Volume 23, Number 8 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 2 - 8, 2010
Trying to save the city harbors before it’s too late
BY Aline Reynolds
Over 100 concerned New Yorkers from all over the city convened at Murry Bergtraum High School last Thursday evening to discuss ways in which City Planning can improve the New York-area harbor and waterfront.
“The waterway is central to our identity and future,” said City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, the first speaker at the agency’s June 24 Blue Network Workshop.
“Some people refer to [the waterways] as the 6th borough,” she added.
Project Director Michael Marrella introduced Vision 2020, an initiative that surpasses the agency’s 1992 project in examining the water bodies that surround the city.
“We’re walking into the water for the first time on the policy level,” he said. The previous plan focused on the waterfronts, and not the estuary.
After the introductions, participants then broke up into three discussion groups to talk about the use of the waterways, urban ecology and climate change. Workshop participants, some from the Downtown area, fervently voiced their concerns about water quality and access to the rivers.
The city Department of Environmental Protection tests the East and Hudson rivers once a week, but community members are still disappointed in the water quality.
“If we’re really talking about restoring the health of the Harbor, water quality should be good enough for primary contact,” said Christine Datz-Romero, Executive Director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to recycling, composting and environmental education.
“I think they need to test [the water] more and publicize the results of those tests more,” Brooklyn resident Rob Buchanan, who has been rowing out of Hudson River Park for nearly a decade.
Neither side of the Manhattan coastline is legally accessible to individual swimmers. There are spots where you can jump off your boat and into the water, but it’s often dirty, Buchanan said.
“Some days, it’s great, but other days, it’s pretty grim, and we try not to splash,” he added. “I don’t want to be rowing around in a bunch of garbage.”
There are no access points for kayaks or canoes along the East River waterfront, and only a handful of legal launch sites along Hudson River Park in Lower Manhattan, noted Buchanan, who partook in the New York City Water Trail, a city Parks Department initiative. “That’s a problem,” he said.
Another question that came up at the meeting is how to restore the estuary and aquatic habitat and, at the same time, encourage business and economic growth.
“If you take a prime piece of land that could be use for restoration purposes, and zone it for something else—say, retail or industrial development—you could be harming the estuary,” Buchanan said.
Gentrification of the area, Datz-Romero cautioned, could also alienate area residents.
“Improving is a good thing, but some people can’t afford it anymore and get pushed out,” she said.
Dredging the harbor could also threaten its rich ecosystem that was once dominated by oysters.
“By making the harbor deeper, the oysters and other wildlife can’t survive,” Buchanan said.
The sea level projections, meanwhile, are alarming. According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, the waters are predicted to rise between one and four-and-a-half feet by the year 2080.
“The challenge is how to balance the response to this climate change with natural living shorelines and soft shorelines,” said Rachel Gruson, an environmental consultant who lives in Lower Manhattan. Firm sea walls made out of concrete and rock can discourage the growth of marine life—the greener the edges of the harbor, the healthier the estuary.
Datz-Romero also stressed the need for affordable, easy access to the waterfront at the future East River esplanade, which might create a need for concession stands.
“People who live in the area should be able to go to the waterfront and enjoy themselves affordably,” she said. “If it becomes too expensive for people to enjoy the waterfront, it excludes people that are living here.”
Environmental sources say that the city’s overburdened sewage system is causing dirty rainwater and waste to discharge into the New York harbors. Building storage containers to rectify the sewage overflow problem in the city has proven to be an expensive venture: it has already spent over one billion dollars on these and other projects related to wastewater treatment projects.
In attempt to keep the estuary clean, the Department of Environmental Protection plans to create greenery along the waterways to contain the sewage.
“If it rains, you have places where water can just go into the ground instead of the sewer system,” Datz-Romero explained, were trees to be planted in the ground on the waterfronts.
Methods of recycling must be further explored, she added, and consumer goods should be transported more by barge than by truck, which contributes to the city’s air pollution. Marrella assured workshop participants that increased freight movement, water taxis and ferry service will slowly replace “our already crowded roads and rails.”
City Planning officials emphasized the workshop’s objective, which was to get public feedback on ideas and strategies for the waterfront and waterways, moving forward.
“I think education about safety is the real key,” said Becky Olinger, a member of the Village Community Boathouse who has been rowing on the Hudson for 10 years. The Boathouse is located at Pier 40 in Hudson River Park, at the end of West Houston Street. Rowers venture onto the waterways on hand-built boats.
At the Boathouse, for example, trained oarsmen take out novice rowers in boats, teaching them the rules of the waterways. “You can’t just borrow a boat and go out on your own,” she said.
Rowing in the Hudson can be dangerous amid large barges carrying heavy freight. “We play it very safe — we stay to the side and don’t get out in the middle shipping area,” Olinger said. Less experienced recreational boaters and kayakers who don’t know the rules of the waterways must be trained, she added.
“More and more people are getting out on the water, so the biggest thing is to educate the public about the waterways,” in places such as schools and boathouses, said Olinger.
The terms of the project will be presented to the public in October, and finalized, according to city law, by Dec. 31, 2010.
City Planning asked that community members post any additional comments onto its website, www.nyc.gov/waterfront (click on “Get Involved,” then “send us your comments”), or e-mail them to email@example.com.