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In The Swim
New waterfront zoning plan rethinks the edge
Not your parents' waterfront: 184 Kent Avenue, a conversion of the former Austin Nichols warehouse, will include landscaping and a promenade.
Courtesy Scape

New York’s waterfront building boom has been a bonanza for developers, but the resulting public space has often been a letdown: monotonous promenades, rigid bulkheads, ever-present guardrails, and nary a spot to quaff a beer.

And so after getting an earful from landscape architects, developers, and environmental engineers, the City Planning Commission has drawn up its first waterfront public access zoning overhaul in 15 years, aiming for higher-quality public space that’s more flexible and sustainable. The outlines of the plan, which was the subject of a March 4 public hearing, have been widely embraced as a badly needed update to the existing code.

“In super-broad stroke, it’s a great step forward,” said Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. “In New Jersey, a lot of their esplanade functions as a front yard for luxury condominiums. This new addition to the zoning code is a step away from that. They’re trying to make the waterfront a communal resource for all of us.”

Toll brothers' new northside piers condo complex in williamsburg includes new waterfront landscaping and a pier.

The main thrust of the 117-page amendment is to break down the uniform quality of many new waterfronts and allow for more creative uses of the edge. “In standard New York City zoning, there is one water’s edge, and it has to have a 42-inch-high railing,” said Donna Walcavage, principal at EDAW and landscape architect for Williamsburg’s Northside Piers complex, designed by FXFowle. By contrast, the new code permits a variety of edge options such as boat launches, get-downs, and tidal areas. Other improvements include more meandering pathway configurations, moveable seating, and fewer visual barriers. The plan also dispenses with an unimaginative list of plants that had been deemed fit for waterfront use, and allows landscape architects to make their own more sustainable choices that include native plants. “It’s much easier to create an ecosystem that responds to water,” Walcavage said.

Under the new code, developers would have the option to transfer public waterfront land to the Parks Department, and make annual payments to the city for site maintenance. The North 5th Street pier and esplanade at Northside Piers is the first transfer of this kind, which would seem appealing to developers, who also get to transfer the public space liability. In return, the Parks team is brought into the design process at an early stage. “To get our plan approval, we had to come to an agreement with the city about the transfer of the whole waterfront,” said David Lee, project architect at FXFowle. The result is theoretically a public space more tightly woven into the open-space fabric of the city.

While many designers support the plan’s goals, some wonder whether the amendment’s fine-grained design standards are the best way to achieve them. “I think the biggest concern about these regulations is that they’re incredibly prescriptive,” said Elena Brescia, partner in the landscape architecture firm Scape, whose waterfront design for Williamsburg’s 184 Kent Avenue, next door to Northside Piers, is now under construction. “It’s design by calculation. A certain number of benches are required per square foot, a certain number of trees are required per square foot,” she said, concerned that the result may not add up to the intended effect. “Even though there may be a boat launch thrown in, much of what is prescribed here is about having the same experience everywhere.”

On the bright side, the new rules do encourage the holy grail for many waterfront boosters: more cafes. “They’re allowing for more flexibility, and more commercial viability on the waterfront,” Lewis said. “It’s remarkable how few waterfront eateries there are in New York City. It’s almost shocking.”

Jeff Byles