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Hoboken Waterfront

8 Waterfront Development Pitfalls

While waterfront development seems like a tried and true slam-dunk for municipalities with the resources, not every waterfront is developed equal. Cities that operate under an ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality may stumble as they go and find themselves with a waterfront devoid of people – which is, by definition, a failure. For the past few weeks we at The Waterfront have been exploring great waterfronts and what contributes to their successes, but now it is time to turn to mistakes and pitfalls that can turn a promising river walk or ocean side park into a public disappointment.

Unfortunately, examples of failed waterfronts can indeed be found. Some argue that Glasgow’s River Clyde, developed as the city saw urban regeneration in the 1980’s, is a “dead river” at odds with the original, lively vision set out by urbanist Gordon Cullen. The New York Times wrote a piece on Washington D.C.’s redevelopment of the Potomac – a move being made to correct the grievous waterfront development carried out in the 1940s that stifled what had been a vibrant waterfront community and displaced thousands of residents.

Failures like these needn’t exist but developers likely made one or more blunders while on the road to completion. Let’s take a look at the mistakes to avoid making in order to secure a great urban waterfront:

  1. Poor Design Quality & Lack of Vision

First on our list is quality of design and vision.  While landmark buildings are sometimes insufficient to sustain a constant flow of visitors to a site, uninspired design will only hurt the potential draw of a waterfront.  Great vision takes into account all of the factors on this list, from accessibility, to local identity, to balance of space, to land use. While some high quality design plans still fail for the reasons that follow, without a great launching point a project is doomed to obscurity.

  1. Divorced from Local Identity

As is key with any act of Placemaking, a waterfront that erases local identity is one that will not only often fail to draw a crowd but will also alienate residents.  People gravitate to locations that celebrate the unique character of its place.  In the case of the Potomac, the people who lived there where what made it special, to uproot them was an ethical crisis that stripped the area of its very heart and soul.  Most places in an America now have at least 100, if not 300, years of history and culture behind them, a good waterfront highlights this, a bad one conceals it.

  1. Exclusivist

Public access is central to a thriving waterfront.   When waterfronts are predominately owned and operated by private entities that block large segments of the people from reaching the water, that waterfront cannot be considered a success as it does very little for the urban area at all.  Some cities, like Hoboken, NJ, have found that to successfully integrate the public into their waterfront, they must map existing local streets and paths onto, through, or adjacent to the water.  This encourages people to interact with the space as a natural part of their daily lives and keeps the waterfront from becoming exclusionary.

  1. Lack of Political and Public Support

 Plain and simple, a public development can go nowhere if local politicians and citizens oppose it.   There are many ways for those who resist a waterfront development to stall movement forward and create insurmountable hurdles.  Without political and public support the development will fail to be successful because it never really should have existed at all.  Support and input from those who will be most affected by a development is key for it to have any semblance of legitimacy.

  1. Single Use Developments

Singe use development places real limits on the versatility of a public space and can strangle the flow of potential visitors.   Dedicating a waterfront to just businesses, or homes, or even parkland, brings in only people partaking in very specific activities and doesn’t encourage them to linger past the completion of that activity.  This is how we end up districts where the buildings are packed with people but the streets are empty. Ideally, a waterfront combines parks, stores, workspace, residences, recreation, and destinations to foster a web of activity surrounding the water that draws people in and invites them to stay.

  1. Project Size Not Compact

To say that a waterfront destination must be compact in nature is not to say that a multi-mile waterfront development is ineffective or wrong.  Rather, destinations within a waterfront must be compact to be successful. A waterfront, like any urban space, must feature walkable centers.  Diffuse attractions cannot draw the visitors that concentrated, well-connected areas can.  Tim Ramis argues that active uses must be concentrated in about a quarter mile radius to be efficacious, and cites New York City’s 5th Avenue – a long street, yes, but the main shopping area is confined to a small distance, to support this idea.

  1. Auto-Centric

 A quick way to take a gorgeous waterfront and make sure no one ever accesses it is by making it a space for cars instead of people.  While many people enjoy a drive along a river, they won’t linger unless there is way for them to interact with the bluespace as pedestrians. If a waterfront is mainly a highway or cannot be accessed easily without a personal vehicle it cannot flourish.  A great waterfront must be accessible by a large variety of transportation methods.  The best include bike and walking paths, bus or trains stops, as well as car parking.  This reflects back on the need for a waterfront to be open to the public.

  1. Doesn’t take environmental factors into consideration

Perhaps the biggest gaffe a waterfront developer can make is failing to plan for the environment.   This really two points.  First, today, with the information we now have concerning our impact on the environment it is an egregious error to pursue development that would significantly harm the local aquatic ecosystem.  Such ecosystems are important assets in and of themselves and require protection.  Secondly, that waterfronts are both bountiful resources and changeable hazards has been a fact our societies have grappled with since time immemorial.  Be it a flooding river or storm prone sea, one bad day can destroy millions in development and revenue.  Many waterfronts have themselves been developed as a means of counteracting such damaging natural forces and those that do not take the power of nature into consideration are bound to pay the price.



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