Waterfront Management Advisory Board

NYC Pier 1

The focus of the sixth WMAB meeting was Management, Governance and Regulation on the waterfront. Members discussed how the regulatory process could be improved to support better outcomes as part of the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan. Members also discussed how the recommendations of the previous Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, Visions 2020, were tracked and how success could be measured after the next plan is released.

Waterfront Regulations – Current Challenges and Opportunities for Improvement

  • • Members discussed how “Pilot Project” framing and programs could help minimize risks and uncertainty with waterfront projects by enabling them to work within the existing regulatory framework while advancing more innovative shoreline design. The “Saw Mill Creek Pilot Mitigation Bank” and the “Randall’s Island Living Shoreline pilot project” were cited as two examples of successful pilot projects. Members, however, noted that pilot projects can be stymied for many reasons, including monitoring requirements, which can be expensive to maintain for the duration of the pilot project.
  • Members suggested that regulatory agencies need to be better equipped to consider the “big picture” rather just focusing on site-by-site review. Members also noted that there can be a lot of overlap between regulatory agencies, which can create confusion and redundancy.
  • Members also suggested rethinking what waterfront access means, noting a preference for more in-water access. They acknowledged that doing so could require changes to current regulatory and legal frameworks. Members noted that if access were to include boat ramps and tie ins it would open up opportunities for recreation, education, and stewardship. Members also cited wayfinding and a broader public information campaign as ways to improve awareness of existing waterfront resources and improve the connection residents have to their waterfront.
  • For industrial areas, where waterfront access may be limited or prohibitive, members suggested identifying opportunities for access with a lighter touch such as visual access to the waterfront and educational programming. Both, members suggested, would help increase public engagement and awareness of the working waterfront. (e.g. Sims Recycling)
  • Members also noted a need to design waterfront public spaces to be floodable in the short-term and sited with future sea level rise in mind.

The Working Waterfront

  • WMAB members highlighted some of the emerging challenges and opportunities facing the maritime industry in NYC, including the development of offshore wind and other renewable energy infrastructure. Members stressed the importance of planning for waterfront infrastructure, especially given spatial needs for these emerging uses and the spatial needs of other uses including dry docks, shipyards, and other vessel maintenance facilities. Members noted that the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan has a 10-year vision that may align with the growth of offshore wind and should consider how this could affect the maritime industry in NYC.
  • There was also interest in promoting more freight movement by barge rather than by truck. A member suggested that this could be achieved by dredging port facilities and maintaining navigational channels to meet port growth projections. This member suggested that secondary channels such as Newtown Creek, Gowanus Canal, Westchester Creek should also be dredged to increase their potential for transportation.
  • Members also expressed interest in a uniform maritime construction code to ensure that continuity and consistency can be achieved through rules and regulations. Members suggested that the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan could start by advocating for local code that aligns/cross-references with State/Federal standards to support the development of a range of typologies (energy storage, floating structures, permanently moored vessels) to inform the design and construction of shoreline and in-water projects.

Improving Government Oversight

  • The meeting concluded with a brief discussion about how government oversight could be improved. Some members suggested that the way to do so was for the City to create a dedicated agency or office to lead, manage, and coordinate all waterfront plans and projects. These members suggested that such an office would help address the many waterfront coordination challenges that plans and projects can face. Other members questioned the need for a dedicated agency or office, indicating a preference for maximizing the unique skill sets and capacities of the existing city agencies involved in waterfront plans and projects and empowering them to work across multiple levels of government regulations.

Meeting #5 was Coastal Wetlands and Ecology. Members heard presentations from wetland scientist, and WMAB member, Dr. Judith Weis, and Chief of Natural Resources at NYC Dept. Parks and Recreation, Marit Larson. They discussed the state of wetlands in NYC, and what can be done to protect and restore them in the face of increasing climate risks and development pressure. WMAB members then discussed ways to further support the preservation and expansion of waterfront habitats.

Presentation by Dr. Judith Weis on the Sustainability of Salt Marshes

  • Salt marshes provide many essential functions, including acting as breeding grounds for fish, a stopping place for migratory birds, water filtration, and flood control and storm surge reduction.
  • Salt marshes are also incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. There are limited options for salt marshes when faced with sea level rise; they can move inland, increase in elevation, or be submerged by the rising waters. While some marshes may be able to migrate inland, many do not have the space to due to the presence of roads, parking lots, and buildings. However, through planning, we can find ways for marshes to migrate inland. The tools that would allow for such migration include conservation easements and buyouts/land acquisition.
  • Salt marshes may also not get enough sediment to keep up their elevation with the pace of sea level rise. To mitigate this issue, it is possible to add sediment onto the marsh surface to help it elevate. This approach will be required every few years to maintain the marsh, which can be resource and cost intensive.
  • Invasive phragmites can provide some benefits, including promoting faster marsh elevation due to their root structure. In the context of climate change and sea level rise, this raises the interesting question of whether to keep Phragmites in place for resiliency purposes or remove them for ecological purposes.
  • The economics of marsh restoration, and the limits of conventional cost benefit analyses in capturing the nuanced benefits of these ecosystems was also discussed. Members suggested that there needs to be a better understanding of the benefits associated with storm surge reduction, increased biodiversity and improved public health. The value of an existing wetland compared to a newly constructed wetland also needs to be better understood and communicated. Members also noted that having a better sense of the quantitative value of wetlands could help improve the existing regulatory framework for water quality credits.
  • Living shorelines with oysters or mussels at the water edge help to reduce erosion and can provide protection from coastal storms. Living shorelines with oysters or mussels do not typically protect against sea level rise, though living shoreline pilot projects are exploring of ways to incorporate sediment accretion into their design.

Presentation by NYC Department of Parks and Recreation on the draft Wetlands Management Framework (WMF) for NYC

  • The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) owns 50% of NYC’s wetlands [720 acres of freshwater wetlands, 66 miles of streams, 1,483 acres of salt marsh], and is developing a framework for how to improve wetland management over the next few decades. Wetlands provide a plethora of ecosystem services, from flood protection to public access and recreation, and water quality improvement. However, they are also threatened by filling and fragmentation, sea level rise, pollution and debris, storm water runoff and invasive species.
  • The draft Wetland Management Framework (WMF) for New York City lays out a comprehensive roadmap for the preservation, restoration and management of all wetlands and streams in New York City with a focus on those under the jurisdiction of DPR.
  • The draft WMF is informed by three decades of restoration experience and new information about the condition of our wetlands. A matrix of ‘condition’ and ‘vulnerability’ of these resources helps to determine priority sites for protection and restoration.
  • On the positive side, wetlands have seen an incredible increase in their regulatory protections since the 1970s. Federal and state laws limit direct destruction from filling and development of most wetlands and unavoidable direct impacts to wetlands require mitigation. However, there is potential to improve the quality and extent of mitigation activities. The regulations also do not address on-going loss or ensure future opportunities for conservation, through marsh migration, for example.
  • The draft WMF is also a tool for communicating the importance of wetlands and streams in NYC, and provides an overview of past restoration efforts, and current conditions. It also articulates a vision for the future of no net loss of existing wetlands and improving the health of wetland systems that support the people and wildlife of NYC. The draft WMF recommends management and policy actions for each of our wetland types: salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, and streams.
  • It seeks to prevent net wetland loss and plan for new wetland areas. It also recognizes the integrated nature of improving wetland health through watershed and storm water management.
  • The framework also outlines the funding, maintenance and stewardship requirements associated with maintaining and restoring the health of NYC wetlands.

Resiliency was the focus of the 4th WMAB meeting. The Mayor’s Office of Resiliency (MOR), the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) presented high-level overviews of the City’s resiliency strategies and major initiatives.  The subsequent discussion touched on how the City uses the NYC Panel on Climate Change’s (NPCC) projections for the purposes of land use, open space, and infrastructure planning and the City’s vulnerability to and strategies for addressing different types of climate-related events.

Coastal Flood Risk and Land Use Planning – DCP

  • The City uses a strategy of multiple layers of defense to support coastal flood resiliency. This entails pursuing coastal defense strategies to protect from storm surge and sea level rise, as well as retrofitting and upgrading infrastructure systems to withstand climate hazards. This strategy also includes preparing residents and business for future events, and promoting the flood-resilient design of buildings, so they can better withstand flooding and therefore be reoccupied faster after a disaster.
  • There are over 400,000New Yorkerscurrently living in the FEMA-designated 1% annual chance floodplain, a population roughly the size of the Minneapolis, Minnesota. Given the population and geographic scale of the 1% annual chance floodplain in NYC, retreating from the floodplain in its entirely is not feasible or practical.
  • The areas of the City that could be inundated regularly by tidal flooding is comparatively small. Some neighborhoods are already experiencing “sunny day flooding” due to high tides and sections of the city’s coastline could be subject to twice daily tidal flooding by the 2050s. The City’s approach for land use planning in such areas is to support investment in resilient buildings while also limiting future density so as to not increase the population of  these vulnerable areas. New Yorkers can use the DCP’s ‘Flood Hazard Mapper’ to better understand their current and future coastal and tidal flood risk. This mapper is intended to enable more informed decision making by all New Yorkers.
  • DCP also discussed the City’s approach to building scale resiliency.  This includes updates to the Building Code and Zoning Resolution to incorporate resilience into the design of buildings.  DCP recently released preliminary recommendations for ‘Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency’ (ZCFR) to promote resilient buildings and reduce damage and disruption to current and future coastal floods.  Public review of this city-wide text amendment is expected in the first half of 2020.

Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines – MOR

  • MOR’s presentation focused on the importance of ensuring that City capital and infrastructure projects consider resiliency.
  • MOR released an updated ‘Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines’(CRDG) in March 2019. These guidelines are a collaboratively developed standard for using forward-looking climate data in the design and implementation of City buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces. The guidelines help ensure that City capital projects can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate to serve New Yorkers, minimize additional O&M costs, and maintain an uninterrupted useful service life.

Design and Planning for Flood Resiliency – DPR

General Announcements:
  • There is Commissioner-level involvement in terms of understanding waterfront projects throughout the city, to help provide necessary context and data for the upcoming Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.
  • In January 2019, NYC EDC released their NYC Ferry Feasibility Study 2018/2019, around the time of the Mayoral Announcement of the NYC Ferry expansion.
  • Modification of the Astoria Route include Brooklyn Navy Yard (May 2019)
  • Launch of the St. George Route (2020)
  • Launch of the Coney Island Route (2021)
  • Extension of the Soundview Route: Throgs Neck/Ferry Point Park (2021)  
  • Modification of the South Brooklyn Route (2021)

Waterfront Public Access Implementation

DCP WOS presentation

  • Building off the momentum created at the first WMAB Meeting (9/2018) regarding the importance of waterfront public access, Allan Zaretsky of the DCP Waterfront and Open Space (WOS) Division briefed Board members on early phases of the Waterfront Public Access Implementation (WPAI) study to identify opportunities for increasing waterfront public access.
  • The study will identify gaps along the City’s waterfronts and waterways, and propose strategies for expanding access, particularly in areas historically underserved by waterfront open space. Since 1993, NYC has been a national leader in utilizing local zoning regulations to create new waterfront public spaces -known as Waterfront Public Access Areas (WPAAs)- as a condition of development on applicable waterfront lots.
  • Waterfront zoning requirements do not apply to industrial uses.         
    • This was initially due to the general incompatibility of public access and historic waterfront industrial activities.
  • However, since the 1993 initial adoption of waterfront zoning regulations, industrial uses in NYC have changed over time, and DCP is recognizing that rules regarding Waterfront Zoning may need to be updated as well.
    • The WMAB board discussed frameworks for assessing compatibility between uses and public access to ensure that maritime uses – industrial or otherwise- will not be inhibited from effectively function and expanding, while also recognizing opportunities for expanding waterfront access where appropriate.
    • The goal is to create new waterfront public areas and maximize public access in areas that are potentially being underutilized currently.
    • There are also opportunities to think more creatively about design and flexibility for public spaces that can activate waterfronts without encumbering surrounding uses. 
  • The Newtown Creek Nature Walk is an excellent example of how waterfront public access can be compatible with and enhance surrounding industrial areas.
  • There were also board member discussions regarding the importance of visual access for waterfront communities, especially industrial communities (since other types of access may not be feasible).
    • This potential visual access could also help foster community/ industry ties.
      • (Is it possible to calculate waterfront viewsheds to determine straightforward opportunities to reconnect communities with the waterfront through visual access?)
  • The discussion of the compatibility of waterfront public access and industry is part of a larger, broader analysis of where we have / do not have waterfront access in NYC.  
    • Since it is meant to be an overview, all types of access are treated the same.
      • (What are helpful ways of qualitatively distinguishing types of access?)
  • The WPAI study is supported through the NYS Department of State (DOS) Environmental Protection Fund (EPF).
  • During the second WMAB meeting, presentations by NYC EDC provided insight to the success of NYC Ferry, as well as the process for expanding to new areas of the city. (93% of riders rated NYC Ferry a 7+/10!)
  • Ferry locations are determined through a combination of extensive public outreach, and working with physical & navigational site constraints. Water depths need to be able to support both the size of the vessel and the necessary infrastructure.
  • Many ferry lines are linked to areas conventionally underserved by other means of transportation. (The Soundview ferry helped to cut typical commutes in half!)
  • The potential for NYC Ferry to collaborate with local institutions to collect valuable marine science data was also discussed. Can NYC Ferry collect water quality samples during its regular trips, for example?
  • Also on the agenda was the Port of NY & NJ- an incredible economic engine that pro- vides about 400,000 jobs in the region- and the huge potential for the maritime industry to support NYC’s sustainability & equity initiatives.
  • Inland barging emits 90-95% less carbon than trucks per mile (80x50), and also helps to reduce truck traffic (Vision Zero).
  • However, activating the full economic and sustainability potential of our waterways re- quires maintenance dredging of both primary and secondary navigational channels; which must also be balanced with ecological considerations and best practices.
  • The importance of waterfront access, for both physical and mental health, was unani- mously supported as a key priority to address; from creating access in neighborhoods that have been historically underserved, to expanding access on underutilized sites.
  • Increasing maritime employment opportunities, especially for those who live near or on the waterfront, but may currently feel disconnected from it, was also an important goal. This goal was coupled with support for increasing vocational training opportunities for maritime industries, potentially even in NYC schools.
  • Opportunities for affordable waterfront housing was also brought up multiple times, though how these goals can be brought together is a topic that needs further discussion.
  • While everyone agreed that increased safe, public access, and a working waterfront are important, others noted that these goals should run parallel to ecological restoration, and in conjunction with opportunities for increasing resilience.