New York City's waterfront, formerly dominated by industrial uses, is in the midst of a long-term transformation. The waterfront is a great public resource that can provide recreational and transportation opportunities, promote environmental restoration and climate resilience, and continue to supply manufacturing and maritime jobs. In recent years, City agencies have focused on public-private partnerships to advance construction on the waterfront, leasing publicly-owned land to developers of high-end residential and commercial projects in exchange for the creation of public space that is not always welcoming to the public.
Is the City proposing a very different use for a piece of property, like a commercial building on parkland or housing on a manufacturing site? That project will have to go through Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), a public review process that provides community members with their best chance to learn more about proposed projects, raise concerns, and push for alternatives. It is important to understand the regulations and requirements that shape waterfront development in order to determine whether a plan complies with the City's rules and to effectively advocate for the community's needs and desires. The special review process, zoning rules, and permits that affect waterfront development in NYC are outlined below.
How Public Access and Urban Design are Shaped by Zoning and Permits
New buildings proposed along the waterfront in New York City have to follow a special set of rules because city residents have a right to see and get to the waterfront in most cases.
The right to get to the waterfront is ensured through waterfront zoning enacted in 1993, which shapes what can be built along the waterfront. Zoning requires physical access to nearly all parcels of land along the waterfront through waterfront public access areas (WPAAs), which must include public walkways along the shoreline and connections to public streets. In some neighborhoods, specific Waterfront Access Plans have been created to ensure that there is a holistic approach to providing access to the waterfront as different lots are developed over time. Zoning also maintains visual access to the waterfront through unobstructed views down public streets and limitations on building size.
For City-owned properties, the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) issues permits for anything built on or along the waterfront, whether it is maritime or non-maritime project. For most privately-owned properties, the Department of Buildings (DOB) issues permits for new construction on land and SBS issues permits for maritime structures like piers, docks, or seawalls. For DOB to issue a building permit, the Chairperson of the City Planning Commission has to certify that the project meets requirements for public access and visual corridors, and an agreement for maintenance of the publicly accessible space has to be in place. The space is sometimes maintained by a City agency, and sometimes by the private owner with authorization of the City through the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.
The NYC Department of City Planning maintains a map of publicly accessible waterfront spaces on both privately and publicly owned land.
How Land Uses are Regulated by the Waterfront Revitalization Program
NYC's Waterfront Revitalization Program (WRP), adopted in 1982, establishes guidelines to balance the competing priorities of public and maritime use, residential and commercial development, and environmental conservation along the waterfront. Additionally, certain parts of the coastline are defined as special designation areas for the preservation of ecological systems or maritime and industrial uses. New York City closely regulates how land along the waterfront is used within the Coastal Zone Boundary, which includes all waterfront properties, based on legislation adopted by New York State and the federal government to guide the management of the coastline.
Any project or action that impacts publicly owned waterfront properties, like new building construction, neighborhood rezonings, ferry route expansion, environmental cleanups, or flood protection, must undergo review for consistency with the WRP. The NYC Department of City Planning, and in some cases the City Planning Commission, acting as the City Coastal Commission, conduct the review. It is important to note that the WRP is a process that occurs when change is proposed, but it is not a tool for the management and oversight of NYC's waterfront properties, which includes concerns such as how public access is safeguarded or how hazardous material is handled on industrial sites. While the WRP provides a roadmap for development on the waterfront, enforcement is a problem, as no City agency is tasked with ensuring that a) every project that should goes through consistency review and b) what is ultimately built aligns with the WRP’s goals and guidelines.
New York City Council last approved revisions to the WRP on October 30, 2013. To understand City and stakeholder views on the review process and revisions, read the transcript of the public hearing and view the Department of City Planning's slideshow. During the revision process, representatives from competing waterfront interests submitted testimony to help shape the revisions. Local advocacy organizations fought to support industrial retention and community resilience, among other things. Read testimony from Pratt Center and NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.
Given the competing priorities for the City’s waterfront spaces, regulation and enforcement of what is allowed are required to maintain a balance of uses, and the WRP is not designed to do either.