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Just Add Water

With kayaks dodging ferries, and sunbathers lounging on new piers (we'll show you where), the waters around New York have never been more inviting. So why can't our leaders come up with a visionary plan for the most important public space since Central Park?

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With all the pennants flying outside, you expect a regatta to sail by, but up in his barge restaurant, the Water Club, Buzz O'Keeffe -- eyes blue, shirt blue, necktie blue, hair white -- explains why the East River just beyond his picture windows is, well, boring.

A pioneer of the waterfront who established the River Café in 1977 under the Brooklyn Bridge and then the Water Club in 1982 at East 30th Street, O'Keeffe is New York's Huck Finn, a kid who grew up in the Bronx's Silver Beach with a twelve-foot skiff powered by a six-horsepower Mercury outboard motor just out the front door at the dock. He frequently braved the Hell Gate, tooling around inlets up and down the East River in the New York Harbor's glory days, when the water teemed with ships and barges. On this Thursday afternoon, however, the usual smattering of private boats and anchored tankers seems to have gone missing, and only a few ferries ply the vacant waters on their way to and from the 34th Street landing next door.

"Nobody comes to the river just to stare adoringly at water," he says. "It's the activity on the water that makes people want to look. The boats. And you should be able to go down and touch it."

Water, water everywhere, and yet ridiculously few of us ever actually venture into it (except when treating out-of-town cousins to a visit with Ms. Liberty). Unlike London and its Thames, Paris and its Seine, Florence and its Arno, New York is isolated rather than invigorated by the waters that encircle us. Captives of our landlocked canyons, we have tunnel vision and tend to ignore the magnificent complex of waterways formally known as the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Yet with water quality the best that it's been in a century, we have a once-in-an-era opportunity to make the waterfront truly central to our lives -- if only we could marshal the public will to make it happen.

Even natives don't really know New York until they've seen it from the water. New shoreline parks and pathways, recreational boating, and the resurgent ferry system are luring us there, but the city's edges mostly remain aqua incognita. You don't have to drive out to the Hamptons to get back in touch with nature: You can just take a downtown train. The people in kayaks streaming out of boathouses in the Battery quickly learn that the rolling waterscape is every bit as inviting as the luxuriant greens of Central Park.

Yet New Yorkers are reluctant waterfront dates, and the swell of interest has been gradual. To make matters much worse, our state and local governments remain intransigent about working together to develop a plan for the waterfront. There are modest schemes for access achieved through private development, but in such a business-first climate, no agency has the mandate, let alone the power, to strive for greatness in a geography that demands thinking on a global scale. We have neither a Frederick Law Olmsted nor a Robert Moses to offer a coherent vision of the waterfront and the will to make it a reality. So when we work our way across town and, at the risk of life and limb, negotiate the underpasses beneath the FDR Drive and the Henry Hudson Parkway, the waterfront offers so much less than it should to keep us, even on its newly minted piers. New Yorkers who defended the spawning fields of the striped bass during the Westway wars of the eighties forgot that there was hardly any viable ecosystem along the waterfront for people. On this sunny afternoon in late spring, for example, O'Keeffe points toward the East River Esplanade, a little-known pocket park two blocks long just north of the East 34th Street ferry landing. Designed by New York landscape architect Thomas Balsley, the park is lushly landscaped and caringly fitted with granite and brick paving and a pair of fountains. But it's isolated and passive: No maritime theater is playing the water here, just an occasional whitecap, and there is nothing in the park to bring it to so much as a quiet simmer -- no café or chessboard or set of swings. The only occupants this day are a homeless person trimming his pushcart and a reader wrapped around a book.

The moral is that access alone doesn't draw people. "Don't bother doing a plan for the waterfront until you do one for the water," says New York architect Stanton Eckstut, who worked on the plan for Battery Park City, including the esplanade, which remains the most successful waterfront-development plan in the region. "Most of what we've done for the water is passive -- nice pavers and benches and railings, all looking over an empty river. The little kayak boathouse north of Battery Park City infuses that part of the Hudson with the life you want to look at. Now when I work on waterfronts, I focus more on a water plan than a land plan. All the value is really created by what's in the water. Battery Park City suffers from not being part of a water plan."

The time for taking back the waterfront has come, but we have made only tentative steps toward dealing with the sensitive membrane between the natural estuary and the estuary of people, governments, and infrastructure. Each bailiwick can boast some progress on the water, but these segmented efforts, intended to form a continuous Manhattan loop, are timid and defensive, not the robust gestures of the great city that, out of concern for its citizens, created the expansive nineteenth-century parks and greenways that still nourish us.

Absent such a vision, developers are stepping smartly into the vacuum. With 300 separate building initiatives worth billions around the harbor and riverfronts, real-estate development is combusting spontaneously. New York may already have lost its sensational Clinton-Moynihan handshake deal to buy Governors Island for $1 and remake it as a thriving tourist, business, and cultural destination. Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki dickered too long and fumbled the opportunity to make the island a centerpiece for the harbor. (With the mind-set of a croupier, Mayor Giuliani promoted the idea of a casino as the financial engine for developing Governors Island.) The Feds may now sell this pivotal piece of real estate for market value calculated on the "highest and best use," despite the presence of two forts recently designated national monuments.

Elsewhere in the city, plans for the waterfront are inappropriately modest because of the convergent pressures of parochialism and nimbyism. Instead of a plan for the public good, we have what James Rossant, one of the architects of the original plan for Battery Park City, calls "a paralysis of central planning."

In relatively laissez-faire New Jersey, parts of the waterfront already have been irreversibly damaged as public spaces. Developers have usurped the public interest: Suburban office parks colonize whole stretches south of Hoboken, while north of Weehawken, dense Levittown-style condos privatize prime waterside real estate. Imposing corporate and residential structures built from Newport south hog the waterfront, including piers, leaving only narrow strips of grass, often fenced off, and featureless promenades without activities that would stir urban life. The vast Liberty State Park, overlooking the harbor, sits largely unused because the state is content to leave it as a passive space, uninflected by ball fields or cafés, while citizen opposition prevents its commercial exploitation with such money-generating functions as private golf courses and commercial water parks.


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