The compulsion to live by the water seems to be a primal one that affects humans across cities and countries.
Back in the day, it was out of necessity—easy access to fresh water facilitated day-to-day life—but, today, especially given climate change-adjacent disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, it seems almost counterintuitive to want to live by a body of water, especially in a city like New York, an island whose brush with weather-related disasters has brought it to its knees in the past.
It all begs a number of questions: why are New Yorkers still obsessed with waterfront living? How are developers reacting to the trend and, as a result, how is the city’s waterfront perennially shifting?
“It seemed, in those hellish, chaotic days after [Hurricane Sandy], as people mucked out of the lobbies of expensive condominiums in Dumbo and walked through the destruction in the Rockaways, that New Yorkers would finally retreat from the harbor,” Ginia Bellafante writes in The New York Times. “But that is not what happened. Over the past decade, we have gone in a very different direction, populating the waterfront even more enthusiastically, especially along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens.”
The journalist goes on to note that, according to New York's Buildings Department, 225 permits "have been issued for new apartment buildings in flood zones since January 1, 2013." That's a pretty staggering figure considering the damage that Hurricane Sandy unleashed across similar neighborhoods just the year prior, in 2012.
“A simple glance at the water feels heart opening and being able to enjoy it from my own balcony, in the comfort of my own home, is even more therapeutic,” New York City resident Paulina Hagiage tells us. She lives by the East River and acknowledges that potential disasters like Sandy didn’t really factor into her family’s choice of neighborhood.
“I don’t see climate change having an immediate impact on my whereabouts just yet,” Hagiage says, arguing that the frequency of hurricanes and storms doesn’t feel pressing enough to dictate her living arrangements just yet. “I have thought about potentially needing to inhabit a new planet because of it, but have not yet thought about relocating on this one.”
It’s the unobstructed city and water views that keep Upper East Side resident Debbie Klyman in her waterfront apartment.
“With floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the apartment, we never get tired of the view,” she tells us. “Our toddler also spends half his time looking at passing boats on the river. He loves living by the water.” Even children have the urge to glance at a river, it seems.
When asked whether climate change-related issues factored into her family's decision to live by the East River, Klyman mentions that selecting an apartment on a high floor put some of their worries at bay.
"The only thing we thought of is the fact that our street is windy because it's by the water," she says. "But that didn't change our decision to move here."
The idea of calm and relaxation associated with water, especially when juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of New York City, seems to be a major theme within conversations about waterfront living.
“When looking at units in my building, most of them had views pointing in non-waterfront directions,” says Daniel Nabavian, who lives in Williamsburg. “When I saw the waterfront view unit, I fell in love. It was like adding an extra 100 square feet of space to the apartment. I paid the reasonable premium for it—I canceled my gym membership.”
That being said, Nabavian is not oblivious to the potential perils associated with his living arrangements.
“My building is in a flood zone,” he says. “I moved in soon after Sandy and I remember taking that into consideration but it didn’t play much of a role. There are so many other more important factors that have an effect on your day-to-day. I know that the chances and severity of these storms have increased. Sandy was described as a once-a-century storm. Maybe now it’s a once-in-a-decade storm. I’m still willing to deal with that over being in an unsafe, rodent-infested, noisy and cramped neighborhood.”
Clearly, the beauty of the water outweighs the potential risks of a flood—but rats are a whole other story, it seems!
City residents are not alone in their way of thinking. Developers and real estate tycoons have invested loads of money in waterfront properties in recent years, in order to indulge this seemingly primal urge to be able to glance at some form of water from the comfort of one’s own living room.
Bjarke Engels and Two Trees, for example, are behind River Ring, a former industrial site that is being transformed into a housing complex on the continuous public waterfront in North Brooklyn. Not only will the area benefit from its proximity to the East River on a real estate front, but it will actually use the water as part of its design, with a circular breakwater structure jutting out into the river and surrounded by salt marshes and tidal flats designed to soak up storm surges.
There’s also River Park Brooklyn, a collection of five residences located along the Brooklyn waterfront between Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo, comprised of, according to an official press release, “restored landmarks, contemporary townhomes and sculptural towers that float above a bucolic neighborhood and the East River.”
Lest you think Queens to be immune to the trend, think again: Astoria West is a new residential community in western Astoria situated along the East River waterfront’s Cove Beach that’s also making the news.
"We live in a very busy city, where everyone is running at full speed all the time and its people like the ability to go home and clear their minds and the river is a great aid in that," says Craig Wood of Cape Advisors, the developers behind Astoria West, also noting the shift in New York’s waterfront properties. Once destinations for industrial warehouses, for example, the areas are not a hotbed of luxurious, residential properties.
The real estate expert is also quick to note that proximity to water isn't only aesthetically pleasing, but can offer quick transportation options in a city plagued by perennial traffic. "The fact that we have the ferry right across from us does wonders," he says. "I think lots of neighborhoods around New York will start getting around via water."
The dedication to a waterfront lifestyle is so intense that it has bled into other aspects of the real estate market as well, affecting projects that don’t have anything to do with where people live.
Take the Gansevoort Peninsula in the Meatpacking District, for example, which is expected to be the home of the first public beach in Manhattan when the project is completed by the spring of 2023. The four-mile-long park between Gansevoort Street and Little West 12th Street will be part of Hudson River Park and include Little Island, the artificial island park in the Hudson River that opened recently, and even be home to a permanent installation by artist David Hammons built by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Sarah Patton, the managing director of new development at Compass, finds New Yorkers' inherent predilection for waterfront living to be in line with a post-COVID-19 world that reminds us of the importance of greenery and nature.
"It has a lot to do with wellness," she notes. "But, post-COVID, we've also seen lots of people get cars and houses outside of the city—and it's much easier to get out from a waterfront location than from central Manhattan."
Patton does, however, acknowledge that developers cannot be blind to the potential dangers associated with the rivers. "American Copper, for example, was built with a particular resiliency plan in mind," she explains while discussing the luxury residential skyscrapers in Murray Hill overlooking the East River.
The structure’s generators were put up high in the building so that all 10 elevators could be operational if there was ever a flood. Patton also explains that the developers “made sure all the generators would give power to all refrigerators in the building, plus one outlet per unit.”
Given the city’s popularity and real estate history, it’s no surprise that developers are willing to turn every crevice of space into an apartment building. A mere five or six years ago, for example, Long Island City was considered no-man’s-land. Today, born and bred New Yorkers have flocked to the area.
That being said, what does New Yorkers’ scoffing at the potential dangers associated with waterfront living say about our town? Perhaps, that we don’t find climate change to be as imminently disastrous as we claim we do. Or, maybe, that the romanticism involved in calling a body of water your next-door neighbor makes a doomed future more palatable.
Or, perhaps, it all points to our faith in the powers of the city and our officials.
“New York City has been investing heavily in its waterfront ever since it was re-zoned,” says the Brooklyn resident. “I hope they are also investing in systems to mitigate flood damage.”
For what it’s worth, New York is doing something. Back in July, for example, the city released its “Rainfall Ready NYC” outline, which includes updated flood zone maps that will help citizens understand whether they live in an at-risk area or not. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is also planning on providing sandbags and flood barriers to residents in at-risk neighborhoods but whether that will make a difference if a disaster happens is yet to be seen.
Unfortunately, it might take another storm to really prove the worth of those efforts. Until then, we’ll have our morning coffee while staring at the boats crossing the river and reveling in the fact that, despite living in a concrete jungle, a soothing body of water is right here for us to gaze at whenever we need to.