ULI New York Blog

Recap: REO 2019 – The New Face of Waterfront Development

By: Saba Meidany

On January 29th, a panel at the 2019 Real Estate Outlook brought together a diverse group of professionals and actors shaping New York City’s waterfront. Kate Ascher, Partner at BuroHappold Engineering and moderator of the panel, steered the conversation into discussing ownership of the waterfront and how private capital is changing the characteristics of neighborhoods as well their connections to the city. Putting residential uses on waterfronts is an expensive exercise, which, at present, is being provided largely through funds accessible to private developers. These types of developments are currently being built in the outer boroughs due to the amount of (historical) resistance to waterfront residential developments in Manhattan. Additionally, sometimes the city and its agencies may inadvertently also provide policy and planning frameworks not in the best interests of the neighborhoods and not responding to the entire community’s needs. In Ascher’s opinion, not enough agencies or actors are thinking long term due to differing goals, varying political cycles and the actor’s priorities. Ascher also emphasized how it is critical that the public sector’s obligation remain to put together the framework for growth, development and resiliency to protect the city’s waterfronts.

Manon Otto, Director of Landscape at the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), described their proposal for the Big U, a continuous network of flood prevention barriers, landscape and urban design interventions aimed at safeguarding the city from rising sea levels and natural disasters. BIG’s experience as a firm, founded in Europe where waterway infrastructure has been updated quite significantly in contrast to North America, aided in forming their practice’s narrative of how resiliency could be implemented in a complex and heavily regulated city such as New York. Coming to grips with the realities of New York City was in a part done through their engagement with the local communities. For example, during the design and development of the East River Park, their interaction with local residents informed their approach to creating a more community-oriented design while allowing for interaction with the waterfront. Saul Scherl, President at the Howard Hughes Corporation, the developers and owners of the South Street Seaport District developments in lower Manhattan, described how his project, like for BIG, also involved engagement with the community and addressing their concerns in relation to maintaining activity in the neighborhood while preserving its historic integrity and connection with the waterfront. He acknowledged that during the planning and community engagement process of the South Street Seaport, there may have been an initial misreading of the public’s needs, however, the lessons learnt could be transferred to subsequent phases and later developments.

The South Street Seaport project aims at revitalizing the historic district, and creating a more desirable center of commercial activity in the city. The new building at Pier 17, which forms part of the development, was designed in such a way that it can withstand water rising to the 100 year flood plain and thus address resiliency. Another component of the project involved dismantling and moving the Tin Building approximately 30 feet, away from the FDR Drive to create a public plaza. A key challenge in his work, Scherl explained, was to navigate the myriad of city agencies in a short amount of time.

Otto also described that she learnt from her experience with the Big U that New York is especially challenging due to the build up of layers of infrastructure from different eras in the city’s growth. The challenge of resiliency is shaped by a complex overlay of information in order to problem solve and design solutions that satisfy various requirements such as hazard mitigation, climate adaptation as well as cultural and social adaptation.  This then provides a unique opportunity to provide resiliency and at the same time upgrade the old infrastructure as well as provide public amenities to support them.

In contrast to the public funds that are provided for many public waterfront developments in Manhattan, Greenpoint Landing, in Brooklyn, is funded mostly through private funding since most waterfront residential developments are granted little public subsidies. As a result, they have had to provide private capital for the resiliency components, public infrastructure improvements as well as the affordable housing. Marian Klein, President at the Park Tower Group, the owners and developers of the Greenpoint Landing Development, described how a lot of Greenpoint Landing’s waterfront is accessible to the public and that the open spaces were planned around the local community’s needs. The project includes approximately 4 acres of public open space, parts of which are master-planned around a resiliency strategy that deals with major flooding concerns post Hurricane Sandy. The mixed-use development comprises of market rate and affordable housing units, and is being developed in partnership with Brookfield. Klein also recognized that the success of any new development is dependent on the city as the primary infrastructure provider.

James Wong, Executive Director of the Ferry Division at the NYC Economic Development Corporation described his involvement in planning for the growth of the number of ferry lines that connect the various waterfronts in the city. The mission and primary goal of the ferry system is to connect the residents of the city to places of work and to promote equity by connecting parts of the city that would otherwise be isolated to a public transit system – filling the gaps in connectivity. In certain instances (such as in Far Rockaway) new transport routes are set up, and remain effective, post a catastrophic climate event (such as Hurricane Sandy), where populations remain stranded with no alternative local public transportation access.

The public agencies act more as the coordinators of citywide plans and ensuring that the various interlinking projects (such as parts of the Big U) are phased and designed in response to the larger framework (and in relation to each other). The city should leverage their ownership of the waterfront properties to control the process of infrastructure delivery and guarantee that the communities’ needs are being addressed, especially since new development will ultimately lead to more density and a bigger strain on infrastructure. Without proper regulation we risk a tragedy of the commons for our waterfronts. At the same time the city needs to make it attractive for the private sector to be able to provide for key public spaces, transport infrastructure, affordable housing and resiliency components that are becoming more vital as the city grows and fortifies its waterfront resources.

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