The Future

Planners’ Dreams and Urban Realities

Planners’ Dreams and Urban Realities

The concrete barrier at the end of Lincoln Avenue -- one of only two locations where a public street meets the Harlem River waterfront in Mott Haven. Photo by Anika Anand

A new Mott Haven—mixed-use, greener and benefiting from the kind of transformative waterfront access that has taken place in other New York neighborhoods—already exists on urban planners’ drawing boards.

The neighborhood is long overdue for concrete change beyond the maps and renderings, activists say.

“The Harlem River is one of the least accessible waterfronts in the city,” said Chauncy Young, a community organizer who heads the Harlem River Working Group for the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality.  “Communities have been cut off.  We are trying to reconnect.”

City officials have acknowledged the need for renewal through a series of zoning changes over the past seven years, designed to encourage new kinds of development.

But they also acknowledge some formidable barriers: most of the land on the river is privately owned, the existing infrastructure blocks waterfront access, and capital-budget funding is still a distant dream.  In reality, officials say, market forces will determine how quickly change comes to the Mott Haven waterfront. They hope for an uptick in the economy to quicken the pace of change.

In 2009, the city rezoned the Lower Concourse, stretching from the 149th Street Bridge down to where Park Avenue meets the Major Deegan Expressway.  The rezoning was a response to a decline in industrial use and the desire to encourage commercial and residential activity.  The plan created a Special Waterfront District where a public walkway would follow the shoreline of the Harlem River through the newly zoned area — a little over a half-mile long.  It also included a waterfront park between 144th Street and 146th Street.

But three years later, there hasn’t been any movement.  Most of the rezoned land is privately owned, and the new zoning will only take effect when new development occurs.

Because of the Oak Point Link, a freight rail short-cut that carries two trains a day, residential builders along nearly two miles of waterfront would have to install noise-abatement windows to satisfy environmental regulators. City officials have likened it to building next to the elevated subway tracks or in busy mid-town Manhattan.

That hasn’t stopped urban planners from imagining what ideal waterfront access would look like.

Last year, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a plan of their own for the Harlem River Waterfront.  Called “Bronx: Meet Your Waterfront,” the project won the  “By the City, For the City” competition.

The proposal envisioned a greenway, or a path for biking and walking that connects at four different waterfront locations: High Bridge and Depot Place, Macombs Dam, Pier Five and Lincoln Avenue, using existing abandoned paths and empty lots to connect the spaces.

The city approach banks on the private sector and economic expansion to usher in change on the waterfront.

In late 2011, the Harlem River Working Group, a community organization devoted to the development of a greenway, secured a $35,000 grant from the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit.  The Working Group is currently working with the Pratt Center to develop its own plan.

The Pratt plan, due to be released in June, is similar to the MIT plan, but it expands up to Fordham Landing and down to Park Avenue and the Randall’s Island connector, proposing these locations as additional greenway sites.

The city approach is more cautious, based on a wait-and-see philosophy that banks on the private sector and economic expansion to usher in change on the waterfront.

The Lower Concourse Rezoning Plan passed in 2009. (Source: NYC Department of City Planning)

Under the Lower Concourse Rezoning Plan, development can’t occur until the private landowners decide to either sell or change how they’re using the existing sites.  The city offers financial incentives for developers to create affordable housing in the rezoned area, but there is little evidence, at least publicly, that any of the eight privately owned properties are up for sale.

The property designated for a waterfront park would need to be sold to the city and turned over to the Parks Department before any public park could be constructed, said Jerry Willis from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, an Obama administration program to connect urban neighborhoods to their waterways.

The lease is up in 2014, city officials say. But even then, the park probably won’t be built until housing comes in on the surrounding lots, on the theory that it makes no sense to build a park if no one is living there.

“As the market facilitates redevelopment on the Lower Concourse waterfront, the framework will be in place to provide the park for that growing population,” said a City Planning spokeswoman.

A further obstacle is the transit and industrial infrastructure that pervades the area.  Abandoned lofts and warehouses and currently viable industrial plants stand between residential neighborhoods and the waterfront, making it difficult and unsafe for community members to pass through, said Andrew Stone from the Trust for Public Land.

Another safety hazard is the Oak Point Link, a freight line that is a barrier blocking the waterfront. Boaters who are safe at low tide face the danger of being stranded during high tide where the Oak Point Line runs over the water, said Willis. Because of this risk only the Park Avenue and Lincoln Avenue sites could feature boating access, because they extend past the train track.

Even the city would have to build expensive and time-consuming pedestrian crossways over the tracks to protect the public, said Willis.

Such an expansive project is always publicly funded, said Stone.  And, even though the proposed city budget for the Fiscal Year 2013 includes a line recommending the funding for a waterfront park in the area, there just isn’t any money in the capital budget at this time, said a city official.

And it’s not likely to be on the radar in the near future.

“It took the Bronx River Project about ten years to come to fruition,” said Willis from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. “Ten years ago, Hunts Point and Concrete Plant Park, which are now accessible to the public, were at the same stages the South Bronx is now.”

Cleaning up Those Murky Waters

Cleaning up Those Murky Waters

Putrid water under the 149th Sreet Bridge the day after recent rains. Photo by David L. Lewis

Despite years of progress in the effort to clean up New York’s waterways, the southern section of the Harlem River persists as a cesspool of industrial and human waste flushed into the river from nearby roads, sewers and industrial work sites after every storm.

Regular tests of the murky waters show that the eight-mile-long Harlem, which connects the Hudson River in the west to the East River and Long Island Sound, has a long way to go to reach its potential as a recreational mecca for surrounding neighborhoods.

“Every time there’s a big rain, the river is disgusting,” said Jesse Matheson, a member of Harlem River Community Rowing. “Sometimes the stuff that ends up in there is really bizarre. Once, we had hundreds of tires floating around us, and two years ago, it was filled with bread. A truck must have turned over or something.”

Water quality becomes increasingly important as the neighborhood changes from the industrial district that has dominated the area for more than 100 years into a recreation asset for residents to enjoy.

The city tests the Harlem River at one location – once a week for half the year, and once every two weeks for the other half. Regular tests show that while oxygen levels are high enough to support wildlife in the water, the high content of fecal bacteria, which probably come from the city’s combined sewer system, make the waters unsafe for humans.

Mollusks naturally remove pollutants and sediment from the water while feeding, and could have a huge impact on the Harlem River. Slideshow by Kevin Loria

The city tests the Harlem River at one location – once a week for half the year, and once every two weeks for the other half. Regular tests show that while oxygen levels are high enough to support wildlife in the water, the high content of fecal bacteria, which probably come from the city’s combined sewer system, make the waters unsafe for humans.

The amount of bacteria from human waste in the water can grow nearly 10 times larger within five days of a rainstorm, according to a study last year by the Riverkeeper watchdog organization. During the six-month study, half  the results showed levels of bacteria that exceeded federal standards for swimming, boating and fishing for food or sport.

Water runs off into the Harlem River during a light rain.. Photo by Karen Argenti, Bronx Council for Environmental Quality

When rain enters the sewers, the sewers tend to overflow, and the excess water pours out into the city’s waterways through a system of pipes that mix industrial and residential waste with the rainwater. These Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, discharge into the river at more than two dozen sites along both sides of the Harlem.

On the Harlem, the CSOs carry not only sewage but also runoff from miles of highway and parking lot blacktop and acres of industrial operations ranging from auto-repair shops to the giant Waste Management garbage transfer station at the foot of Lincoln Avenue.

“We’re concerned particularly with people being able to go boating on the water,” said Dart Westphal, a former chairperson of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality. “You could fall in, and you don’t want to fall in the Harlem River, because the water is dirty. To solve the sewage problem, we need to manage the stormwater.”

The Harlem River is one of seven locations targeted by a federal program called the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Just this month, the U.S. Geological Survey agreed to fund a one-year water quality study of the Harlem and Bronx rivers.

“Our ultimate goal for restoring the degraded water is to provide a source of recreation for the local community and to allow access to the river,” Dave Russ, the agency’s Northeast regional executive, said.

But improvements in waterfront access for the community won’t matter as much until the water itself is worth accessing. As of now, the few that do attempt to fish from the Harlem River are more likely to come up with plastic bags than bass.

“When people come to fish, they’re coming to clean the river,” said Sammy Ramos, who was fishing near Lincoln Avenue recently. “You find a lot of garbage.”

At the request of U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, the USGS will spend a year collecting, reviewing and interpreting all available data on the river’s water quality from local, state and federal sources, specifically targeting areas downstream from wastewater facilities, according to  Russ. The exact testing locations have yet to be determined.

The guidelines warn against children or pregnant women eating any fish from the Harlem.

Once the data is compiled, the USGS will decide whether or not they have enough information to determine the best course of action to clean up the river. The results of the study will also determine if there are specific areas along the river that require further testing. The USGS will then present its findings in an official fact sheet to the Harlem River Working Group, which Russ said would be the first step toward taking action to improve water quality.

“It’s hard to know at this time what the next step will be beyond that,” Russ said. “We will make recommendations about further sampling at the presentation.”

Cleaner water and increased access to the Harlem River will finally give local residents a chance to enjoy the waterfront with recreational activities.

Morty Berger, the founder of NYC Swim, said that because of the strong currents, only the strongest swimmers should take a dip in the Harlem. But he also thinks it’s important to be aware of the water quality, especially after a storm.

“It’s complicated,” said Berger, whose organization has run a swim around Manhattan island, including the Harlem, for 30 years. “Would I go in after a heavy rain? No. I have cancelled races over the years due to water quality concerns. Like in any open water body, you should have your tetanus shot, in case you cut yourself on something, because there’s a lot of stuff running off into the river from the road.”

Bluefish and striped bass are among the most commonly found species in the Harlem River, one of the rare waterways in the world made up of both saltwater and freshwater.

The state Health Department says people over the age of 15 can eat bluefish and striped bass once a month, as well as less common species such as the Atlantic needlefish, rainbow smelt, white perch and carp. The agency recommends no more than four a month for other species, and says eel, catfish and shad should never be eaten.

The guidelines warn against children or pregnant women eating any fish from the Harlem. They also note that it’s important to trim or cook off the fat on fish, since that’s where the highest levels of contaminants are found. And even those precautions are questionable after it rains and the levels of fecal bacteria in the Harlem River skyrocket due to sewer overflows.

A sign at a Combined Sewer Overflow point on Park Avenue at the Harlem River in Mott Haven. Photo by David L. Lewis

Now that community groups are demanding  more recreational opportunities along the waterfront, local environmentalists are working to make the Harlem River clean and safe for the public. Most of their efforts involve ways to manage the runoff and sewage overflows after storms.

Most solutions involve using vegetation and technology to capture and filter the stormwater. For example, the city Department of Environmental Protection suggests two ways to build roofs to deal with this problem. “Green roofs” would use gardens and other plants to soak up the rain before it hits the ground – and the sewer system. “Blue roofs” would use pipes, gravel beds and tanks to collect and temporarily hold rainwater before releasing it through roof drains once the water levels go down in the sewage system.

A study by MIT architecture students contained numerous ideas that also use plants and other technology to capture stormwater. One idea is to build a man-made wetland to retain rainwater and filter the contents through the soil. Another is to use a “seawall” that would slow down the waterflow, which would help restore the wildlife habitats along the river. Oysters, for example, would be able to thrive and clean the water with their natural ability to filter it.

Starting in April, the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality embarked on a project to build a park that uses plants and drainage pools to keep stormwater runoff from entering the sewers.

“Runoff is a problem because it carries stuff with it, like oil, antifreeze, grit—whatever’s on the Major Deegan,” said Westphal.

With a $200,000 federal grant, the BCEQ, in partnership with MIT, has hired architecture and engineering consultants to design and construct the park at Pier 5, an empty lot at Exterior Street and 149th Street, just south of Mill Pond Park. The goal is to collect as much runoff from the highway as possible before it goes into the sewers.

The BCEQ hopes to finish this project by April 2013. But in the meantime, the movement towards cleaning up the Harlem River is still in its early stages and city residents remain cautious about the water.

“The Harlem is getting better, but we need to continue to make an effort to clean it up,” said Westphal. “Right now, I say that you shouldn’t go out to the water if you’ve got an opening in your body, like a cut on your arm. If you put your head under, you’ll probably get an ear infection.”