News
04.17.2012
Clearing Vision
NYC Planning making comprehensive waterfront plan a legal reality.
Revisions to WRP make way for larger ever-larger cargo vessels on New York's waterways.
Courtesy NYC Planning

Last year, the city launched Vision2020, New York’s comprehensive waterfront plan. To describe the plan’s scale and importance, the city’s 520 mile waterfront is referred to as “Sixth Borough.” Today in Los Angeles, the American Planning Association will bestow the Daniel Burnham Award to the city for the proposal. Meanwhile, back in New York, the proposed changes continue to work their way through legal channels to become law.

“We are now planning for our waterfront and waterways with the same intensity and passion that we have traditionally planned for our land,” City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden said in a statement. By its very nature the waterfront is a tangle of city, state, and federal jurisdictions. At the city level, the Waterfront Revitalization Program (WRP) manages costal zoning. It was created in 1980, revised in 2002, and now will be further refined to absorb Vision2020. In the ten years since the last revision, waterfront planning has become a prominent topic for museum exhibitions, a host of idea competitions, and university architecture studios.  

Planning has clearly been paying attention. Several of the more salient ideas floated over the past couple of years found their into the text. The Columbia students’ Lo-Lo project, which called for dredged fill to be used to extend Manhattan’s shoreline,  project may not have been the direct inspiration for WRP’s section on dredging, but it shows that the new WRP is in line what the architecture schools are teaching. The new text urges that dredge materials be used for “wetland creation, water quality improvements, beach nourishment, or port redevelopment.”

SCAPE's concept for Rising Currents included natural pollution mitigation by farming oysters.
Courtesy SCAPE
 

Oyster-tecture, a concept developed by SCAPE Landscape Architecture for MoMA’s 2010 Rising Currents exhibition, showed how farming oysters in New York Harbor could help naturally mitigate pollution. Likewise, a text amendment encourages users to “seek opportunities to create a mosaic of habitats with high ecological value.” The text calls out the oysters in particular, though mussels, eelgrass, fish, and crabs get their due.

SCAPE’s Kate Orff noticed the influence of current architectural conversations in the amendments. “It’s incredibly exciting to see a reciprocity, to see ideas that are out in the world become integrated,” she said. Orff recently worked on the National Park System produced Gateway, a book about preserving the ecological habitat at Gateway National Park, with Orff’s particular focus on Jamaica Bay. The previous WRP vaguely lumped fragmented ecologically sensitive areas like the bay under the broad heading Recognized Ecological Complexes, but now the document specifically cites regionally focused plans developed by the city, state, and federal governments, including the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan.

Henry Hudson Bridge connecting Northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
Tom Stoelker / AN
 

The plan encompasses much more than sustainability. There are policies for industrial and commercial development, including deeper dredging for ever larger shipping vessels. On land, the plan encourages building design to address rising sea levels. There are flooding and erosion policies. Public access, recreational use, scenic and historic resources are all dealt with. Water quality and waste management are organized by separate policies, but each integrates with the other.  

The teeth of the WRP are in the approval process. “The plan doesn’t have a funding mechanism, it’s a review process,” said Michael Marrella, Planning’s director of waterfront planning. “We’re establishing a protocol for sea level rise, we’re not mandating that all risks be resolved.”

But perhaps nowhere is integration more important to the plan than interagency cooperation at all levels of government. The revisions clearly outline where city, state, and federal jurisdiction meet, but also define the city’s waterfront zoning goals for commerce, recreation, and conservation. “Water is different in that it requires collaboration and coordination and this plan recognizes that,” said Orff. “It’s not a piece of property that can be fenced off.”

Tom Stoelker