Just Add Water

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.

If any one project symbolizes this failure of vision, it’s the planned demolition of the Maxwell House Coffee plant in Hoboken, a majestic 1.3 million-square- foot, high-ceilinged concrete loft structure with wide expanses of steel sash window panes that dates from 1938. The building wanders episodically around the site, open both to the water and to the residential community just west. Architects would kill to recast this building and the accompanying structures on the piers out front as a residential or mixed-use complex, and indeed Jane Thompson of the Boston firm Thompson Design Group has proposed a sensitive adaptation. But the developers, intimidated by the possibility of a court battle threatened by waterfront activists who objected to the inclusion of the piers in the Thompson scheme, withdrew the plan. It’s been replaced by an utterly mundane project that will simply do away with the factory altogether.

Arthur Imperatore Sr. is perhaps the one person most responsible for the emerging grassroots revival of the metropolitan waterfront. Imperatore, now an avuncular 76-year-old, was the head of a trucking concern, not a city planner, when he acquired rights to develop large parcels of land in Weehawken and initiated a ferry service to Manhattan in 1986 to make them accessible. His ferries catalyzed increased usage of the water for the simple reason that people living in new waterside developments in New Jersey needed an easier way of getting to Manhattan. His career represents a shift from land-based to water-based transport. Imperatore ferries some 35,000 passengers daily, with projections that ridership will double in five years. He now moves about 5 percent of all trans-Hudson commuters.

The trips take between five and twenty minutes, the ferry clipping along at 15 knots to midtown, downtown, or around the horn to Pier 11 at the foot of Wall Street; they cost between $3 and $7, and they’re glorious if you stay on deck. Suits are mixing with shorts, briefcases with Nikes. “I think that the ferry in the twenty-first century will do for the New York Harbor what the subway did for New York in the twenties,” says Imperatore’s son and partner, Arthur Jr. “There are substantial tracts of land stretching along the harbor that are accessible by ferry. The harbor is not an obstacle but a way of life. People are living and working now on waterfronts that were junkyards.”

So far, the ferries crisscross the Hudson but rarely run north-south, though eventually more will, according to Carter Craft, program director of the Municipal Art Society’s Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, whose mission is to help rebuild civic and community relations and waterfront neighborhoods on both sides of the state line. “The whole idea of the new ferry system is very simple,” he says. “The ferries would not only lace the shores but run down to the Battery, where you can take a ferry anywhere.”

Today, ferries serve commuters point to point. Craft, however, produces a Waterfront Alliance map with a different idea, detailing plans for ferry loops that would neatly tie the harbor together with stops from Manhattan to New Jersey, Brooklyn, Staten Island, etc., breaking through all the jurisdictions and mental territories. One of the loops is a Monday-through-Friday commuter route that on Saturday and Sunday morphs into a recreational and cultural route. The Alliance is one of the few groups able to see the water as part of a larger picture now entering a critical phase.

“We live in an era when you don’t have the culture or the political will to create czars to handle these things for us,” says Kent Barwick, who as head of the alliance and the Municipal Art Society has almost single-handedly identified the waterfront as the urban-planning issue of our time. “In ten years,” he warns, “it’ll be too late to think about it.”

Barwick traces the divide between the two states to the Duke of York, who, according to lore, settled a gambling debt in the eighteenth century by striking a line down the center of New York Harbor, ceding the territory west of the line to his creditors. The region has not been whole since. The states have developed their respective approaches and attitudes about the waterfront largely independent of each other.

“The primary difficulty for me and my New York counterparts is that we’re restricted to our small segment, and the connections are critical,” says Bill Neyenhouse, New Jersey’s Hudson River Waterfront coordinator. “It’s something that both sides of the river should work harder at overcoming.”

Despite the romantic notions of a waterside city served by vaporetti, the Waterfront Alliance is not suggesting that the working harbor become a Venetian theme park. An inspired mix of monumental works – the Frank Gehry Guggenheim proposed for Wall Street, the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park, Peter Eisenman’s Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Bayonne Military Ocean Terminal, the 95-acre South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, and Sunset Park Waterfront Park in Brooklyn – would have the mass and charisma to jump-start the harbor as a new center within the region. The alliance argues that these cultural and recreational facilities would bring the waterfront vividly to life 24 hours a day, with tugboats, piers for tie-ups, and all the other paraphernalia of a city living and working on the water.

The ferry is too important to this vision to leave in private hands. Private ferry services are free to cut or add service based on profitability rather than need. “A comprehensive ferry system for the harbor cannot be run solely by private operators,” says Barwick. “Arthur and his son can make high-volume routes work, but it’s only a fragment of what we need – a regional ferry system is like subways, highways, and other forms of public transportation.” It would be unthinkable to place the Staten Island Ferry in private hands, for example; so why is it acceptable for the other water-based mass transit operations throughout the region?

Even those leaders with a larger vision fear proposing it because New Yorkers are vocal and ferociously protect their backyards. After years of opposition to overbuilding the waterfront with projects such as Riverwalk in Stuyvesant Cove and the huge Whitehall Ferry office complex, proposed a decade ago, New Yorkers are understandably suspicious – and legally savvy. Donald Trump alone has provoked all-occasion antibodies in a citizenry ready to pounce on almost any kind of development – including cafés and restaurants that could actually stimulate public activity and extend the life of the waterfront off-hours and off-season.

“I was born and raised in New York,” says Peter Rothschild, principle of Quennell Rothschild, which designed the basic plan of the Hudson River Park now inching its way up the old West Side Highway. “But I was unprepared for how possessive people felt about their turf. Hudson River Park was the first public parkland developed on that waterfront in 75 years. Why does one community get to decide what it should be like over everyone else? I heard Village people say that Chelsea people can do what they want with their waterfront, but that ‘this is our waterfront.’ I thought it belonged to all of us.

“The most difficult part in planning the park was that we thought of the whole region as the client,” Rothschild adds, “but most of the 30,000 people I met during all those public hearings felt design should be local.”

Manhattan architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld recently offered a barge theater to Community Board No. 7 for the new pier at Riverside South park (Donald Trump’s development). While the pier itself, designed by Balsley, is a lively design, with a curved edge and rounded end that encourage strafing views of its wavy south side, its use is largely passive, intended for strolling, sitting, and fishing. No boats can pull up to this Teflon “dock.”

Citizens dismissed a proposal for a floating theater – it would bring traffic and noise, they claimed – and the orphaned theater barge has wended its way to other community boards with underutilized piers. Polite interest, no acceptance; nice idea, not here. The proposal has since crossed the Hudson to Hoboken and morphed into a floating swimming pool, to be docked alongside Pier C. Ann L. Buttenwieser – a veteran of Westway and the former head of the Parks Council and the author of Manhattan Water-Bound – hired Kirschenfeld to design a barge-pool similar to those floating in the Hudson at the turn of the last century. The project is scheduled to open in the summer of 2002.

“We’re not going to revive the links to the water simply through a set of developers’ concessions,” Barwick notes. “There are some big-ticket items. Just getting in and out of the water to launch a kayak and take a ride in a boat, you need to repair the essential infrastructure of bulkheads and piers.”

“There was an attempt to make the Gateway National Recreation Area accessible, but nobody provided any resources to take it over and make it a vision,” adds a member of the city’s planning department. “Nothing happens without money.”

The success of the waterways is not merely a matter of fun in the sun. The vitality of the harbor reflects the vitality of the region: The disconnect between New York and New Jersey is not at issue so much as the competition with the Sunbelt and California and Japan and Singapore for a slice of the global financial pie. A harbor divided by competing interests can’t work successfully in the world economy.

Perhaps the upcoming elections will produce candidates who can work toward a common goal that makes sense of this great gift of nature. Olmsted conceived Central Park, Riverside Park, Prospect Park, and others as greenways intended to give all New Yorkers the opportunity to escape urban congestion and find a camaraderie among citizens on shared open ground. As our internalized cities open to the water, New York and New Jersey face an unprecedented opportunity to create an equivalent blueway. The next few years will tell whether we all make, or miss, the boat.

Click here for “On the Waterfronts”

Just Add Water