From green industry to waterfront parks, activists plan a cleaner future for Newtown Creek in Queens

The Newtown Creek at the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge on the Long Island City/Brooklyn border
Photo via Riverkeeper

Over the last two centuries, the Newtown Creek on the Brooklyn/Queens border devolved from a clean, bucolic waterway amid farming communities into a fetid, sewage- and petroleum-filled tributary amid an industrial wasteland.

So polluted is the creek that it’s now a federal Superfund site, and it’ll likely take billions of dollars — and perhaps more than a decade of remedial work — to undo all those years of chemical and biological pollution.

Even so, the clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper is prepared to take the lead in shaping a cleaner, greener future for the six-mile waterway from the East River in Long Island City to the Ridgewood/Brooklyn border. Riverkeeper, in conjunction with the design firm Perkins+Will, released on March 15 a comprehensive report outlining methods to revitalize the creek.

The 158-page report details a vision that provides for a creek clean enough to fish, boat and swim safely; new waterfront parks to give tens of thousands of nearby residences access to nature and recreation; repurposed industrial sites allowing for businesses to thrive while protecting the environment; and a stronger shoreline to guard surrounding neighborhoods from coastal flooding.

“The potential social, economic and environmental benefits of restoring these waterways and their abutting neighborhoods are significant,” said Mike Aziz, senior urban designer for Perkins+Will. “Our work creates a new model for urban, industrial waterways that emphasizes resilience, remediation, recreation and restoration equally.”

The plan — released in conjunction with a similar proposal for cleaning up Flushing Creek — resulted from numerous meetings with members of communities living near the Newtown Creek. That included members of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG), which was formed shortly after the federal Environmental Protection Administration declared the creek a Superfund site in 2010.

Last April, the Newtown Creek CAG developed 12 “vision principles” to clean and revitalize the waterway in the years ahead:

  1. Remove all contaminated sediment;
  2. Address combined sewer overflows and stormwater discharge;
  3. Make fish safe for consumption;
  4. Improve water quality to swimmable levels;
  5. Protect and promote marine wildlife;
  6. Restore shorelines of the creek and its tributaries (Maspeth Creek, Whale Creek, English Kills and Dutch Kills);
  7. Allow for navigational channels;
  8. Preserve industrial core;
  9. Continue mixed use of the waterway;
  10. Robust community participation;
  11. Increased public access for education and recreation; and
  12. Take into account climate change.

The city and state have already taken measures to make the creek a little cleaner — including efforts to reduce sewage overflows into the waterway. But the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan won’t be ready until 2020 or 2021, with a final decision to be made a year thereafter. It make take another 15 years for Newtown Creek to be cleaned to its fullest based on the improvements from that action plan.

The vision outlined in the Riverkeeper/Perkins+Will proposal unveiled on March 15 addresses repurposing and strengthening the waterfront areas on both sides of the creek.

“Our focus was to outline transformative paths for Newtown Creek: ways to generate greater habitat, community access and sustainable use for decades to come,” said Willis Elkins, project manager at the Newtown Creek Alliance, which was part of the public outreach and plan development process. “We hope the plan inspires local communities and other urban waterways.”

Recreation figures heavily in the vision. At Dutch Kills, planners proposed a new park along 29th Street complete with a wetland ecosystem, a park pavilion and a boat launch for canoe drivers and kayakers. Closer to the new Kosciuszko Bridge on the Maspeth/Brooklyn border, the planners envision a new waterfront, multi-purpose park and oyster gardens along nearby bulkheads.

The vision also calls for Maspeth Creek — near the former Phelps Dodge smelting site that closed nearly four decades ago — to be transformed into a new wetland with a mussel island to encourage the growth of aquatic wildlife.

At the end of the creek on the Ridgewood/Brooklyn border, planners call for the construction of a new Grand Street Bridge to replace the current span that’s more than a century old and is too narrow for most large vehicles to pass each other simultaneously. There’s also the proposed construction of a berm near Western Beef supermarket, one of a number of proposed measures along the creek designed to prevent storm surge flooding.

The vision, of course, is not a final plan for the Newtown Creek, but one which Riverkeeper sees as a roadmap for a waterway that’s not beyond salvation.

“We see Newtown Creek not as an unapproachable problem, or as forgotten a waterway; rather, we see waterways teeming with aquatic life, active recreational communities, clean water stewards and committed educators,” according to the report’s executive summary. “We see a waterway with great potential.”

Click here to download and read the full report.