A Historical Note on the History of Urban Waterfronts and Suburban Shopping Malls
The waterfronts of American cities, from their Colonial pasts, have been devoted almost exclusively to industry. This pattern of use came from both necessity and convenience. The residents of these young cities, especially along the east coast, were reliant on the importation of goods from overseas. At port, a vast array of productions and materials were unloaded and dispersed. The adjacent land, just off the shore and still undeveloped, became the city's natural center of commerce. The newly established downtown areas attracted a group of businesses and residents relating directly to the shipping industry. Over time, these tenants became more varied in nature and size, and downtown established itself as more than the space adjacent to the waterfront, but a independent, self-sufficient urban district. Pollution, congestion, and a general unpleasantness came to engulf the industrial waterfront, and the city turned inward. There is no better example than New York City, which built along its coast a massive system of piers to maximize docking space, while the powerful and wealthy huddled around Fifth Avenue.
Change came with increased efficiency in overground transportation systems (railways and roadways), which removed the necessity of centrally located ports. Once the busiest ports in the world, Brooklyn and Manhattan, still the centers of commerce, have today lost the majority of shipping business to places like Elizabeth and Bayonne, New Jersey, just across the harbor. As the industry left, the piers were abandoned, and many torn down (Look at map of Manhattan one hundred years ago versus today). Massive swaths of centrally located waterfront, the very pieces of shoreline that initially attracted people and convinced them to develop there, became available. All types of uses were proposed and built, to varying degrees of success. Today, we continue to explore the possibilities of alternative uses for the urban waterfront.
Focusing on Manhattan, we can identify a group of contemporary projects conceived as effective, sustainable use of waterfront land. They have been championed and produced by city officials and real estate developers alike, to varying degrees of success. Each has provided an example and opportunity for better understanding of the particular, difficult, and potentially lucrative nature of waterfront real estate.
The crusade for commercial redevelopment along the urban waterfront was led by developer and suburban shopping mall guru James Rouse. Beginning in the late 1950's, The Rouse Company introduced the idea of the enclosed shopping center as a form of suburban town center. Developing such properties proved incredibly lucrative for the company, and their consistent revenue stream provided the freedom for Rouse to move into planned communities and, eventually, the central city. The plans developed for waterfront areas in Boston, Baltimore, New York, and many other cities were strikingly similar to designs of the company’s past; Rouse would build enclosed shopping centers along abandoned industrial waterfront lots. The developments would make use of the existing structures while also introducing new construction, thus maintaining a historical sense while adapting to modern use. At the time, these projects were considered great risks, hedging serious amounts of money on the resurgence of dilapidated downtowns. In general, the "festival marketplaces", as he called them, found a great deal of success, and, in turn, Rouse is credited as an influential figure in the development of the contemporary city center. In 1982, he developed on Pier 17 the South Street Seaport, which remains a center of retail and tourism in Manhattan.
In Chelsea, a series of piers, which had previously served as docks for luxury ocean liners, are currently being used as a sports and entertainment complex. Since 1994, it has provided space for every imaginable sport, as well as a spa, a marina, and television production studios. Divided by the West Side Highway from the surrounding neighborhood, the specialized use has proven economically viable. Just south of the Chelsea Piers, there are now plans for the redevelopment of Pier 57 for retail-education-performance activities. In a nod to the past, the design calls for the use of repurposed shipping containers to house small retail tenants. Development of the entire 100,000 square foot space will cost $200 million.
Both West Side developments owe much to Rouse’s festival marketplace in their general programming, apportionment of space, and economic base. They are arenas of pleasure and recreation that vary little from their suburban predecessors, except perhaps in their reliance on tourism. In general, they remain removed from the surrounding urban environment, difficult to access, where they occupy massive plots of land. While outdoor seating areas exist, the overall development makes little creative use of its waterfront site. However, their financial stability and added land value make the festival marketplace an attractive model for developers.
Luckily, a large amount of piers and waterfront remain unused. Even if we see a dozen more shopping centers, the opportunity will remain for something more uniquely suited to the urban waterfront. The city, for its part, has created a good amount of successful park space on the waterfront. These spaces will continue to become more integrated and effective over time, not to mention the environmental benefits of a cleaner coastline. But it seems, at the moment, like a choice between these two types - park and shopping mall. Why haven't any other plans (mixed residential, extended streets, subdivision of large lots) came to fruition? Perhaps the political and economic climate simply will not permit it at the moment, or in the near future. But as history has shown, the waterfront is a forever unique and evolving typography, especially near urban centers. It will continue to cycle through new uses, some that fail the city and its inhabitants, but, hopefully, others that create useful, vibrant, and vital districts.