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Waterfront plan: what does it mean to you?

The elaborate "New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan", issued by the Department of City Planning in August 1992, officially recognizes the unique land use significance of the waterfront.

Special waterfront zoning regulations corresponding to the Waterfront Plan are expected to be proposed this fall or winter. For real estate developers, the primary significance of the Waterfront Plan is that: (1) Certain sites or types of sites on the waterfront now zoned for industrial use are seen as suitable for rezoning to enable housing or retail use which may have a higher economic value; and (2) Most new residential or commercial developments on the waterfront would have to be built in a relatively low- or medium-rise, high coverage form, and would also have to provide public esplanades or pathways along or leading to the shoreline, and visual corridors enabling unobstructed views of the water.

Waterfront Land Unique

The city's waterfront is a unique asset because it provides or enables the provision of: beautiful, panoramic views; extensive openness and access to light and air; boating, fishing and swimming facilities; waterborne transportation facilities; maritime and maritime-support facilities; water-dependent industrial, commercial or utility facilities; sewage discharge plants or outlets; and wetlands or wildlife habitation spots.

Current Waterfront Land Use

Currently, the zoning or land use control districts covering the city's 578-mile shoreline are: Parkland (35 percent), Manufacturing zone (30 percent), Residence zone (30 percent), and Commercial zone (5 percent) [figures are approximate].

Parkland districts are found primarily in: The Jamaica Bay, Atlantic Ocean and East River (easterly side) areas of Queens; northern Manhattan along the Hudson River and Harlem River, and southern Manhattan along the East River; the Jamaica Bay, Coney Island and Verrazano Bridge areas of Brooklyn; the south shore of Staten Island; and the Long Island Sound and East River (easterly side) areas of The Bronx.

Manufacturing districts are found primarily in: The north and west shore areas of Staten Island; the East River, Newtown Creek and Upper New York Bay ares of Brooklyn; the East River (westerly side), Newtown Creek, and Kennedy Airport sections of Queens; the South Bronx; and the West Side of Manhattan.

Residence districts are found primarily in: The East River (easterly side) and Rockaway areas of Queens; the Coney Island and Jamaica Bay areas of Brooklyn; the East Side and Upper East Side of Manhattan; the south shore of Staten Island; and the Hudson River and East River (easterly side) areas of The Bronx.

Commercial districts are dispersed and found primarily in: the Long Island Sound area of the Bronx; the Coney Island section of Brooklyn; the Downtown, United Nations, and Penn Yards areas of Manhattan; the south shore and Tottenville sections of Staten Island; and the Rockaway section of Queens.

Tidal and freshwater wetlands are found primarily in: Staten Island, along the west and south shores; the Jamaica Bay sections of Brooklyn and Queens; and the Long Island Sound and East River (easterly side) areas of the Bronx and Queens.

Waterfront Rezoning and Redevelopment

The Waterfront Plan acknowledges that "(t)oday the [industrial-zoned] waterfront has changed dramatically as a result of structural changes in the economy, technological advances in maritime activities, changes in the movement of freight, the shift of most port operations to New Jersey, and the steady decline of manufacturing in the city. These changes have left many older piers abandoned and considerable shorefront property vacant and derelict. Nevertheless, the port remains crucial to the city's economy". Such finding leads to the determination that "(t)he general decline of industry, especially maritime uses, provides the opportunity to expand areas zoned for residential and commercial uses and foster redevelopment opportunities that would revitalize the waterfront". From a housing policy perspective, "waterfront site are important because of the attractive views they offer and the ability to accommodate large-scale residential developments ... Portions of the waterfront can provide housing sites to help meet future demand". And from an economic development policy perspective, "(w)aterfront development in selected locations can [promote] activities that support the city's growing economic sectors. It can play a crucial role in the city's economic growth by providing sites for the expansion of the central and regional business districts and for local economic development through the provision of new retail, office, hotel and entertainment uses. The future role of the waterfront in the city's economy will be broader than its historic role in maritime and industrial activity".

Accordingly, the Waterfront Plan identifies selected waterfront sites that may be suitable for rezoning from a Manufacturing to a Residence or Commercial district. These selected sites are located at certain points: (1) along the Harlem River in The Bronx; (2) along the Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Red Hook shorefront in Brooklyn; (3) in Downtown Flushing and along the Manhattan-facing side of the East River in Queens; and (4) along the Manhattan-facing north and east shores and in the Outerbridge Crossing area of Staten Island. No similar rezoning actions are expressly indicated for Manhattan, although certain sites immediately adjacent to or extending into the Hudson River, south of West 59th Street, are suggested for commercial or residential redevelopment. The foregoing is not intended to be an exhaustive list of rezoning possibilities. Other waterfront sites that meet the following Waterfront Plan criteria, now or in the future, might be appropriate for rezoning from a Manufacturing to a Residence or Commercial district: (a) the presence of a substantial amount of vacant or under used land; (b) the absence of or compatibility with significant natural features; (c) proximity to existing residential or commercial uses; (d) potential for public access to and along the waterfront; (e) the availability of neighborhood services; and (f) the creation of new opportunities without significant job displacement.

Public Access, Visual Corridors and more ...

A public esplanade or pathway paralleling or leading to the shoreline will be required as a condition of development with respect to a site located in a medium- or high-density residential zone or a large-scale residential development site located in a low- or lower-density residential zone.

Visual corridors -- providing views of the water from a nearby public street or park or the projection of a public street across private property -- will be designated.

New height and setback, open space, and yard regulations will be applicable to structures in medium- and high-density residential zones for the purpose of preventing the construction of relatively tall and wide apartment buildings which might obstruct waterfront views from the surrounding neighborhood.


The Waterfront Plan provides a well-researched report on current waterfront land use conditions, and correctly acknowledges that structural changes in the economy and technology increasingly favor housing and commercial activity and disfavor industrial activity on the waterfront. Providing more parkland or public esplanades along the City's shoreline will generally benefit the public. Nevertheless, the Waterfront Plan does not adequately recognize, consider or discuss the enhancement of land values as a legitimate factor in waterfront rezoning proposals or in the formulation of the special waterfront zoning regulations. This seems to be at odds with the City Planning Commission's affirmative obligation to consider "the direction of building development" and to "pay reasonable regard to ... the value of the land" so as to "enhance the value of land throughout the city" when making zoning map or zoning text decisions (Administrative Code 25-110 and 25-111). Significant land value enhancement would generally indicate that predominant real estate market forces are consistent with the zoning change so that the development contemplated thereunder may be realistic. Such inadequate treatment of land values is evident from: (1) The absence of "projected increase in land value" from the listed criteria for rezoning a waterfront site from a Manufacturing to a Residence or Commercial district (2) The restrictive special waterfront zoning bulk regulations which would preclude relatively tall or wide apartment buildings having the best and most economically valuable views from interior units and (3) The lack of any clear discussion of the merits of rezoning vacant, under-utilized, or underdeveloped land along Manhattan's West Side waterfront -- from Hubert Street (Tribeca) to West 59th Street (Clinton), within 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet of the Hudson River bulkhead line -- from a Manufacturing to a Residence or Commercial district. Such Manhattan west side waterfront strip is not one of the six "Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas" designated for retention of maritime and industrial activity under the Waterfront Plan.

Unless the Waterfront Plan and the corresponding special waterfront zoning regulations are pointed more in the direction of practical real estate economics, the actual redevelopment of the waterfront may be impeded.
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Title Annotation:zoning advice in regard to New York City Comprehensive Waterfront plan issued by New York, New York. Department of City Planning, August 1992
Author:Kowaloff, Steven
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Dec 2, 1992
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