A Liquid Asset: Why NYC Must Invest In Its Harbor

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Since the time when city at the heart of our region was labeled “ungovernable”, subsequent leaders have respectively focused their efforts on taming the bureaucracy, lowering the crime rate, and improving the schools. Such efforts are essential to retaining the region’s tax base and attracting new residents and businesses.

However, in today’s very competitive world, they are not enough. In a world now dominated by e-technology, fragile businesses and substantially decreased allegiances between employees and businesses, cities and regions must also compete with each other. Young and skilled professionals, and the businesses they control, now look to settle based on more than just where they want to work. They no longer need to be next to Wall Street as they can work from home, or locate their business nearby.

Gen X and Millenials now choose where to live based as much on quality-of-life issues. They prefer to live in aesthetically attractive communities near water, with parks, with easy commutes, and where they can enjoy a great array of recreational opportunities. Seattle is nice, but so too is the nearby availability of the national parks at Mt. Rainer and on the Olympic Peninsula.

During the past two decades, certain cities have understood this and so shifted their investments to reflect this understanding. Cities from Boston to Austin and Seattle have experienced double-digit growth, while others from Hartford to St. Louis have barely held their own, and some like Detroit have plummeted.

The successful cities have recognized the values of waterfronts, parks, aesthetics, commuter rails, and publicly accessible culture. San Antonio’s Riverwalk, Boston’s Harbor Islands, Seattle’s Waterfront, and Chicago’s Millenium Park all beckon. Perceptive elected leaders in these regions have championed such efforts, built caucuses of support, and brought federal and state support home in order to supplement major local efforts.

The New York/New Jersey Harbor is the blue core to our region. It is integral to the most populated metropolitan region in the country, a landscape that has more than 22 million residents, provides 8.6 million jobs and produces a gross regional product of more than $1 trillion.

However, great expanses of the waterfront around the harbor are still inaccessible, or unpleasant to visit. The waters are not yet swimmable or fishable, and recreational usage of the harbor is still quite limited. Even since the passage of the Clean Water Act, the previously rich biodiversity of the harbor estuary has only recovered slightly. The harbor’s edges continue to be hardened and filled; vast developments and commercial uses prevent public access; the water’s circulation is impeded; and its water quality is poor. While some gains have been made in the past few decades, for the most part the harbor’s recreational opportunities and ecological functions remain severely diminished.

While nearly $1 billion has been spent in the past eight years to deepen the harbor, funding for more public projects has been very limited. A few projects have advanced through single Congressional earmarks or from mitigation funds, but these limited efforts to restore the harbor have been uncoordinated and somewhat inequitable. In addition, when compared to other harbors and estuaries around the nation, ours is drastically under-funded.

In 2010, for example, the NY/NJ Harbor was allocated $800,000 of restoration funds, an insignificant appropriation when compared to the $475 million allocated for Great Lakes restoration, $50 million for the Chesapeake Bay and $50 million for Puget Sound.

The Harbor Coalition is a newly launched partnership of advocacy organizations that will push for additional federal, state and local funds and new partnerships to revitalize and restore our harbor’s ecology, parks and recreation, commerce, and transportation.

While recognizing the endlessly shifting political sands brought by any election, the Harbor Coalition believes that before us is a unique opportunity to align a series of ambitious waterfront plans with substantive financial support. At the federal level the Obama Administration is strongly supportive of both environmental and urban issues, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has repeatedly visited and is committed to helping the region, several regional U.S. senators are in key positions, and New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg has made waterfront connectivity and revitalization a focus of his administration.

The Harbor Coalition believes that a coordinated series of projects delineated by the cities surrounding the harbor, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, and the Port Authority should all be laid out in a strategic plan, reviewed for their potential impacts on various communities around the region, examined with respect to sea-level rise, and then supported at a significant level.

It is myopic to believe the region can realistically maintain current public services and fund great new public work projects and developments such as tunnels, deeper ports and an expanding concrete jungle without also maintaining its tax base, attracting new businesses and staying competitive.

Finally, we will need to be creative about funding sources, so it is worth considering a regular tithing which will be put aside from harbor-related uses or larger “development projects”. Such a tithe could then be routed to cleaning and greening the harbor.

Brash will be a panelist at the April 15 Regional Plan Association regional assembly, in which City Limits is a media partner.

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