At long last, New York City is reclaiming its waterfront through an ambitious campaign to build new apartments, retail properties, parks and possibly even a new football stadium along the limits of this harbor city. Never before has the city witnessed such a groundswell of development interest that stands to upgrade its derelict coastline into an inhabitable shore.
The numbers are staggering: a total of 220 construction projects worth $42 billion are in either planning or development stages along the city's waterfront today, according to the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, an advocacy group. Together, these residential, commercial and industrial projects will transform more than 4,700 acres of shoreline over the next decade.
“There's more action on the waterfront now than there's been in the last 50 years,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning and policy at New York University. “It's great for the city that it's finally happening, and it's happening all at once.”
While these developments are scattered across the city's 532 mile-long waterfront, the two most ambitious projects are centered along Manhattan's far West Side on the Hudson River and the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Both projects involve private developers working in tandem with the city.
The two districts were once famous for their gritty image, especially the lower West Side riverfront that was notorious for its derelicts and junkies. But the creation of a vast riverfront park changed all that, sparking a wave of high-end residential development along the shore. In Brooklyn, developers of the Navy Yards project are betting that state-of-the-art film production studios will have a ripple effect on this once-forlorn area of Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, a billion-dollar master plan for Manhattan's West Side rail yards is under review to develop new office and retail space, including a new stadium for the New York Jets. The Hudson River Park has already been built southwest of this area along the Hudson River, and it has sparked a condo revival along its edge. And east of Manhattan, the old Brooklyn Navy Yards will soon welcome what many are calling the finest new movie studios on the East Coast.
Unlike the Hudson River Park that was remarkably successful, the Navy Yards project carries a higher risk premium and isn't finished yet. While it's clear that new parks can work wonders on neighboring real estate, it's unclear if the city's most ambitious movie studios to date will have a similar effect on Brooklyn.
So why is all of this happening now? Professor Moss and others credit New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's determination to transform the waterfront. When Bloomberg delivered his inauguration speech in 2002, he uttered the word “waterfront” more than 20 times. Amanda Burden, Bloomberg's commissioner of city planning, is herself a devotee of the waterfront, and since 2002 she has rezoned giant swaths of waterfront in Brooklyn from manufacturing to residential use.
Sources also give credit to the ultra-entrepreneurial Bloomberg — who made a billion-dollar fortune before becoming mayor — for realizing that private developers rather than bureaucrats hold the keys to a better waterfront. Public agencies are leasing dozens of shore parcels every month to private developers such as Rockrose Development Corp. and Steiner Equities, which are turning these sites into prime developments.
The city's plan also forces private developers on the waterfront to construct and maintain parks next to their sites. “There is a whole section of waterfront zoning rules which are meant to ensure public access,” says Carter Craft, director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. Still, Craft admits that conflicts invariably arise between private developers and those seeking public access to the waterfront.
From Junkies to Joggers
As a case study in the symbiotic relationship between parks and real estate, Manhattan's far West Side stands as a shining example. Indeed, the cause and effect has already taken place — the $400 million Hudson River Park stretches for five miles along the West Side Highway. Before it was completed last year, this area of the city was a lackluster strip of land between the river and the highway.
Now it is a lively ribbon of parkland full of benches, grass and bike paths. On sunny afternoons it is swarming with joggers, bikers and pedestrians strolling along the path. Years ago, visitors to this precinct risked being caught in the crossfire of feuding drug dealers. Nowadays, one risks getting dinged in the head by a Frisbee.
There is even a trapeze school here where the park intersects Battery Park City. Aside from the park's many amenities, it has also worked wonders for the district fronting it to the east. In addition, a host of new condominium projects have sprung up in recent years. The area has even become known as “the condo coast” due to the number of sleek, glass buildings that have popped up along the park within the past two years.
Famous architects such as Richard Meier and Philip Johnson have made their mark here with several ultra-expensive towers that peer out over the water. While zoning regulations forbid high-rise development further inland, the West Village's riverfront district has no such limits — and that is readily apparent judging by the many new high-rise residential projects that now dot the area.
“The West Side waterfront was paralyzed for a long time. The Hudson River Park has completely changed this area,” says Moss of NYU.
While the Hudson River Park is now completed, plenty of new development is on tap for this once-seedy district of Manhattan. The city and state have now drafted a $5.7 billion plan to develop the far West Side of Manhattan. Officials say that a 59-block area west of Ninth Avenue and south of 42nd Street can support 28 million sq. ft. of new office space. This business district — known as Hudson Yards — is expected to see its first office building by 2010.
A new $1.4 billion, 75,000 seat stadium for the New York Jets also is part of this plan, along with an expansion of the Jacob Javits convention center. Much of the development is expected to be funded privately. If New York City is selected as the site for the 2012 Summer Games, this stadium would double as an Olympic venue for track and field events.
It's unclear if New York City will be selected by the International Olympic Committee next summer, so naturally the Jets are reluctant to tie their fortunes to the Olympic bid or the creation of a new No. 7 line extension of the subway on the far West Side. Ever since the West Side redevelopment was announced in 2002, the $1.8 billion extension of the No. 7 train was a centerpiece of the plan.
The city has even offered to foot the bill for the massive project. But state officials and backers of the Jets stadium are now claiming that the subway line extension is not essential to either the Javits Center expansion, or the stadium project. It's difficult to say how this bureaucratic about-face, which has pitted city and state officials against one another, will affect the ultimate redevelopment plan.
Tinseltown on the East River
While the far West Side redevelopment is mired in debate, Brooklyn's former Navy Yards site is slated to become a $118 million mecca for film production within months. During WWII, almost 70,000 people worked in the Navy Yards. The site is still full of historic buildings from that era, along with dry docks and industrial buildings.
Private developer Steiner Equities has already spent more than $10 million of its own money on this massive studio project. The development represents its first studio development — the Roseland, N.J.-based developer has designed and built more than 10 million sq. ft. of commercial property, mainly build-to-suit office and lab projects throughout the U.S. This project marks Steiner's first foray into New York City.
More than 5,000 people are expected to be employed at the studios once the project is completed this fall. The New York City Economic Development Corp. championed the project, and the City of New York is rebuilding streets within the Navy Yards.
The big question is whether Steiner Studios can support itself with full-time demand from the film industry. That's unclear, but the challenge is obvious. In 1998, 221 films were shot in New York City, and that represented an all-time peak. By 2002, though, only 180 films were made on the streets of New York.
One problem is that film production units have tapped cheaper locations such as North Carolina to shoot. And other developer/mogul teams have tried and failed to bring ambitious film studios to the city. None other than Miramax's Harvey Weinstein and actor Robert DeNiro were deflected in their attempts to bring Hollywood-quality backlots into the city back in the late 1990s.
Promoters of the Steiner Studios project argue that these will be no ordinary soundstages, however. With three of its five stages towering as high as 45 feet, these will be the city's biggest soundstages.
That is an important point for production units that require larger soundstages, such as the producers of 2002's motion picture “Spider-Man.” The film was largely shot on the streets of Manhattan, but once the production began the crew had no choice but to use a 45 foot-high Hollywood soundstage. Steiner Studios hopes to serve such demand.
The Brooklyn Navy Yards boast 3.5 million sq. ft. of industrial space, only 280,000 sq. ft. of which will eventually house Steiner Studios. The waterfront is still active, supporting several dry docks, three of which are still in use. Some of the piers are still used to repair ships. There is no plan to open up this waterfront to the public, however, given that it can still host maritime uses.
“The real desire behind the Steiner Studios project is to build up the city's infrastructure so that movies don't shoot here in New York City and then just leave,” says Eric Deutsch, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yards Development Corp. His group operates the Navy Yards as an industrial park under a long-term lease through the city.
From Green Point in northern Brooklyn all the way south to Red Hook, giant stretches of the Brooklyn waterfront are under review by the city and private developers. There is even talk of converting an old pier off Atlantic Avenue into a cruise ship dock.
Also, a plan to bring commercial and recreational development to the Brooklyn Bridge Park area north of Atlantic Avenue is under discussion. Even south of Atlantic Avenue, Piers 8 through 12 are under review by the city.
The development under way along the waterfront primarily focuses on residential projects. That's good news for a city that has never supported enough housing, says one real estate executive. “New York City really needs this type of development. People will live in these unique locations,” says Barry Gosin, CEO of brokerage firm Newmark & Co.
In Queens, for example, private developer Rockrose Development Corp. is building 3,200 apartment units on a waterfront parcel formerly owned by Pepsi. Nearly two-thirds of the site's acreage will be open space when the first building opens in 2005.
The Rockrose apartment complex is one part of the larger Queens West master development. This 74-acre residential and commercial complex will span 3.5 million sq. ft. of space once completed in 2005.
Historically, New York City's most valuable land was clustered within the heart of the city around landlocked corridors such as Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. That hasn't changed dramatically, but there's a growing sense that land along the water may already be equally as valuable. As real estate developers have known for decades, river views are always in high demand.
“Now it's moving to the periphery of the island instead of just overlooking Central Park,” says Moss. “The waterfront is definitely the next spot.”
In May 1915, the luxury liner Lusitania departed from the Chelsea Piers on her regular run to England. Off the coast of Ireland, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing 1,198 people, including 124 Americans. This event mobilized public opinion in support of America's entry into World War I.
In 1961, New York City supported more than 1 million industrial jobs, mostly on the waterfront. Today, industrial jobs have dwindled to one-third that number.