A changing, uncertain future for the Brooklyn waterfront addressed at CUNY conference
In the mid-20th century, the Brooklyn waterfront bustled and buzzed with movement from ships, trains, trucks, trolleys and people.
During the latter half of the century, however, that movement subsided as jobs from the shipping industry moved elsewhere.
Today, the waterfront is alive once again, but in a different way. The shoreline is thriving thanks to Brooklyn Bridge Park, a revitalized North Brooklyn and a cluster of high-tech businesses located in the Navy Yard and Industry City.
The warehouses and manufacturing plants that line the coastline, once filled with blue-collar workers, now sit vacant and abandoned, relics of the borough’s past.
With roughly 577 miles of waterfront property and the Erie Basin being one of the largest docking areas for tugs and barges in the country, Brooklyn has the opportunity and potential to be a leader in the world for maritime commerce.
At a recent conference, dubbed “Moving Goods and People to, From and Along the Brooklyn Waterfront,” many of these themes were addressed.
The gathering, which took place at Brooklyn Borough Hall, was hosted by CUNY’s Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center and its Urban Transportation Research Center. The conference, in its sixth year, sold out for the first time.
The two research centers brought in representatives from maritime industries, elected and appointed officials, representatives from waterfront communities, developers of residential, commercial and industrial properties and transportation scholars.
The keynote lunch speaker was U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
Questions asked included: Have the needs of communities, businesses and visitors along the waterfront been studied? Who are the community-based actors working on these issues and what are they saying? How are city, state and local officials planning to address the issues?
One area of concern for many of the guest speakers from the maritime industries was the future of the Red Hook Container Terminal and South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which provide thousands of jobs and are key pieces in the city’s maritime economy.
Developers looking to monetize Brooklyn’s waterfront as the next “hot thing” are attempting to build high-rise towers where the terminals are located. These buildings, while attractive to look at, threaten to put thousands out of jobs.
One elected official who spoke on a panel and who was adamant about preserving the Red Hook Container Terminal and South Brooklyn Marine Terminal was Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park-Red Hook).
“There is nothing better to protecting manufacturing zones than by saying no to residential and saying no to things that are encroaching already on our community,” said Menchaca. “Today, Red Hook and Sunset Park are not — and I repeat — are not on the path of Williamsburg and other communities that have seen this flip overnight.”
Menchaca mentioned global engineering firm AECOM, which is attempting to revolutionize the south Brooklyn waterfront by bringing a subway line to Red Hook. The company has released a series of renderings of sleek high-rises in Red Hook and Sunset Park.
“Our vigilance and planning, the Brooklyn waterfront is still at risk even with all these protections,” said Menchaca. “We must be careful stewards and fierce advocates project by project. We’ve all seen the plans for the shiny residential towers that would plop right on today’s maritime facilities in Red Hook. I think you’ve seen the AECOM plans.
“Their designation of Red Hook and Sunset Park as the ‘next hot thing’ is poison to our work to preserving these manufacturing entities and zoning. Those fantasy renderings that they spent a lot of money on getting them to your eyeballs, they’re million dollar condos and they’re proposing an idea that they’re coming soon, that they’re on their way. This is the idea that we need to fight back.”
Edward J. Kelly, executive director of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York/New Jersey, spoke about the potential for Brooklyn to be a leader in maritime commerce. He referenced several sustainable ports that New York City officials could learn from, including Long Island Beach, California, Massachusetts, Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon.
He addressed the many advantages of maritime commerce, such as reducing congestion on already crowded roadways and decreasing the wear and tear of public roads.
“Congestion makes commuting a nightmare,” said Kelly. “It delays everything we do and increases the price on everything we consume. We need to take a look at the infrastructure of taxes that go into repairing a beat-up roadway. Public sourcing can help to bring more cargo and people to use the waterways.”
He stressed that while he and his industry are not against housing, without freight, residents will not be able to eat or have clothes to wear. He described the industry as an active, efficient, clean and vibrant business that “delivers the American way of life.”
He asked everyone in the room to hold up their cellphone, saying that almost all of smartphones are delivered to America via freight.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care if it’s a stick or a carrot. Maybe we need higher tolls, maybe we need some taxes, maybe we need tax credits for people who do use environmentally friendly water transportation,” he said.
“We have to come up with a solution and we have to come up with it quick or we’ll miss an opportunity.”
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