Monday, November 17, 2008

Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance - 2008 Waterfront Conference Part 1 - New York Harbor Boat Tour

So as I'd mentioned, last week Thursday, I decided to take a vacation day to go volunteer for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance's 2008 Waterfront Conference, Launching the Waterfront Action Agenda. I may have sort of "retired" from even the low level of waterfront political involvement that being a paddler in the Hudson River Park always seemed to entail (and sometimes I feel like this blog has suffered, have basically devolved into chirpy trip reports from the earlier days when it was chirpy trip reports interspersed with reflections on the challenges of water access for NYC residents) , but I've never stopped being interested in the interplay of long-established, but up to a point (don't forget that, up to a point is key!) dwindling commercial uses and the recreational uses (both on-water activities & the waterfront parks that are gaining momentum as modern urban amenities). It's not always an easy balance, but the MWA has done a rather remarkable job of getting all these diverse users of the waterfront to gather to discuss & formulate a plan for responsible use of New York City's waterfront. The resulting Waterfront Action Agenda was the focus of the conference, and I'm very glad I was able to attend.

The morning began with a tour of the Upper Harbor. How better to kick off a conference about the waterfront & the navigable waterways to which it gives access than with a boat ride around some of the very waterfront that we were all there for?

Here are Jennifer Stark-Hernandez & Carter Craft, two of the MWA staff who've worked on this & any number of other MWA events over the years. This was Carter's last hurrah with the MWA - after 10 years with the MWA, he's moving on to work for Miller's Launch, a marine services company in Staten Island. Going to be very strange not getting those MWA announcements from him!

The event volunteers had been asked to arrive at Gangway 4 in Battery Park at 7:30 am. Carter & Jennifer made sure we were well fortified with coffee & doughnuts.

Half an hour later, we all grabbed our clipboards & went to work registering the attendees! I have to say this was one of the easiest volunteer stints I'd ever done - I ran into my friend "DragonSandy" from the Hoboken Boathouse later in the day, and she'd been volunteering during the leadup, when packets and lists and this & that were being organized & compiled - sounds like that was when they really could've used more hands. Signing people in was really the main work I did during the day - beyond that, it seemed like the staff had things pretty well in hand (although President Bush made our lunch late, but what can you do about that?). But that first half-hour was hectic! Fun, though, I saw an awful lot of people who I knew from my kayak & schooner-crew days on the North River. Sebago's great but I did meet some really good people back in those days, too. Nice seeing 'em again. Here you get an idea of how many people came - I think the count was something like 400.

I'd fully expected that the volunteers would get everybody signed in & on the boat, then wave goodbye & head over to the Museum of the American Indian (the venue for the afternoon sessions) to help set up - or at least hang out & wait (and I could easily have spent an hour in the museum). My next official job on the volunteer list was shown as "usher", and it looked like I was supposed to report to begin doing that at 10:15 - the boat ride was shown as going until 10:30 - so I was very surprised (happily so!) when somebody handed me a sticker and said "Get on the boat!" Woohoo! Ran on...realized I'd left my backpack & info packet under a bench, ran back off, Jennifer was running towards me with all my stuff, I grabbed it & jumped back on the boat.

So here are some pictures from the boat ride! It was interesting - just as the Action Agenda focuses on a broad range of topics, the boat tour took us all around the Upper Harbor, which gives you a great view of those varied uses - and our tour guides were an absolute who's who of NYC & NJ waterfront planners & authorities, and one would hand the mic over to the next as we passed from one speaker's area of authority to another. We started by heading north for a view of the Hudson River Park, then crossed the river to Jersey.

Here's the Goldman Sachs headquarters. Might not be much joy inside that building these days - but at least the building is green.
One of the facets of the agenda is working for the ecological health of the harbor, and that's quite directly affected by what happens on land. I think that the increasing push for development of the "wrong" sort (and I think everyone at this conference would agree on one thing - that luxury condos & big-box stores are just maybe not the best way to use our waterfront) was one of the motivating factors for MWA organizing the task force groups that developed the agenda - but it's not like there isn't going to be some development (no development would be a very bad sign) - where it happens, though, there are a lot of ways those buildings can be built to lessen their environmental impact.

Next tour highlights heading South down the Anchorage Channel (the main channel running north up the Upper Harbor & continuing up the section of the Hudson known as North River, along Manhattan's west side) - Ellis Island & the Statue of Liberty.

Continuing south down the harbor, the next feature of the tour was the anchorage that runs down to the Verranzano Narrows Bridge. This harbor is still very much a working harbor. Remember how I mentioned that commercial use was dwindling "up to a certain point"? Well, one thing I don't think I was aware of, having been totally out of touch with the commercial folks for some time, was that shipping has actually been growing at a pretty healthy rate in the area. As was mentioned in that article about the Erie Canal I linked to a couple of posts ago, the high cost of gas has actually done much to push shippers to use more fuel-efficient forms of transportation whenever possible. This crowded anchorage shows the results.

Tug & barge units (like this Reinauer pair, identifiable by the distinctive red & tan paint job) are incredibly more efficient than trucks.

So the industry is growing, and one of the challenges faced by that industry is that the support facilities haven't been able to keep pace with that growth. The fact that a site in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that had previously occupied by a working drydock has been replaced by a parking lot for Ikea was not just mentioned in one of the afternoon sessions I attended - it was spoken of with deep concern, and illustrated with before & after slides

The tugs & barges in the anchorage are like planes on the runway - they're all waiting their turn (this one's been cleared for takeoff). Another problem that was mentioned as something the industry has been having to deal with was that the growth has meant needing to use more of the more northern anchorage spots. That puts moored barges & their attendant tugs closer to Hoboken & Jersey City, and apparently the sound of the tugs' generators get complaints from some of the shorefront residents. Reminds me of some of the concerns that the tug operators in Red Hook's Erie Basin were voicing (may still be voicing) as the luxury condos started opening up nearby - I remember a quote about how they were afraid that while their new neighbors might think that living near a tugboat yard was terribly quaint, the quaintness might wear off after a few 3 a.m. tugboat whistles. Again, the balance isn't always easy.

Speaking of Red Hook, following our swing through the anchorage, we headed across the harbor to the Brooklyn shorline. Here's a Saudi Arabian container ship being loaded in the Buttermilk Channel, which runs between Brooklyn & Governor's Island. The area is also home to the aforementioned Erie Basin, and the Brooklyn cruise ship terminal that's the NY base for the QMII. Yes, there's still quite a bit of maritime industrial activity around here.
Over the last few years, the area's also become the Next Hot Place to Live. Gentrification & shipping don't necessarily mix. Interesting thing about our current economic crisis? I think that at least 4 times during the day, I heard the slowdown of the runaway high-end residential development this city's seen in the last few years quoted as being something of a silver lining - the mad stampede to grab that waterfront will stop, and there will be time to consider the consequences of letting these existing industries be pushed out for things like Ikea parking lots.

Heading on north along the Brooklyn shoreline - here's another transitional area - was shipping, now slated for the Brooklyn Bridge park. They've begun tearing down the piersheds in preparation for that. Again, this is a situation where the decision was made to fund the park by including space for luxury condos - another contentious issue of balancing public & private use of this part of the waterfront. I'm not even sure I've taken a side on that one - if, as has been suggested by condo detractors, the condominium owners try to discourage the public, that's bad - but if the result is a really nice park & there isn't any attempt at exclusion - maybe it's not so bad? Although somehow the idea of funding a park with luxury condos seemed like a better idea (if it is a good idea at all) back before this whole economic meltdown. Well, I guess we'll see.

Finally - here, we're heading back for Battery Park; we were going to go have a closer look at the waterfront in there (the next area slated for a major renewal project) - but speaking of waterfront politics - Bush was in town, and as you can see, the security's tight!

That's it for Part I. Part II to come later this week.

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