Building on New York’s Case for More Sustainable Waterfronts

The Waterfront Alliance, an organization encompassing hundreds of groups that have as their goal improving over 700 miles of shoreline in the New York/New Jersey area, has developed the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) for waterfront real estate projects and sites. The alliance hopes the guidelines can serve as a guide to sustainable and sensible waterfront development similar to other ratings systems—such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines—taking into consideration ecology, access, and resilience.

WEDG launched the nationally applicable version of the rating system this March after initially piloting a New York–specific set of guidelines. A small number of real estate projects in New York City have been certified under the guidelines, including the Domino Sugar factory site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is being redeveloped by Two Trees. Parks in New York City, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park and Greenpoint Landing, have also been certified by WEDG.

ULI New York assembled a technical assistance panel (TAP) in summer 2017 to consider the business case for the guidelines and to assist the Waterfront Alliance in its efforts to expand WEDG from its New York–specific origins to serve as a national standard. ULI New York recently produced a report of its conclusions to coincide with the launch of the national guidelines, showcasing both the many promising aspects of WEDG and the potential for ambiguities as well as obstacles to widespread adoption and applicability.

“The ULI TAP was an invaluable experience to our program during its revision,” said Kate Boicourt, program manager of WEDG for the Waterfront Alliance. “The advice provided by TAP members influenced the direction of our revision of WEDG, making the newest version stronger, more accessible, and more likely to be adopted.

“The new version and business plan for the program were influenced by, and reflect many of the recommendations contained in this report, including a greater alignment with existing ratings systems (LEED, SITES, Envision, and others) and the insurance industry, a refinement of the business case for WEDG, and new target users,” she said.

The TAP featured a team of ULI members, including real estate developers with current waterfront projects, architecture and planning representatives, and others. The TAP process included interviews with a range of professionals involved in development of the guidelines, as well as members of regulatory agencies and asset protection organizations.

The team ultimately concluded that the guidelines represent a promising resource, but that the business case currently is too theoretical and qualitative to drive widespread market adoption. “Without quantifiable incentives that decrease development costs or increase development yields, most developers will not invest time and money in pursuing WEDG certification,” the report notes.

A key focus of discussions throughout the TAP was the need for the Waterfront Alliance to focus more on why real estate developers would choose to use the guidelines. Addressing this may entail both more engagement with the real estate sector and outreach to municipalities to explore the development of incentives tied to the use of WEDG.

Brian Collins, head of development at Fisher Brothers, noted that the guidelines appeared to do a good job of suiting public policy goals, being devised by “people who know a lot more about waterfront design than I do and more than I will ever know.” However, they required some additional tweaking to be of use to the developers at work creating commercial developments. He noted that the guidelines seemed to be excellent from the standpoint of the community, but were not yet of clear appeal to “the person cashing the check.”

TAP chair Peter Liebowitz, vice president of WSP USA, noted that whereas other elements of site planning were explored in detail, buildings themselves—and the reasons for erecting them in the first place—were not as much of a focus. A developer “might be more interested in more nudges to what they’re building instead of other parts of their design,” he said.

Matthew Steenhoek, vice president of development at PN Hoffman, developer of the Wharf, a 24-acre (2.7 ha), 3 million-square-foot (279,000 sq m) mixed-use development on Washington D.C.’s southwest waterfront, found much in the guidelines that was helpful. “It’s a great program, and I think what they’re doing as a clearinghouse of best practices is great,” he said. However, “it remains to be seen how it can be commercialized” in ways specific enough for his purposes or, he speculated, the purposes of many others.

The TAP panelists’ concerns reflected other conclusions reached in the report. If guidelines become a means of expediting construction progress or approval, they would be seen as desirable. Also, if they acquired a LEED-like cachet among clients or tenants, they would be of interest. The report notes that Two Trees’ “use of WEDG certification may have increased community acceptance of the Domino Sugar redevelopment.” If the guidelines become a general standard, they would definitely constitute a carrot to the real estate industry.

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Kate McCartyenvironment