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Waterfront Community Stewardship Zones

New York City Council Committee on Waterfronts

Oversight – One-Stop Permitting for Waterfront Projects
Testimony of Roger W. Meyer, Chairman of Conservancy North
Wednesday, November 12, 2014, 1:00PM

I would like to offer our testimony representing Conservancy North, a 501C3 nonprofit whose mission is to help ensure Northern Manhattan’s blue-green spaces are guided by the needs and aspirations of the community. In addition to my role as co-founder and chair for Conservancy North, I bring other relevant experience to the subject including:  

My communications firm, Level M, was a finalist in the bidding process for the one-stop permitting website and specializes in place branding strategies and waterfront projects including campaign to reclaim Governors Island, the Waterfront Action Agenda for Met-ropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Hudson Rising with I LOVE NY, and brand strategies and media partnerships with National Parks of New York Harbor.  

In 1996, I founded New York Outrigger (NYO), a 501C3 nonprofit organization which in-troduced Hawaiian outrigger canoeing to New York City and has provided free to afford-able water access for 18 years in Hudson River Park.  

In 1997, I started the Liberty Challenge, the largest established competition in New York Harbor, drawing hundreds of athletes from all around the world, spectators, and media attention from World CNN, AP, ESPN, and A1 front cover of the New York Times.

Eighteen years of working on such waterfront projects in NYC has opened my eyes to some of the challenges and opportunities related to NYC’s waterfront, and I would like to share those with you.

I can attest that bringing programmatic life to the NYC waterfront is daunting; and NYCEDC’s proposed one-stop permitting website is an opportunity to begin to open the waterfront up to the entrepreneurial place-making power of the community.

In this testimony, I hope to make the case why the one-stop permitting website should account for local small-scale operations and efforts like NYO, even if they are not permit holders.

I propose the idea of Waterfront Community Stewardship Zones, in relation to Maritime and Industrial Zoning Districts, as a place to incubate community-driven projects and act as neighborhood economic drivers.

NYC is losing without a mechanism for creating local waterfront cultures

Consider for a minute how many New Yorkers leave the city each year to enjoy seaside life elsewhere and what that means in terms of lost revenue. Whether it’s Maine or Hawaii, living waterfronts are often destinations because they are authentic, places where you can find tradi-tions, the catch coming in, lobster served up fresh, maritime energy, diverse and inter-generational use.

A bird’s eye view of New York shows South Street Seaport fighting for its life and precious few waterfronts that harness the community’s place-making capital to create real, vibrant, sustain-able, profitable, destinations. In Brooklyn, PortSide NewYork has struggled for years to find a place where it can create a site combining working waterfront, public access and community economic development. In the Hudson River Park, Pier 66 Maritime, a pioneer public access in the Hudson River Park and popular destination, has been without a signed lease for 2 years.  The future remains uncertain for many waterfront areas and grassroots groups.

Without an economic strategy that integrates the waterfront into the arteries of the community, we have disembodied waterfronts characterized by largely under realized space, esplanades and compartmentalized concessionaires, and promises of mega projects that often leave the community up in arms. Where is the small, the local entrepreneur, and the synergy of local small operations to create destinations?

For too long we have foreclosed even the spark of waterfront entrepreneurism from our communities let alone provide civic-minded groups, who have struggled for a foothold, with the ba-sic assurances that even the private sector affords. As a result years of goodwill investment is at risk of being vanished overnight, NYC maritime leases do not integrate the dock-use with the adjoining communities, and extraordinary socioeconomic opportunities are squandered. 

Like salt marsh restoration, a waterfront culture requires care, holistic thinking, and practical knowledge of the many interdependent parts for it to be self-sustaining.

A positive model in NYC – Pier 63, now Pier 66 Maritime

After being bounced around on the waterfront in 1996, the fledgling NYO found a home on a buzzing rail barge with a sign out front that said “Pier 63 Maritime: Public Space.”  Providing access in ways where there was none, Pier 63 Maritime became a safe haven and incubator for many water-dependent groups including NYO, Manhattan Kayak Company, New York Kayak Po-lo, Fireboat Harvey, historic tugboats, a shrimper, a schooner which made the longest, uninterrupted voyage at sea known to man, local artists, and a rich source of free waterfront-related programming for the community. 

The unplanned burst of entrepreneurialism at Pier 63 helped inspire a wave of new waterfront advocacy and nonprofits including Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Friends of Hudson River Park, PortSide NewYork, Working Waterfront Association, Working Harbor Committee, North River Historic Ship Society, who recognized the civic and economic potential of the 6th borough.  Many of the maritime and boating groups went on to become city institutions, including NYO which serves NYC from a boathouse in the Hudson River Park, has a fleet of canoes, introduced thousands of people to the sport, hosts the largest international sports event on the harbor with the Liberty Challenge, sponsorships with Hawaiian Airlines, and brings worldwide attention to our waterfronts.

Pier 63 Maritime, now called Pier 66 Maritime, provides over 100 jobs, is one of the most popular spots on NYC’s waterfront, provides docking space for tall ships, and is the highest paying tenant in the Hudson River Park, next to the large commercial operators like Chelsea Piers. Cost to our taxpayers: zero.

This is an unprecedented legacy in terms of civic, economic, recreational, and preservationist energy.  Imagine if the Pier 66 Maritime model were policy rather than the exception.

Proposed Waterfront Community Stewardship Zones

What if we adopt a similar economic model for the Waterfront Community Stewardship Zone?  A waterfront place that welcomes and enables community entrepreneurism with infrastructure, resource sharing, networking and partnering opportunities, that purposefully honeycomb local small-scale operations and projects in order to strengthen upland institutions, contribute to Main Street, and engage the communities around the policies of PlaNYC, NYCDEP, NYSDEC, Army Corp, EPA, etc.  We are all in this boat together: what better way to further our sustainability agendas than to actualize them across our blue-green public spaces, by and for the community. 

Given our unique estuarial archipelago, the available talent-pool, and green market trends, Waterfront Community Stewardship Zones would be an economic engine on two fronts: one strategically helping to position NYC competitively with the smaller cities that lure people and business away as cutting-edge livable places; and secondly by spurring local innovation, competition, and job opportunities on the waterfront.  Starbucks was once a sentinel business that signaled investment opportunities in underserved communities. Increasingly it is local entrepreneurialism, i.e., community-activated public space such as green markets, urban farms, and living waterfronts that is the calling card to would-be residents, visitors and businesses. Embodying the old adage ‘act locally, think globally’, people are drawn to places that foster livability and are engaged in the future. 

With Waterfront Community Stewardship Zones as a catalyst, waterfront revitalization kicks in full throttle. In our bird’s eye view, we now see hubs of activity, including visiting tall ships, upriver day-liner travel aboard the restored historic steamship Columbia, whale watches, seal watches, eagle watches, sailing and fishing tours.  We see a network of ferries that smartly invi-gorate communities with culturally rich terminals like Grand Central.  We see waterfronts that are in step with local food production, serving up striped-bass, oysters, and farm produce, with craft beverages from local distilleries; that welcome the Vermont Sailing Barge and other groups looking to revive river trade.  We see culturally diverse waterfronts that strengthen the identity of neighborhood with unique water-dependent activities, traditions, and maritime projects.
We see family-friendly places where children can dip their hands in salt water tanks, where adults young and old can find green jobs and training in climate change mitigation, farm to ta-ble services, alternative energy research, new technologies, environmental action, and maritime.  We see waterfronts working in concert with the Clean Water Act.  Environmental groups, citizen scientists, and universities working and showcasing sustainability projects, experiential programs, and hosting school trips in the shared effort to make our waters swimmable and fishable once again. Now we are beginning to look better than the West Coast.

The waterfront of tomorrow may in certain ways resemble what once made NYC great: a place of entrepreneurialism and opportunity for big and small

In sum, Conservancy North advocates for the small, the entrepreneur and for the waterfront activity being connected to the adjoining inland community to foster community development along economic, educational, health and cultural lines.

With the creation of a Department of Waterfronts, or some overarching regulatory body that takes a sobering look at the current inequities of waterfront access and inefficiencies of the current system, that promulgates standards for all waterfront leaseholders, that strives to democratize waterfront use at this unique intersection of public space, we will realize the economic and social potential of the 6th borough.  

One-stop permitting portal a potentially significant step towards a waterfront renaissance

Since permitting equals access, I hope that the one-stop portal identifies small-scale applicants that are appropriate for Waterfront Community Stewardship Zones and facilitates relationships between applicants and managing body of the WCSZ. Such a managing body might operate un-der NYCEDC (or another governing body) and be charged to develop a community participatory framework, engage local groups around stewardship and ways to improve public space access, and develop a sustainable operation using a barge, pier, bulkhead, waterside nature center (old city boathouse), or other infrastructure. I hope that the Council Committee on Waterfronts and NYCEDC consider these ideas for future discussion.

Thank you.  
Roger W. Meyer

Community Benefits

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