Many waterfronts become battlegrounds as various interests clash over plans for these valuable public lands. Since the amount of land available for development is usually small, and interest is intense among many parties, a winner-take-all mentality prevails. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the real source of conflict often lies not with the competing interests but with a fundamental flaw in the decision making process: When municipalities, developers, and designers ram projects through without sufficient public involvement, they trample upon the communities who actually have the most at stake. This is a challenge faced in planning for all public spaces, but it plays out most dramatically on urban waterfronts.

Like many other cities, Memphis is grappling with the future of its waterfront.

The keen public interest in these issues can be seen in the number of community groups and local business associations that have sprung up in recent years to defend their waterfronts. In many cases, activists establish an organization to resist a specific project or developer, and then come up with a more publicly beneficial vision for the future of the waterfront. PPS has been working with a number of such groups to help them carry out a positive community vision for these special places.

San Diego: Potentially one of the world’s greatest waterfronts

San Diego’s waterfront is undergoing a sweeping transformation, and no one is yet sure how it will turn out. Up and down the city’s Pacific coastline, new projects are being planned and older properties are attracting re-investment. The U.S. Navy, which is in the process of redeveloping a former office building complex, wields considerable influence here, as do the Unified Ports of San Diego and the California Coastal Commission, not to mention a bevy of private developers. The future of the city’s waterfront may well hinge on whether a coherent process of public engagement can emerge from the maze of overlapping interests and jurisdictions.

“There need to be a lot of different destinations along the downtown waterfront,” proclaims Christine Gaunt, a San Diego resident who has worked tirelessly to see public goals take precedence on the downtown waterfront. “We need things that residents, as well as tourists, will want to do.”

PPS has helped engage local stakeholders to promote these objectives at the Embarcadero Marina Parks, a crucial waterfront site operated by the Port. These two parks jut out from the shore just a short walk from downtown, but they are nevertheless difficult to reach by any means other than driving. And although each offers a spectacular view of the Pacific, neither provides many attractions that draw people on a regular basis.

The northern section of San Diego's Embarcadero Marina Parks.

A broad range of ideas emerged from the public workshops led by PPS, offering ways to boost the variety of things to do in the parks and improve access to the water. Some participants suggested connecting the tips of the two parks through a small ferry service and eventually a pedestrian bridge. Others noted that more places for people to gather, eat, and engage in outdoor games would bring more activity down to the water’s edge. They also floated the idea hosting festivals and markets in the ample parking lots. (Full notes from the workshop are available on the Port’s website.)

Gaunt believes that better access to the parks–and along the entire waterfront–is imperative. “At this point a lot of the prime waterfront is walled off by the convention center and hotels,” she says. “I never want to see the waterfront blocked off like that again, I want to see wide avenues, broad access, with view corridors so you feel a visceral connection to the waterfront from downtown.”

With so much of the waterfront in transition today, creating better public access and a greater sense of destination has never been so within reach. If the community-based process that guided the way forward for the Embarcadero Marina Parks gets adopted for other places undergoing change, San Diego will not only prevent conflict, it could become one of the world’s best waterfront cities.

New York City: Can a Park Grow in Brooklyn?

The site of the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park holds promise to become one of the most stunning settings for any public space in the world: at the foot of the famous bridge, with downtown Manhattan in full view across the East River. It could become the borough’s face to the world.

More than forty public meetings were held during the initial planning of the park, a painstaking process into which residents from all over the borough poured their hopes. But all the fruits of community engagement were swept aside in 2004, when the newly established Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC) released a plan that radically altered the public’s vision for the park. In place of year-round activities for the community as a whole, there were exclusive features, like a marina for 185 yachts. And instead of the small retail stores and restaurant that the community had envisioned, the new plan contained six high-rise condo towers within the park’s borders.

The changes derailed what had been an exemplary community process. “It was totally taken over by the secretive BBPDC. This notion that the community didn’t know what it was talking about is just a sign of disrespect,” says Judi Francis, a local resident and president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund. (PPS’s Fred Kent and Kathy Madden sit on the Defense Fund’s advisory board.)

A model of Brooklyn Bridge Park showing the Atlantic Avenue entrance and a new high-rise in the foreground.
The new park design foisted upon the public by the Development Corporation calls for a much more passive space than what the community wanted. Francis sees a direct connection between the design changes and the decision to include housing in the park: “Year round recreation and activity, the noise it brings, is fundamentally incompatible with private luxury housing.” The luxury condo towers, in contrast, will only serve to restrict public use and privatize the park, in spirit if not in law, as wealthy condo residents inevitably seek to control what happens in their “backyard.”

Those pushing the Development Corporation’s design (by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) justify the high-rises–and the property taxes they generate–as necessary to fund the park’s maintenance. This plan sets the dangerous precedent of requiring a public park to sustain itself financially without any contribution from the parks department budget. However, as PPS noted in our New York City Commentary last fall, the new design will be expensive to maintain in part because it is so fussy. A simplified design could greatly reduce costs and allow for a much greater range of activities for people to engage in.

As things stand today, the story of Brooklyn Bridge Park serves as a cautionary tale about what happens when a well-run community process gets commandeered by forces with no real stake in results that serve local citizens. Fortunately, it is not too late to preserve the essential public character of the downtown Brooklyn waterfront. The community’s original vision is still compelling and has not been forgotten. The opportunity remains to re-assert that vision and create a world class waterfront.

Memphis: Bringing life back to the Mississippi

Mark Twain described Memphis as “a beautiful City, nobly situated on a commanding bluff overlooking the river.” Thanks to this topographical blessing, Memphis has always maintained public access to its riverfront (most other towns along the Mississippi are cut off from the water by levees). The heart of the downtown riverfront is a promenade set aside for public enjoyment by the city’s founders in 1828.

Since the 1950s, when three parking garages went up between the historic downtown and the river, Memphis citizens have sought to reconnect their city to the water. The garages still stand, however, and in recent years more threats to the waterfront have appeared. In 2000, the local government established the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a quasi-public agency that operates with far less transparency than its predecessor, the Memphis Park Commission. It soon became clear that the RDC’s chief objective was to secure the land along the promenade for high-rise condominiums, erecting a huge wall between downtown and the river. The RDC’s premise was that development alone could “animate” the riverfront, but they never took into account the strong attachment ordinary citizens felt toward the Mississippi.

A stretch of the promenade near downtown Memphis.

“The public no longer had a voice,” says Virginia McLean, president of the non-profit Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR). “People were shocked when they saw the RDC plan, so we formed Friends for Our Riverfront, and we began to educate the public about what was going on.”

McLean and FfOR attracted a network of supporters while building a case for enhancing the public spaces along the promenade and fostering re-investment in the downtown core. Last spring, they invited PPS to help local stakeholders envision a future for their riverfront based on local assets and public destinations. They have also hosted speakers such as Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Conservation Fund Chairman Charles Jordan to address the need for a more public-spirited approach than that pursued by the RDC.

The saga is far from over, but the momentum appears to have shifted. “RDC has gotten very quiet,” says McLean, a note of optimism in her voice. “We believe doing this right will lead to the rejuvenation of the riverfront and downtown Memphis.”

PPS returns to Memphis this March to lead a public workshop and engage the broader community in shaping a Placemaking strategy for the city’s key destinations. The basic question on everyone’s lips will be: How can the waterfront attract people and connect neighborhoods to their public spaces? When the goal is to optimize public use of the waterfront, then development and design will evolve to support the community’s needs and aspirations.

A New Generation of Waterfront Advocates

Community and business groups that preserve, manage, and promote new visions for their waterfronts can share a great deal with other cities grappling with similar problems. Here are some interesting organizations PPS has engaged with recently:

Friends of the Los Angeles River

Hong Kong Harbour Business Forum

Friends of the Chicago River

Free Schuylkill River Park (Philadelphia, PA)

Find the Rivers! (Pittsburgh, PA)

People’s Waterfront Coalition (Seattle, WA)