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Year Of The Ferry: The Centerpiece Of New York’s Waterfront Renaissance

Eastern Consolidated Senior Managing Director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper visit the New Stand on the NYC Ferry

Once an industrial landscape, the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront is now home to a series of luxury residential towers with direct access to a network of ferries. The boats give residents an alternative form of transportation for the price of a one-way subway ride. 

On a recent tour of the East River with Eastern Consolidated Senior Managing Director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper, Bisnow caught a glimpse of the transforming waterfront via the NYC Ferry.

The NYC Ferry, which launched last year as part of a public-private partnership between the city of New York and Hornblower, has become the catalyst for the further redevelopment of industrial spaces into desirable waterfront destinations, Draper said.

The service reached its 3 million-passenger milestone after one year, exceeding ridership expectations and prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio last week to pledge another $300M to double the capacity of its fleet. The service, which offers six routes along the East River and plans to add two additional routes this summer, will soon connect neighborhoods from the South Bronx to the Rockaways.

“Many people concerned about the city’s transportation look to the future to figure out what we can do,” Draper said. “What we should be doing, and what the city is doing, is looking back to our history and the role waterfront transportation played in our development. We have spent so much time trying to get away from the water but now, in the 21st century, everything is being developed back on the waterfront.”

34th Street

The Midtown East skyline, with the 34th Street ferry terminal bottom center

Ferries are a part of New York City’s early history. Before there were bridges and tunnels, boats shuttled the Dutch between then New Amsterdam’s various islands. At one point, 147 boats were in use across the Hudson and East rivers. Following the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the subway system, people moved inland, and oil refineries, factories and warehouses lined the shores. 

For decades, the East River waterfront, especially on the Brooklyn side, remained industrial, until rezoning under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and now Mayor Bill de Blasio, allowed for the development of mixed-used, high-density projects. Looking out from the East 34th Street ferry dock, the Long Island City and Brooklyn skylines are a mix of modern high-rises, waterfront parks and collections of brick warehouses waiting to be transformed. 

“What was industrial is now a row of iconic buildings,” Polsinelli said. “Not to mention that the best views of Manhattan are not in Manhattan, but from Brooklyn and Queens. It’s a visual that not many native New Yorkers have taken advantage of.”

Midtown Manhattan’s waterfront has also been no stranger to revitalization. Adjacent to the ferry terminal, the dual-towered American Copper Building started leasing its apartments last year, and an additional 13,400 SF of ground-floor retail space will serve the Murray Hill community. 

The stretch of land parallel to the FDR Highway has also long been a hub for medical facilities, lab space and research institutions. New York University maintains a medical campus along the waterfront, and the recently opened Alexandria Center, a life science campus developed by Alexandria Real Estate Equities, offers a 15K SF lab and office incubator space in addition to long-term lease space.

“After Superstorm Sandy, many of these waterfront buildings were upgraded to meet storm-proof building standards,” Polsinelli said. “The investment in waterfront real estate, including the ferry, highlights New York City’s role as a leading life science and tech center.”

Long Island City

Digital signage within the ferry provides passengers with route information

As soon as the last passenger boards, the high-speed ferry glides away from the dock toward the next destination. On board, the concession stand sells everything from newspapers to craft beers and wine. The hull design limits wakes, making the trip smooth, and in less than five minutes, the ferry pulls into the Long Island City dock. 

Once an industrial hub for New York City, LIC is a prime example of the waterfront’s transformation into a desirable place to live and work. The Queens neighborhood, now a residential and commercial destination, will feed into the future student population commuting to the Cornell University tech campus on Roosevelt Island. The Astoria line of the NYC ferry services both Roosevelt Island and LIC commuters, providing a scenic alternative to the subway. 

“One of the big things we are trying to do on this tour is explain the ease by which people can get to Queens, and soon the Bronx, by taking the ferry,” Draper said. “It is the cheapest, fastest, most effective way to expand the transit system in New York. We have been on the ferry for only five minutes, and we’ve already gone from 34th Street to Long Island City.”


The Greenpoint, surrounded by neighboring construction projects

Industrial development forced subway and transit lines away from the waterfront, making Brooklyn neighborhoods like Greenpoint difficult to get access, requiring either two trains or a combination of buses. The ferry now connects these far-flung communities to the rest of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. 

Accessibility has encouraged developers to build along the waterfront. At The Greenpoint, future residents of the 40-story building can head directly from the dock to their apartment. On the ground floor, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson will debut his first Brooklyn restaurant concept.

The Greenpoint currently towers over a waterfront in progress. Construction sites flank either side of the property, with more projects on the horizon. 

“Greenpoint is the next hot neighborhood,” Polsinelli said. “What happened in Williamsburg is now expanding to Greenpoint. The waterfront won’t look like this two to five years from now, and the ferry will be the main reason the area will become accessible.”


Eastern Consolidated Senior Managing Director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper in front of The Edge in Williamsburg

In Williamsburg, The Edge preceded the ferry stop. But now tenants of the residential high-rise development and community residents have direct access to the rest of Brooklyn and Manhattan via a dock steps from the property.   

“It’s an example of a public-private partnership,” Draper said. “Even if you don’t live at the Edge, the ferry is benefiting the general population in the neighborhood.”

The Edge is a prime example of developers of Class-A projects finding value in an alternative form of transportation. In an analysis of rentals within a 10-minute walk of the ferry service, rents grew about 1.5 % faster in the last year than those up to a half-hour away from ferry locations throughout Brooklyn. 

420 Kent Ave. in Williamsburg

At the South Williamsburg ferry stop, 420 Kent is nearing completion. Comprised of three multidimensional glass towers designed by ODA New York, 420 Kent will feature 857 residential apartments, 20K SF of retail space, over 25K SF of indoor amenities and 80K SF of outdoor space. It will serve as a new gateway to the rest of Williamsburg.

Destinations like Peter Luger Steak House, NYC’s oldest steakhouse, once difficult to get to for New Yorkers living outside of Williamsburg, are now more readily accessible. 


Eastern Consolidated Senior Managing Director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper in front of the Brooklyn Bridge

A combination of park space, retail and residential built in and around landmarked warehouse space, the DUMBO waterfront is an example of what the rest of the NYC waterfront will soon look like. The NYC ferry is the final piece in the placemaking puzzle.

“Ferries act as placemaking, literally creating a dot on the map,” Draper said. “The ferries signal that this is a destination. From a tourist point of view, too. Many art galleries located in waterfront neighborhoods, as well as restaurants and bars, are preparing for the influx of visitors.” 

“The ferry stimulates the local economy and its cultural centers, including the retail and entertainment in every neighborhood,” Polsinelli said. “You wouldn’t have wanted to visit many of these neighborhoods 10 years ago, but now everyone wants to live here.”

Wall Street

Eastern Consolidated Senior Managing Director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper look out at One World Trade Center and Pier 17

The ferries offer more than a convenient commute. They will connect all the cultural and entertainment centers of the city, with venues popping up along the waterfront.

Near the Wall Street stop, the recently restored Pier 17 will host concerts on the roof. A symbol of Lower Manhattan's transformation from commuter hub to a residential neighborhood, venues that offer entertainment and after-work activities have cropped up in the area.

Beyond Wall Street, the ferry connects New Yorkers to festivals like the Taste of The Rockaways, once a difficult event to attend for residents outside of Queens.

“We’ve spent years avoiding the NYC waterfront because it was dirty and polluted,” Draper said. “Now it is going back to the way it used to be. People are seeing the beauty and the potential.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Eastern Consolidated. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.