NYC waterfront plan is a fun read for nerds

“Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan” takes stock of what the city has accomplished and what lies ahead
By James Gardner | March 17, 2011 05:42PM

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As though the release of the 200-page 2011 Zoning Handbook were not sufficiently exciting for wonkish sensibilities, the agency responsible, the Department of City Planning, has just released “Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan,” which is an update and extension of a similar study published in 1992.

It takes stock of what has been accomplished and what still needs to be accomplished along the nearly 520 miles of waterway that surrounds the five boroughs. As the report points out, four of those boroughs are on islands, and the fifth, the Bronx, is on a peninsula.

It would not be exactly fair to say that Vision 2020 is a deeply original document. It is rather an assessment of how far we have come in the past 20 years, and how much further we still have to go along the same path. Its suggestions are incremental rather than revolutionary. But for anyone who gets jazzed up about this sort of stuff, it often makes for fascinating reading.

Most of the great cities of the world are intimately connected to water, either because they are ports or because they are situated beside rivers. New York shares in both of these conditions. Geographically, it is one of the greatest natural harbors on the planet. Indeed, so compellingly excellent the harbor has proved throughout its history that real estate values have soared, which is one of the reasons why the city no longer functions in any important way as a harbor — those functions have moved to less desirable outlying areas. The harbor of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay (which I just visited), is almost as imposing in geographical terms as New York Harbor, but because its real estate values are far inferior, it still preserves the original functions: its waterfront bristles with containers and barges.

In Manhattan, by contrast, and to a lesser degree in the other boroughs, the shipping trade that was once the mainstay of the local economy completely evaporated half a century ago. But no function had been discovered for the surviving, and suddenly useless, aquatic rim. It took three decades, until the early 1990s, before any real effort was made to revitalize these fallow wastelands, and that revitalization was accomplished, predictably, through the process of gentrification.

In the 20 years since the first report, and largely in the past decade, we have seen most of Manhattan rounded by parks and recreational facilities, and some of the most sought after new residential developments, like Richard Meier’s Three Buildings On Or Near Perry Street, as well as new projects by Jean Nouvel (100 Eleventh Avenue) and Annabelle Selldorf (200 Eleventh Avenue) near the Hudson River, not to mention Frank Gehry’s office building, the Sails, on 18th Street and 11th Avenue.

Though some of the boroughs are not as far along as others, in this respect, Manhattan seems to be very close to achieving its goal. Originally the island was orientated toward the water at its rim. Only in the later 1800s, as the city moved to the broader uptown areas, did it reach an equilibrium with the center. Half a century ago, its axis shifted dramatically toward the center. And now, finally, something like equilibrium is being restored.

James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.