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The Brooklyn and Queens Waterfront in 2016

Could the East Side of the East River become the ultimate address?

Silvercup West, a Richard Rogers-designed, $1 billion project for a six-acre site just south of the Queensboro Bridge, is one of the most interesting and forward-looking in the city. (Rendering courtesy of Richard Rogers Partnership/Silvercup Studios.)  

On the East River, the Brando-era waterfront, sidelined by containerization, cut off from the brownstones by a Robert Moses highway project (the BQE), dying a slow industrial death, is being made over. The ragged coastline will be abated, landscaped, and developed into a set of towers (likely shiny and shinier, given the prevailing Meier aesthetic) that will step up, down, and around pockets of green and pockets of work, from Long Island City (for the singles who work in midtown) to Williamsburg (for the couples who work downtown) to Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights (for the families who work from home). To the north will be the glittering Richard Rogers towers of Silvercup West, with 1,000 apartments, eight new soundstages for Silvercup Studios, a waterfront catering hall, office space, stores, and a cultural institution. Down south, Fairway just opened, and next year Ikea will have done so, saving Brooklynites the trip to New Jersey or Harlem. “If you go from the border of Queens at Newtown Creek all the way to Coney Island twenty years from now, on almost every stretch of that waterfront you will see something very different than there is today,” says Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff.

To get public access and a privately funded waterfront esplanade in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the 2005 rezoning allows 30- and 40-story condominium towers, a brand-new saw-toothed skyline with visual openings down the east-west streets. “We’re finally opening up the waterfront to these two communities, and to prohibit any more transfer stations, power plants, all those horrible things that had happened to it,” says Burden, who argues that the existing low-rise neighborhood is “protected” by new building height limits inland and the stepping down of those towers to meet the townhouses.

The first residential project built will likely be Palmer’s Dock, a few blocks from Williamsburg Central, the Bedford Avenue L stop. But given the distance of many sites from the L and the G, one wonders if the newest residents won’t think of themselves as closer to Manhattan, with the river just an extra-wide avenue. Schaeffer Landing, below the bridge, cut a deal with New York Water Taxi, guaranteeing that its residents wouldn’t have to take the J, M, or Z.

In Brooklyn Heights, the waterfront piers were owned by the Port Authority. When the PA tried a Greenpoint/ Williamsburg–like tower plan in the late eighties, the neighborhood rebelled and counter-proposed the Brooklyn Bridge Park with the agreement that it would be self-sustaining. Those locals are now suing the state over just what that promise entailed, now that annual maintenance—$15.2 million—will be paid for by three towers of 30, 20, and 20 stories.

Such park-financing models are definitely the wave of the future. “It is a model that is working at Hudson River Park,” Gargano says. “If we can set aside 10 percent of the space that will generate revenue, that is environmentally friendly, and can provide the presence of people located close to the park, that’s a good thing.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. stresses the site’s connection to the water, with protected bays, rocky beaches, boat launches, and walkways a foot over the East River surface. Van Valkenburgh has tried to make an urban park, one that shows you the piers and mitigates the BQE noise but doesn’t try to be English pastoral or a corporate lunch area. The first section, a set of rolling artificial hills south of the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage, should open in 2010, the rest in 2012. Hiccups in that shiny new fabric will occur in the pockets where the waterfront still works. Or could work. Areas of the waterfront in Williamsburg, Red Hook, and Sunset Park have been designated Industrial Business Zones. Piers 7 through 9, just south of the park, are to remain industrial for the foreseeable future. The shuttered Domino Sugar refinery is going residential, with a design by Rafael Viñoly; and Thor Equities, which has a Vegas vision for Coney Island, is fighting to condo-ize the Revere Sugar refinery in Red Hook. That’s right next door to the Ikea, Topic A in Red Hook. Both plants have photogenic silhouettes—icons of the old waterfront it would be sad to see swept under by the new.

When Doctoroff talks about the new waterfront economy, he means the Queen Mary 2 anchoring in the Atlantic Basin—in less than ten years, one hopes those tourists will spend the night at a proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park hotel and shop at the marketplace ringing the deep-water basin, rather than taxi immediately to Manhattan.

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