Several have a long history of industrial contamination, and are now undergoing extensive remediation under the federal Superfund process. Others remain cut off from the population around them, and have been largely forgotten.
To address these issues, local environmental groups are taking action to revitalize two major waterways in Brooklyn and Queens.
Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization that advocates for the Hudson River and its tributaries, teamed up with the Newtown Creek Alliance, Guardians of Flushing Bay and other institutions to create a roadmap for how to improve the Newtown Creek and Flushing waterways.
Working with global design firm Perkins+Will, the coalition mapped out 135 projects that would, if enacted, improve the remediation, restoration, recreation and resilience of the water bodies.
Last Thursday night at the Wythe Hotel, the environmental groups unveiled their vision plans. They highlighted some of their more ambitious goals, such as building a community boathouse and educational facility on the Flushing Bay pier and converting dead-end zones near Newtown Creek into street-end parks.
Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, said their organization is “all in” on the 135 ideas. He said these projects are an opportunity to remake the footprint of New York City.
“These are too good not to achieve,” Gallay said. “We are really all in on these plans.”
The projects will require extensive community, governmental and nonprofit support. That’s why 11 government agencies, 20 nonprofit organizations, 15 businesses and five educational institutions all sent representatives to the event last Thursday.
The vision plans began nearly one year ago. Urban designers from Perkins+Will worked with Riverkeeper and their partners to host more than 50 meetings and workshops in the communities affected by the waterways.
They spoke with residents, businesses and educational leaders about what they would like to see from their nearby water bodies, and how they can improve access and sustainability.
“It was a huge opportunity to reimagine spaces that we all experience, but don’t always get the chance to think about what they could be,” said Chrissy Remein, a coordinator with Riverkeeper. “For me, the best part being able to imagine not just an ideal scenario, because we incorporated some real constraints, but the best-case scenario that incorporated a whole lot of stakeholders’ voices.”
Remein said they realized they can never transform Newtown Creek, Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek into what they used to be. But using these vision plans, the environmental groups can add projects that fit the needs of the community and the city.
Though some of these plans may take years to realize, Remein said they have already started “pulling the pieces together” to get the ball rolling. Other projects are already underway.
Of the 135 projects, 85 are dedicated to improving Newtown Creek, the 1,000-acre waterway that was hit with the largest underground oil spill in the country’s history. The plans take into consideration the increased development in surrounding communities, the need to keep industrial uses and climate risks involved.
One project calls for street-end parks near Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City, the mouth of Newtown Creek. That would transform dead-end zones from “crumbled concrete” into community gardens with green infrastructure and access to the waters.
Other highlights include introducing treatment wetlands to handle combined-sewer overflows (CSOs), a 14-mile pedestrian loop in Dutch Kills and restored salt marsh features.
On the other end of Newtown Creek, the vision plan calls for an expanded nature walk, a new research and innovation center, new barge loading and reconfiguring a parking lot in English Kills into a new park space and boardwalk.
Willis Elkins, program manager for the Newtown Creek Alliance, said all of these ambitious projects take into consideration outside forces, including the Superfund cleanup and improvements to the sewer system.
“I think seeing some of it visualized has been really amazing,” he said. “I found it inspiring and hopefully other people will find it inspiring as well, as to what these places can be with more investment and attention.”
He acknowledged that there’s a “long road ahead” with many of these projects. For example, getting the Parks Department to support creating a new public space in an industrial area next to a polluted site may be a challenge, considering all of the other parks that need funding.
“It takes a lot of dedication and hard work, we need everybody on board,” Elkins said. “But this vision plan is a step in the process. These ideas are not final by any means. We hope to use this as a starting point to engage more people going forward.”
The vision plan for the Flushing waterways recommend 50 projects, anchored by the proposed Queens Waterfront Exploration Center (QWEC). The Guardians of Flushing Bay, which has championed this center, envision the space as a site where research, recreational canoeing, kayak rentals and dragon boat racing can all take place.
Other proposals include creating a new park on the creek in Flushing West, a large-scale oyster reef off LaGuardia Airport’s waterfront, improving pedestrian bridges to include green infrastructure and bike lanes, and restoring the waterfront promenade at the World’s Fair Marina.
Another focus of the vision plan for the 600-acre waterways is reconnecting neighborhoods like East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona to Flushing Bay, which is now cut off by parking lots and highway ramps.
“There are so many people living in the community that don’t have access to the waterway,” said Korin Tangtrakul from Guardians of Flushing Bay, “and don’t even know that it’s there and have no reason to go to the waterfront.”
The environmental group has been hosting events on the water, including a 5K fun run and shoreline cleanups. Tangtrakul said they’re also doing more community boating events, all in hopes that people get used to coming to the water.
“We’re trying to build up our constituency to get more advocates and bring more people who live right next to the water to the waterfront,” she said.
Tangtrakul said there will be many challenges to bringing the QWEC to reality, including funding. But what motivates her and her team is seeing the possibilities of connecting people back with the water.
Though it may take a dozen years or more, Tangtrakul said Guardians of Flushing Bay are prepared to be “in it for the long haul.”
“There’s a lot of investment going into the waterways and the waterfronts right now. Flushing Bay has really been ignored in that investment for a long time,” she said. “So I think the timing right now is great and to see all of these projects through.”
Many challenges lie ahead. Remein said with Flushing Creek, a major problem is that billions of gallons of sewage overflow pollute the waters. For Newtown Creek, the Superfund process is chugging along, but it won’t be clean for a long time.
Despite the long-term implications of these challenges, Remein said she’s still excited for the road ahead and what the projects can accomplish.
“I’m confident that New Yorkers also believe and understand that their water bodies are assets,” she said. “We need to start treating them like that, like part of our community that we can enjoy, not places to avoid.”