-lined, six-lane boulevard designated State Route 9A). While this would be a vast improvement over the West Side waterfront’s current state, it also means that the park will at many points be 30 feet wide or less—a “glorified bike path,” as Cooper Union architect Kevin Bone says.

Moreover, the conservancy seeks to allow shops, marinas, or other enterprises on several piers to generate revenues for the park’s maintenance. Yet such plans face dogmatic resistance from local community boards, elected officials such as Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Greenwich Village Democrat, and activists such as the Clean Air Campaign’s Marcy Benstock, a longtime Westway opponent now locked in litigation with the conservancy (which, Benstock charges, is ultimately planning to allow high-density development on the Hudson waterfront). Such sentiment might be called “open-space absolutism”—an uncompromising insistence that the waterfront be transformed into parks and public space unsullied by private profit or development.

Pier 40, off Greenwich Village, has been a major point of contention. Originally a passenger and freight terminal, it is a huge, unique structure, covering 16 acres, with a large inner courtyard surrounded by a three-story building. The conservancy proposes to use most of the pier for ball fields and open space, with about a fifth reserved for small-scale enterprises such as flower markets. The local community board and neighborhood groups insist that the site consist entirely of parkland, with no commercial activity at all. A 1990 recommendation by a New York State task force that the site include low-rise housing has long since gone by the wayside, discarded as politically impossible. The matter remains unresolved, winding its way through environmental reviews and public hearings. At present, Pier 40, operated by the Port Authority, continues to serve a different function altogether: it is the largest parking lot in New York City.

Consider what the Hudson River waterfront from Tribeca to Clinton might look like under a different political and regulatory climate. The Hudson River Park, expanded by landfill and platforms and financed by development sites, would be a recreational and cultural center as important to the city as Central Park. Pier 40, developed as a complex of townhouses, shops, and esplanades, would be one of Manhattan’s most prestigious addresses, the waterfront equivalent of Central Park South. Such development, far from making the shoreline exclusive to a few, would provide revenues for the maintenance of large stretches of parkland and public space. The waterfront would be a tourist attraction, too. On its newly expanded piers, one might find an open-air theater, a new restaurant row, perhaps a stable for horseback riding along a landfill-enhanced shoreline path or a marina with sailboats for rent.

A glimpse of the West Side’s potential may be found at the Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex, perched on four piers between 17th and 23rd Streets. The $100 million complex, most of which opened in late 1995, contains television studios and diverse recreational facilities, from a marina to a golf driving range on one pier to two large ice skating rinks on another. A 1.2 mile esplanade that runs along the perimeter of the piers provides free public access to the site’s entire riverfront. The complex is expected to be profitable, producing $25 million in revenue this year and $40 million in 1997, according to projections by its developer, the private Chelsea Piers Management Company. Moreover, Chelsea Piers, located on property owned by the New York State Department of Transportation, will generate over $2 million in annual rent under a 20-year lease, providing revenues for the maintenance of the Hudson River Park.

Yet Chelsea Piers stands on the Hudson as an isolated success story. Its existence owes much to an interstice in the otherwise hostile political climate toward West Side waterfront projects: unlike Greenwich Village, Chelsea does not have a tradition of all-out resistance to real estate development. Even so, the complex faced numerous hurdles. Plans to include a Herman’s Sporting Goods store, for example, were dropped in the face of opposition from Councilman Tom Duane, among others, who regarded it as too commercial. And getting the state to open the property to private development proposals in the first place required “lobbying every elected official who governs the West Side,” says Roland W. Betts, chairman of Chelsea Piers Management-everyone from State Senator Franz Leichter to Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to Borough President Ruth Messinger.

Moreover, existing structures at Chelsea Piers, unlike those at many other sites along the Hudson, were suitable for new uses. (just south, by contrast, there is a field of rotting pilings in the water, untouchable for redevelopment because it is—you guessed it—a breeding ground for striped bass.) Built in 1910 as New York’s premier passenger terminal (the Lusitania left from there on its illfated final voyage, and in 1912 the Titanic was scheduled to arrive), the four Chelsea Piers remained in good condition largely because they were extensively repaired in the 1960s—just prior to becoming obsolete as containerized freighters went to New Jersey. By the early 1990s, the site was used mainly as a municipal tow pound.

Open-space absolutism—the insistence on parkland-or-nothing that has characterized opposition to mixed-use development on the West Side and elsewhere—is not the only school of thought that has shaped public policy regarding the waterfront. Another ideology, with different aims but similar resistance to market forces, might be called “reactionary industrialism.” Its emphasis: using government funds and public-works projects to prop up traditional shipping and industrial activities.

For example, in recent years the city government and the Port Authority have poured subsidies totaling some $40 million a year into shipping facilities such as the Brooklyn Marine Terminal and the Red Hook Container Terminal, which in 1994 had net operating losses, respectively, of $12.3 million and $5.1 million. Meanwhile, most cargo has continued to flow to New Jersey’s ports, with their better rail and truck links. Last year the mere hint by the City Planning Department that such subsidies be reexamined provoked a barrage of criticism from die-hard defenders of New York shipping, including the subsidized operators of the terminals, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, and Congressman Jerrold Nadler.

Indeed, since arriving in Congress in 1993, Nadler has been a vocal proponent of far greater public efforts to restore New York’s primacy as a commercial port. His proposals—for a major new container port in northern Brooklyn and new rail-freight facilities throughout the city, including an underwater tunnel linking Brooklyn to Staten Island—are visionary and ambitious, unlike much current thinking about the waterfront. Yet they would also be vastly expensive and still have unclear prospects of luring cargo vessels back to New York. Unlikely to attract funding at a time of budget cuts in Washington and Albany, Nadler’s vision has served mainly as a rationale for resisting zoning changes and new development—and thus as yet another obstacle to reviving New York’s waterfront.

Meanwhile, market forces rather than government subsidies are demonstrating the waterfront’s potential as a place of commerce and transportation, most prominently in the revival of the private ferry industry during the past decade. Having sunk out of sight in the 1960s after a long decline, the ferry industry came steaming back in the mid1980s, when several small companies, sensing a market for an alternative to the city’s clogged bridges and tunnels, began experimenting with service between Manhattan and New Jersey. After a flurry of new ventures, the industry saw the emergence of successful operators, such as Arthur Imperatore’s New York Waterway, and a growing number of routes throughout the New York area. In every quarter since 1986, total ridership on private ferries has expanded; it now stands at around 24,000 passenger trips per weekday.

The role of government in all this has been limited but crucial: providing basic infrastructure by making city docks available as landing sites—and otherwise leaving the industry alone. Making no effort to regulate fares, the city allowed the companies to set rates so as to maximize their return on investment. Moreover, the city provided no operating subsidies and no bailouts for companies unable to compete. The entrepreneurs, notes Alan Olmsted, director of private ferry operations at the New York City Department of Transportation, were given “freedom to fail, unlike in other forms of transportation, where the government steps in as soon as a particular route starts to go sour.”

The ferry revival has enhanced New York’s quality of life. Some commuters, such as those going from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, cut their travel time by half or more, and ferry rides are an eminently pleasant way of commuting. Competition has kept fares down: most trips cost $2 to $5, though deluxe airport shuttles, with bar service and other luxuries, cost more. And because of the ferries, on a typical weekday there are several thousand fewer cars to congest Manhattan’s streets. Moreover, with routes and services still expanding, options will become increasingly convenient. Isolated parts of the now-forbidding waterfront will become less remote.

The waterfront’s potential for renewal shows up even in some unlikely places. In Brooklyn’s Red Hook section, along the Upper New York Bay and the Gowanus Canal, the derelict remnants of a maritime and industrial past, including a long-abandoned grain terminal and an unused pier once operated by a sugar company, line much of the shoreline; several blocks inland looms the poverty-ridden Red Hook Houses project. But in the midst of this bleak scene stand the revived Pier 41 and Beard’s Basin Pier, each featuring a long, brick warehouse building. Their developer, former police detective Greg O’Connell, has been rehabilitating the sites and filling them with commercial tenants. The Beard’s Basin warehouse, a Civil War-era building with 330,000 square feet on 7.5 acres, was crumbling and vacant when O’Connell won a long-term lease from the Port Authority in 1992; now it has 13 tenants, from a glassblower to a manufacturer of diamond blades for the aerospace industry, occupying about half the building. Two blocks away, the 150,000 square-foot Pier 41 building, half-empty when O’Connell bought it from a private owner in 1984, is now fully occupied by businesses ranging from a pet-food wholesaler to an Italian food importer.

This may be just the beginning. O’Connell speaks about turning the Red Hook waterfront into a thriving center of business and even tourism, featuring craft shops, microbreweries, and other attractions alongside light manufacturing and wholesalers. He has plans to link his two piers with a public esplanade near the shoreline and then to work with one of his tenants, the Brooklyn Historical Railway Association, to develop a trolley that would run along the waterfront and inland. O’Connell also speaks about a revival of shipping in Red Hook, with small cargo vessels serving niche markets, shipping bulk goods to and from Haiti on behalf of Brooklyn’s large Haitian community, for example. If such a revival occurs, it will be because it is economically viable, not because it has been forced into existence at taxpayer expense.

Visions of the waterfront such as those underlying Greg O’Connell’s projects or the ferry revival or Chelsea Piers cannot be dictated from a central location. They require entrepreneurs familiar with local conditions, able to imagine something better, and willing to invest capital and take risks. A first step toward making such things a broader reality, rather than isolated outposts amid general decay, would be a streamlining of the regulatory process. California provides a model worth following: under a law enacted in 1993, waterfront projects receive a consolidated environmental permit, eliminating the overlapping jurisdictions of the state’s Water Quality Board and Department of Toxic Substance Control.

Broader environmental reforms—some now being contemplated in Washington and Albany—would facilitate waterfront development in New York. In particular, the sweeping liability provisions of federal and state Superfund laws cry out for limits: they currently hold developers liable for cleanup costs even if they had little or nothing to do with a site’s contamination. Scaling back aquatic environmental protections to allow greater use of piers and offshore platforms would also improve development prospects.

Just as urgently as it needs zoning changes to permit new residential and commercial uses in former industrial areas, New York also needs to get additional waterfront property freed from the ownership and control of the city and state governments and public authorities. Through longterm leases and outright sales, public properties that have been dormant or underused will become active development sites. It’s also worth experimenting further with using revenues from waterfront development sites, as at Chelsea Piers, to finance nearby parkland and public space.

Above all, a revitalization of the waterfront will require changes in political and community attitudes. The open-space absolutism that results in endless lawsuits and angry public hearings is self-defeating even on its own terms; it preserves large parts of the shoreline in their current inaccessible state, while fighting projects that would expand public access. The reactionary industrialism that seeks to resurrect New York’s traditional waterfront also defeats its own aims, curtailing the very market forces that could spark an industrial revival. Finally, the crabbed, pessimistic outlook that blinkers much current thinking about the waterfront in both the public and private sectors, the shriveling of ambition that years of stalled and stymied projects have bred, needs to be blown away by an energetic spirit of can-do optimism, so that New York’s shoreline can fulfill its vast potential.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next