Local waterfront gets failing grades

By Samali Bikangaga. The Harlem River as seen from the East 132nd Street Pier. An environmental watchdog group gives the local waterfront some of the poorest grades in the city for cleanliness, resiliency from flooding and public access.

New scorecard rates local waterfront weak on cleanliness, public access and flood resistance

A new scorecard unveiled by a coalition of environmental groups this week rates Mott Haven’s riverfront among New York City’s worst in all three categories measured to gauge the health and vibrancy of 39 waterfront neighborhoods. The Harbor Scorecard, released by the Waterfront Alliance on June 1, issued Mott Haven its lowest possible score—a half-star out of three— for public access to the local waterfront. It was one of just five neighborhoods to receive that dubious distinction.

The Harlem River waterfront fared slightly better in the Scorecard’s other two categories, earning one-and-a-half of three for its potential strength at withstand flooding, and one out of three for water cleanliness.

One alarming measure of the local flood perils shows that 40 of the Bronx’s 69 waterfront sites at risk of contamination from flooding are located off the shores of Mott Haven and Port Morris. Hunts Point and Throgs Neck tied for the second most sites running that risk, with eight each.

The Hunts Point waterfront fared significantly better than Mott Haven/Port Morris’ overall, scoring two-and-a-half out of three stars for resiliency against flooding and two out of three for public access. Hunts Point’s four sites where visitors can “swim or touch water,” is the most among any of the 12 Bronx waterfront neighborhoods measured. However, Hunts Point earned just one out of three stars in the health category for water cleanliness, due to the high rate of sewage that seeps into the East and Bronx rivers. Thirty percent of the fish were found to be unhealthy for eating, according to the report.

Along with the symbolism of releasing the scorecard on the first day of a hurricane season forecasters predict will be a lively one, advocates noted an unintentional irony: President Donald Trump was hours away from pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.

“Leaving the Paris Accord is a stupid mistake,” said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance on the steps of City Hall, where he and some 30 activists joined him to announce the scorecard’s release.

Advocates for the troubled Mott Haven and Port Morris waterfront were conspicuously absent from the event on the steps of City Hall, however. That was because they were at the Bronx Borough President’s office, providing testimony to try to stop a plan to build housing on a 5-acre parcel at Mill Pond Park along the Harlem River, where the city promised a decade ago to build a riverside park.

A lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, Joan Leary Matthews, said the scorecard should help show planners the importance of “blanketing the city with new green spaces before rainwater flows into the sewers.”

Adam Green, the CEO of Hunts Point educational nonprofit Rocking the Boat, said the scorecard will help officials and environmentalists track the condition of the rivers more regularly, even as the federal government continues to gut environmental oversight regulations. Students at Rocking the Boat are taught how to sail, build boats and use science to monitor the health of the Bronx River from their waterfront campus.

“Every time it rains in the South Bronx, the pollution level goes sky high,” said Green, calling the narrow strip of the river that separates Hunts Point and Soundview “beautiful but dangerous.”

Lewis added that if Superstorm Sandy had made land on the Hunts Point peninsula just eight hours earlier than it did, “we would all have been on food lines,” from damage to the food distribution markets. “Hunts Point would have gotten wiped out.”

Despite the potential damage to Hunts Point’s low-lying markets, which lie right at the waterfront, residents may be relatively safe from catastrophic flooding because most residential buildings are on higher ground, said one veteran environmental official.

“The good news is that [Hunts Point’s residential area] is on a hill, 70 or so feet above water level,” said Carter Strickland, New York State Director of the Trust for Public Land and former head of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

But the markets are “where the vulnerability is,” said Strickland, who previously worked for an environmental firm looking to upgrade infrastructure along the Hunts Point waterfront.

Advocates for the troubled Mott Haven and Port Morris waterfront were conspicuously absent from the event on the steps of City Hall, however. That was because they were at the Bronx Borough President’s office, providing testimony to try to stop a plan to build housing on a 5-acre parcel at Mill Pond Park along the Harlem River, where the city promised a decade ago to build a riverside park.