Off the Waterfront!

A clash between state environmental regulators and multiple government agencies threatens several planned waterfront projects in the city, including portions of Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s West Side, the East River Waterfront and the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park set to rise on Brooklyn’s once industrial shore.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is pushing back against sections of all three projects, particularly because of the shadows that structures like floating walkways and a heliport would cast on the water. Led by Commissioner Pete Grannis, the D.E.C. has determined that shade from the new construction could damage marine life below, and, in many cases, violates the law.

Advocates of the imperiled projects and government officials have been in discussions with the D.E.C. for months about the issue, though thus far there has been little noticeable progress.

The dispute is a hurdle for the Bloomberg administration and its vision to reinvent the New York waterfront by opening it to public recreation.

Taken with multiple other planned waterfront initiatives that could be later shaken by the D.E.C.’s reading of the law, the affected projects are at the heart of an effort in the city to undo the actions of past generations who built the city’s shoreline to accommodate the needs of industry, shipping and transportation rather than public leisure. With relatively plush governmental coffers and a will on behalf of the city and the state, parks advocates view the final two years of the Bloomberg administration as a prime time to get projects under way.

But to get any new development in or over the water, the D.E.C. needs to issue a permit, and therein lies the controversy. Among other considerations, the agency issues such permits for uses that require structures built over the water, or that are water-dependent. The D.E.C. under Mr. Grannis has staked out a rather firm stance—critics call it rigid—that many types of recreation, such as floating walkways, do not qualify as necessary, according to people familiar with the issue, a departure from the Pataki administration’s D.E.C. (A barge dock, for instance, is an example of a clear water-dependent use.)

“I think there’s probably a good-natured disagreement among people who love nature and love the waterfront as to what is a good water-dependent use,” said Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “Some water-dependent use is clearly defined. Some of us rather believe that you can expand that definition. … A waterfront walkway and greenway and bikeway, to me, would seem water-dependent.”

The nonprofit operators of a barge-based swimming pool ran into problems with the shadow issue last summer, as the group had to pay a $20,000 fine even though it was granted an exception to temporarily locate the pool south of the Brooklyn Bridge, according to multiple people with knowledge of the matter.

Responding to a set of questions via e-mail, a spokesman for the D.E.C., Arturo Garcia-Costas, defended the agency’s policies as observing state law that says waterfront construction must be for necessary and reasonable uses. “Much of New York’s shoreline already had been impaired before these laws were passed, and part of the D.E.C.’s responsibility is to protect what is left,” he said.

As for the issue of floating walkways, planned for use in both Brooklyn Bridge Park and the East River Waterfront, Mr. Garcia-Costas said in the e-mail that the agency looks at issues on a case-by-case basis, but emphasizes limiting “over-water structure to that which is deemed necessary.”

“In many cases, additional floating structures are not necessary at all,” he said.

While some in the environmental community welcome the D.E.C.’s firm stance, other park and environmental advocates have expressed a desire for more flexibility in the position, given the restrictions it could place on the planned developments.

Brooklyn Bridge Park would likely be the most directly affected if the D.E.C. did not allow for any floating walkways—the planned parkland, already well over budget given rising costs, consists of numerous such structures that connect a set of piers while slowing waves to calm the water. “I think it’s what makes this a unique and special park in the world today, and I think it’s really worth having very serious conversations to resolve this issue,” Marianna Koval, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, said of the walkways.

The state agency overseeing the development is working with the D.E.C. on its application for the permits that would allow the walkways and other construction.

Off the Waterfront!