May 1, 2019

Waterfront Development in New York City: The Spring 2019 WEDG Event

By NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate

Climate change is causing rising tides, coastal flooding and other extreme weather with greater frequency. In this era, the design and development community needs infrastructure and building guidance. In response New York City’s Waterfront Alliance, which promotes resilience planning for coastlines and communities, has unveiled a voluntary set of guidelines, known as the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG).

In the same vein as Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) certification for sustainable buildings, WEDG provides a resilience, ecology, and access framework for coastal development. Like LEED before it, WEDG encourages professionals with a proactive framework that gives points for building waterfront sites that are both environmentally robust and open to the community.

In spring 2019, the Waterfront Alliance and the NYUSPS Schack Institute of Real Estate convened a panel to discuss the WEDG framework and development in the climate change era.  Moderated by Roland Lewis, President and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, panelists had a wide-ranging conversation on waterfront development and sustainability issues in New York City. Prof. Barry Hersh, who conceived of the event, introduced the history, purpose and complexities of waterfront redevelopment.

“All people should have access to the waterfront,” says Marina Trejo, a senior project manager at Two Trees Management. The Domino project was a part of the first generation of projects to have gone through the WEDG evaluation process, says Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, which partnered with Two Trees and SHoP architects to develop the site. 

Historically, the Domino Factory was a major avenue for sugar refining in the United States. The site’s redesign included a continuous quarter-mile public park along the Brooklyn waterfront that emphasizes waterfront access, placing the high-end residential design behind the park. “Having a waterfront park there was integral,” Trejo says. “We made commitments to the community.” 

The park serves as a new neighborhood amenity, and occupies the expanded waterfront setback. Along with the new public street, it provides a buffer for the new surrounding development and neighborhood. The park is built on a platform that was reconstructed to elevate the majority of the site above the 100 year flood elevation. “Parks should be seen as infrastructure that take the first brunt, and [they] can act as sponges to counter sea level rise and storm events,” explains Sen.

She says that the development community should build with the likelihood of these events in mind. Sen points toward projects including Hunters Point South and Brooklyn Bridge Park, which emphasize techniques that can maintain or improve coastal resiliency while providing new versions of access. These techniques include the use of soft edges, tiered landscapes, and a protective infrastructure that offers users moments of access. “[We need] a consensus and a framework with more teeth [and] common goals as far as coastal resilience that we’ll all meet,” she says. Collaboration and development standards should become commonplace and possible even mandatory.

Another crucial aspect of the waterfront resiliency community is the working waterfront, which represents the infrastructure and trade causes that the waterfront has historically been associated with. That work includes the city’s recycling infrastructure. Panelist Tom Outerbridge, a manager at Sims Municipal Recycling, spoke to those considerations.

Sims manages all the metal, glass, plastic and recyclables collected by the NYC Department of Sanitation. “We move all the recycling by barge, keeping trucks off the road,” Outerbridge says. Since Sims represents the industrial working waterfront, and utilizes the waterfront so regularly, “[we’ve been] involved with Waterfront Alliance since the early days.” The organization has sites in the Bronx, Queens, New Jersey, and the city-owned Sunset Park site, which houses an education center, and emphasizes green design in several ways.

For all developers, it is also important to keep in mind the important and changing physical landscape of the city, and the impact extreme weather will have on a building. Spencer Orkus, managing director for L&M Partners, says that looking closely at the topography for sites themselves, and in view of how insurance requirements are changing, is crucial.

“Everyone thinks of these shorelines as gradient and linear: the further away from the shore, the higher in elevation, but NYC is more complicated.” Orkus describes the experience of finding that one site on Lexington Avenue—relatively far from the Manhattan waterfront—had an inlet from the Harlem River that had been covered up, but made it a flood zone. Developers such as Two Trees also serve as the operator, which can be a useful incentive for resiliency planning, explains Trejo. “We’re designing, building, but we’re also operating. Anything that goes wrong, we are responsible to get up and running.”

Looking toward the future, Outerbridge encourages builders to use recycled fill materials as developers continue to elevate sites and raise buildings ourselves out of future floodplains. The group encouraged the community to look closely at the current and future landscape, and build for resiliency even if a site is not in a direct flood zone. “No two sites are going to be the same,” Trejo underscores. “Don’t make assumptions about what you’re going to find when you are on or near the water.”  

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