“We have to learn how to live with water”: Pros talk development in waterfront cities

AECOM & the Asia Society held a conference on Thursday

From left: Calvin Tso, Andrew Kimball, Joanne Witty and Boon Hui Tan
From left: Calvin Tso, Andrew Kimball, Joanne Witty and Boon Hui Tan

Nothing thrusts the future of waterfront cities into question quite like a pair of devastating hurricanes.

Hurricane Harvey, where wetlands were paved over to make way for new development, highlighted Houston’s libertarian-tinged zoning deficiencies. Meanwhile, Irma recapitulated the dangers of developing on the water’s edge.

“We have to control how we develop these cities,” Judith Rodin, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said during an event on Thursday. “We have to learn how to live with water.”

AECOM and the Asia Society on Thursday held a conference — “Imagine New York: The Future of the Working Waterfront” — at the Asia Society’s Upper East Side headquarters. While the potential perils of building close to the shore was briefly mentioned during the first half of the event, much of the discussion instead focused on the development of the city’s 520 miles of shoreline.

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Joanne Witty, vice chair of Brooklyn Bridge Park, reflected on the various disputes that have accompanied the transformation of a once active port into an 85-acre park. Most recently, the Brooklyn Heights Association has waged a legal battle over two rental towers planned for Pier 6, which would include 100 affordable housing units. Witty said the ongoing debate about the future of the park is a sort of microcosm for the conflicts that often arise when developing waterfronts throughout the country: It’s a balance between economic development, housing needs and a slew of other factors.

“As the waterfront becomes available, as the port has receded, and the land becomes available, how do you decide to use it?” she said. “It’s been one controversy after another.”

While residents are opposing affordable housing at Brooklyn Bridge Park, some living near the Brooklyn Navy Yard were disappointed that it remained mostly commercial, the panel’s moderator, Philana Patterson, Money Editor at USA Today, noted. Andrew Kimball, formerly president and CEO of the navy yard and current CEO of Industry City, noted that it was important for the area to maintain its commercial identity.

“It was a feeling that we needed to keep the navy yard as sacrosanct as a commercial center,” Kimball said. He later noted, “You can have all the affordable housing in the world, but if you don’t have good paying jobs, what kind of city do you have?”