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A Super Model for New York Harbor
by Peter B. Fleischer
Whatever else the sale of Governors Island to New York means to the city, the proposed creation there of a campus of City University is an opportunity to help cure a long-time problem -- New Yorkers' ignorance about their waterfront.
New York's waterways and wharves have shaped the city, allowing for centuries of growth. But today, only true students of the harbor know the location of the wildlife refuges, the container ports, the forts, the fishing spots and the wastewater plants. That is where Governors Island could come in. There is room there to build a museum-quality model of the harbor.
The scale model would depict the New York, New Jersey and Long Island waterfronts as well as the tidal portion of the Hudson River. Seawater and recycled fresh water would be pumped into the model to simulate the rising tide and the Hudson River flow. Ebb tide would drain into hidden storage tanks. The mix of waters would approximate the harbor's unique estuarine conditions. From vantage points alongside the model, visitors could view the harbor's depth profile, sunken ships and the evershifting flows.
Prominent manmade waterfront features such as bridges, forts, lighthouses, container cranes, factories, airports and docks would be portrayed alongside such natural features as New York's offshore islands, its mudflats, marshes, beaches and the Palisades. New Yorkers, who regularly forget they live on islands, could gain perspective on their coasts and waterways.
A similar model for San Francisco Bay is located in Sausalito, California. Though in an out-of-the-way suburb, it draws more than 300,000 visitors each year. Visitors see incoming tides filling the two-acre model and ebb tides draining it every fifteen minutes. They view the Delta's rice fields, the South Bay salt flats and racing water beneath the Golden Gate.
In Memphis, Tennessee, a two thousand-foot long Mississippi River model draws over 150,000 people annually. The hard-to-get-to Mud Island models the flow of water from its Minnesota source to the bayous of Louisiana. The shifting floodplain, levee system, and topography are depicted in cement relief.
In Sausalito, an exhibit details the effect of a proposed extension of San Francisco's airport runways on the Bay's water circulation. Along the Mississippi model, exhibits focus on the 1993 floods and the Civil War.
A New York harbor model could highlight local maritime history from Henry Hudson to the British Navy, from Fulton's steamboat to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Verazzano Narrows. The themes range from the natural to the heroic, from the decrepit to the renewed.
Hundreds of local maritime and environmental planners and researchers at the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Port Authority, the state, the city and a dozen local universities could use the model as a focal point for research and scenario testing. Possible uses include hurricane preparedness, oil spill response, water circulation, and shorefront development. Civic and environmental groups could use the model to explore impacts of governmental plans for the harbor. The model could become the region's long sought level playing field for informed discussion.
The model would also serve the millions of tourists that visit the nearby Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and WTC sites as well as two million area school children. Assuming the model draws a million paying customers, a $2 fee could cover the model's cost of operations and construction (perhaps as much as $7 million). But a model designed for academic use as well as tourism could also receive federal and state funding. Indeed, this model should be the downstate center for Governor Pataki's proposed Hudson River Institute.
This harbor model would fit the academic mission of the City University of New York. The model would complement proposed recreational and other public uses of this waterfront gem. In fact, a harbor model could be a key component of almost any plan for Governors Island. And it could be started soon.Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.
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