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09.26.2011
On the Waterfront
Gaining public access to New York City's extensive industrial waterfront won't be easy.
A boardwalk snakes its way alongside a ConEd substation.
Tom Stoelker

Now that Michael Marrella, who guided the massive waterfront plan, Vision 2020, into being last spring, has been bumped up to Director of Waterfront and Open Space Planning Division, he has miles and miles of shoreline to divvy up between two very different users—the public and industry. Charged with both implementing public access to the water for quality of life uses while also supporting a working waterfront, Marella made his position clear: “We’re not looking to relocate or displace industrial uses.”

There is a considerable inaccessible stretch with approximately 40 miles of shoreline devoted to maritime industry. Architects and artists are rising to the challenge to have it both ways by recommending creative appropriations of working waterfronts—including passive parks along the water that celebrate the gritty urban reality of power plants, substations, and shipping containers—that foster the public’s embrace of an infrastructure aesthetic.

In an interview, Marrella pointed out the city’s options. One is rezoning to give residential development the prime waterfront and move manufacturing to the interior; the other is to encourage manufacturing and recreation to live side by side. The first is exemplified in Greenpoint where a two-mile stretch allows housing close to the water yet mostly relegates manufacturing to side streets. But on the north shore of Staten Island, in the South Bronx, and Sunset Park there are areas where zoning seeks to integrate industry with parkland so both access the water.

 
A proposal for the beach off of Long Island City (left) and another view of the boardwalk (right).
Courtesy Lyn Rice Architects
 

Artist George Trakas designed the Waterfront Nature Walk on Newtown Creek to feature and not hide the water filtration plant designed by James Polshek. There both employees and the pubic have a place to enjoy the creek with granite get-downs to the water and boulders inscribed with directions.

Trakas has a current commission in Long Island City from the Nogouchi Museum and Socrates Park called Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City. Several artists were asked to rethink the area’s industrial waterfront for a show at the museum opening on October 13. “Artists can really make a difference,” he said. “We’re not proposing something; we’re envisioning something.”

Trakas’ vision includes designing a boardwalk that snakes out onto the East River in front of the Con Edison facility in Long Island City. The envisioned park also plays up the Ravenswood power generators run by Trans Canada. A key component calls for subtly lighting the facility at night.

Shipping & receiving along the East River (above) and the ConEd plant adjacent to Brooklyn Bridge Park (below).
Tom Stoelker
 

Claire Weiss of WXY, also involved in the Noguchi show, has worked up a similar proposal for the New York City Economic Development Corporation at the proposed Sherman Creek Waterfront Esplanade near heavily industrialized sites in Northern Manhattan.

Over in Brooklyn, Con Edison and Brooklyn Bridge Park are close to finalizing a deal that will allow the park to acquire a five acre site next door to the plant. The park remains one of the best examples of industry and utilities playing well together, with manufacturing and industrial sites bracketing both ends. Brooklyn Bridge president Regina Myer told AN in an email that neighboring industrial uses deepen park visitors’ understanding of the East River shoreline as a locus of commerce.

Chris Olert, the director of media relations at Con Edison allowed that the company might be open to ideas that don’t negatively affect safety and security, but he remained cautious. “Everybody thinks they know how to use other people’s property,” he said. Access would always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. When asked about the feasibility of boardwalks fronting their properties, he said, “Having a park is not an issue; we have facilities neighboring all manner of properties. Obviously there are bike paths and running paths that run past many our properties.” It almost sounds easy.

Tom Stoelker