Global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, in collaboration with clean water advocate Riverkeeper, has unveiled plans to restore, revitalize and transform two of New York City’s most important, but often forgotten, waterfronts — Newtown Creek and Flushing Waterways.
The plans, created with input from area residents and local stakeholders, present more than 135 opportunities to rehabilitate these neglected bodies of water, their shores and the communities they border. Once implemented, the plans would restore native salt marsh habitats, make the shores more accessible to the public for recreational activities, spur economic growth by creating employment opportunities, and help protect the areas from potential future floods and rising sea levels. Newtown Creek, located just across the East River from Midtown Manhattan, occupies an area of about 1,000 acres between Brooklyn and Queens. Flushing Waterways span 600 acres between LaGuardia Airport, Willets Point, downtown Flushing and Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
“The potential social, economic and environmental benefits of restoring these waterways and their abutting neighborhoods are significant,” says Mike Aziz, senior urban designer at Perkins+Will and co-leader of the planning process. “Our work creates a new model for urban industrial waterways that emphasizes resilience, remediation, recreation and restoration equally.”
The work is the culmination of more than 50 meetings and workshops with community members in which residents exchanged ideas and contributed opinions, says Aziz’s colleague and senior urban designer Daniel Windsor.
“We really got to know the people who live, work and spend time in these communities, and we learned a lot about what makes the waterways so valuable to them,” Windsor says. “Their active involvement and enthusiasm for the project were key, and really drove the entire process.”
From Contamination to Transformation: New Yorkers Reimagine Newtown Creek
Newtown Creek has suffered from over a century of industrial contamination, including decades of oil seepage and chronic sewage overflows. America’s first oil refinery began operations along its banks in 1867, and the creek soon became one of the most heavily used — and polluted — waterways in the Port of New York. Today, it harbors an estimated 30 million gallons of spilled oil and associated toxins.
In 2010, Newtown Creek was made a part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program, through which the federal government manages and pays for toxic site remediation. Perkins+Will’s and Riverkeeper’s plan for the creek — which also received substantial input from the grassroots organization Newtown Creek Alliance — is intended to help the community prepare for the remediation and set broader social, environmental and economic goals. Solutions include stormwater infrastructure and habitat restoration, new public space, industrial redevelopment, and flood protection.
“Our focus was to outline transformative paths for Newtown Creek; ways to generate greater habitat, community access and sustainable use for decades to come. We hope the plan inspires local communities and other urban waterways" said Willis Elkins, program manager at Newtown Creek Alliance.
Other community ideas that had been previously pursued — such as the transformation of abandoned street-end areas into lush public spaces and the restoration of salt marsh within shallow tributaries — were also resurrected and further fleshed out as part of the plan.
Environmental Pollution to Innovative Solution: Rethinking Queen’s Great Northern Waterfront
Like Newtown Creek, the waterways around Flushing Bay are historic salt marshes, now overflowing with pollutants. To craft the plan for Flushing Waterways, Perkins+Will and Riverkeeper worked closely with Guardians of Flushing Bay, a group of local boaters, residents and environmental advocates. The plan envisions a renewed waterfront destination that connects the diverse communities of East Elmhurst, North Corona and Flushing with rapidly growing communities surrounding Flushing Bay, including the new Willets Point and Flushing West neighborhoods. It proposes extensive habitat restoration, the expansion of marshlands, a major new park space for downtown Flushing, reinvestment in the historic 1964 World’s Fair Marina and a new 40,000-square-foot Queens Waterfront Exploration Center.
The plan also identifies 50 ways to remediate the area’s pollution, restore waterfront access and spur reinvestment. These include creating water “trails,” making navigation easier for boaters and restoring the historic World’s Fair pavilions into park cafés. Long-term efforts identified in the plan include redesigning an existing two-mile public promenade and constructing a large-scale oyster reef that would border LaGuardia Airport.
“Our mission is to renew the Flushing waterfront and make it more accessible and relevant to the broader community,” says Akila Simon, Guardians of Flushing Bay board member. “This plan, and the plans for an ecology center and boathouse, showcases not only how Flushing Waterways can become an engine of economic revitalization, but also a vital, world-class waterway.”
Putting the Plans into Practice: Next Steps
Both plans — known as “Vision Plans” — became public on March 15, and will be available for viewing and download at www.riverkeeper.org/newtowncreek and www.riverkeeper.org/flushingwaterways. Additionally, on March 15, a launch event was held at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn for community boards, elected officials and invited members of the press.
“These plans will help assure that the billions being spent on remediation for these two waterways will be coupled with robust new commitments to habitat restoration, climate resilience and public recreation, as well,” said Paul Gallay, Riverkeeper president. “Through our efforts, we hope to unify the diverse communities who live and work in these areas, and maintain healthier waterways and cleaner shorelines for generations to come.”