On the City’s Final Frontier—the Waterfront

Location: What is the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance and what does it want to do?

Mr. Lewis: The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance is an alliance of 300 organizations—small, large, in-between—that are dedicated to making the waterfront in their parts of New York or New Jersey a better place. Waterfront was locked away by industry and roads and rail for a good part of the history of this area. So what we do now, it’s a window of opportunity to hopefully create a great waterfront that has great parks, that has great commerce, that has great housing, is diverse and is accessible.

You were executive director of Habitat for Humanity–New York City for 10 years before you became president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance in April. How does your background fit into your new job?

I am an expert enough in nonprofit management and fundraising and that sort of thing, but I think more than that, Habitat is and was predicated on two things: progressive community development and equity. I think M.W.A. is going to have progressive community development—we want the waterfront to be something that we can all be proud of—and equity, also.

What do you mean by equity?

There should be parks that are accessible and there should be a way to get to them. It’s as simple as that. There should be good jobs for working-class New Yorkers.

I like to tool around the city on a bike sometimes, and I decided to combine my new vocation with my avocation and I tried to bike the waterfront, and I learned a lot. I learned that there’s a lot of waterfront; I’m not as young as I used to be.

How long did it take you?

About two weeks and change. There’s 700 miles of waterfront in New York and New Jersey, on the Harbor, and I think I did a fair amount of it.

What did you learn?

There are a lot of people that still work on and around the waterfront. We may be a postindustrial city, but there’s a lot of industry left. The only time I ever stopped my bike and turned around and looked at something, it was the Steinway piano factory between LaGuardia Airport and the Con Ed plant. I happened to be riding by it at quitting time, and I saw 500 guys, every race and creed, coming out of that factory. I almost felt like a kid waiting for his dad to come out of the factory. I was moved by that.

Given the fact that our transportation system basically consists of subways, and subways usually don’t stop at the water’s edge, what can be done to improve access?

A bus can, and a bus often doesn’t. You’ll see that New York Waterway, which is one of the major private [ferry] operators, started its own bus system to get people from midtown to their terminal on 39th Street. There are certain ferry stops where the subway system does meet [the waterfront]; up on the top of Manhattan by Marble Hill, there’s this little nexus of transport there that can have a ferry terminal right there. You’ll be able to use your MetroCard to go onto a ferry as well as use it on a bus or the subways.

The M.W.A. and 23 of its member organizations put out a plan for the East River citing 231 places along the river that need special attention. Can you summarize what they were and what that means?

It’s a variety. It means creating a great park on Roosevelt Island and maybe not putting a prison at Oak Point; stopping CSO’s [combined sewer outflows] from coming into the water. I don’t pretend every single one of them will fly, but it is a way to lift their agendas. It’s the broad idea that we want to enact.

It would seem that reclaiming the waterfront would be an easy sell. Why isn’t it?

I think, counterproductively, there have been fights among the different constituents. I think industrial retention and parks can live together wonderfully, and they strengthen each other’s case. There will come times when there might be issues where they are diametrically opposed, and at that point, we as an organization have to say, “Intelligent minds should disagree.”

There is a lot of common ground. The problem has been one of communication. As a role of convener, I will hopefully ameliorate that.

Do you have any personal interest or connection to the waterfront?

There was a point in my interview process where I said, “Look, I’m a housing guy. I don’t really …”—then I turned the thing and said, “Look, I’m exactly the guy. If I don’t get it, 99 percent of the people don’t get it.”

We’re a city of water. If I can get people like myself who live in the middle of Flatbush to understand there is a great water resource around them, and that they can engage in it and have fun with it and work with it, then I will have done a good turn.

On the City’s Final Frontier—the Waterfront