Redeveloping Urban Waterfront Property

Paul Ryckbost

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Last Updated: April 14, 2005


Urban waterfronts are the center points of many cities. These waterfronts began as commerce centers – transportation hubs, manufacturing centers and commercial areas. However, as transportation moved from bulk to container shipping and manufacturing moved out of cities (for various reasons), old industrial waterfronts became large swaths of unused property. In the past thirty years or so, these properties have become recognized as prime property for redevelopment across the United States and abroad.

Waterfront development and redevelopment has been a “hot” issue since the 1970's, when Baltimore , Maryland began its famous redevelopment project, converting old, underused waterfront property into economically viable space. Numerous other large – and small – scale developments have been undertaken since then, in such glamorous cities as Sydney , Australia and London , England , and in small towns, such as Portland , Michigan and Grand Haven, Michigan . I will take the reader through a brief introduction to waterfronts and their early history. I will then introduce a variety of questions which must be answered by citizens and public officials before they undertake a waterfront redevelopment project. Finally, I end with a brief look into the future of waterfront development. As with most issues regarding urban development today, much of this discussion is inherently focused on the economic development of a city, and, specifically, its connection to the waterfront.

What is a Waterfront?

What qualifies as waterfront property? Must an urban waterfront be located on an ocean or lake? In the development world, waterfront refers to any property that is adjacent to water, be it an ocean, lake, river or stream. Furthermore, waterfront property may only need to seem attached to the water to be considered waterfront, it is not necessarily required to be connected to the water. For example, the Pike's Place Public Market in Seattle , Washington is not adjacent to Puget Sound , yet its commanding view of the Sound and its relatively close location render it a waterfront property (Breen 22). Thus, any property that has a strong visual or physical connection to water can be considered waterfront.

A Brief History of Urban Waterfronts – from Vibrant to Vacant

Urban waterfronts began as commerce centers. They survived on trade. Whether a city or town was located on an inland river or an ocean port, its main focus was on the transportation of goods via water. In the 18 th , 19 th and early 20 th centuries, as the industrial revolution began to take shape and shipping and manufacturing began to become powerful sectors in economic growth, waterfronts too moved forward. The bulk transport of cargo required that manufacturing be done near the port, reducing further transportation costs. This resulted in the building of massive industrial buildings and warehouses along all types of waterfronts, from inland river towns to massive ocean ports.

As trade was focused on the waterfront, the city center was often located as close as possible to the water. The remnants of the development is visible in almost any modern city (located near water) today. In New York , Boston , Chicago , Paris , London and Amsterdam , to name a few, waterfront property figures prominently in the view of the city's commercial center.

Urban waterfronts, in the beginning of their development, however, lacked one main type of land use – residential. While sailors and some traders may have lived near the waterfront, the land was typically devoid of the upper class, the rising middle class, and even the lower class. Waterfronts were bustling commerce centers, but often dirty and smelly due to manufacturing and waterfront industrial uses, and people tended to avoid them in order to live in more peaceful areas. The lack of residential living may be one of the causes of the earlier demise of waterfront property. Now the inclusion of new residential property in redeveloped waterfronts is crucial.

In the early and mid 20 th century, waterfronts began to change. Transportation on water began to switch from bulk to container shipping, allowing massive waterfront transfer stations to be bypassed and left for other uses. It has been noted that there is no one main reason for the flight of manufacturing from cities, many factors are indeed involved. However, the new ease by which parts and materials could be transferred by container – on rails and roads – did permit manufacturing to move further and further from ports. As shipyards, bulk transfer facilities, warehouses and manufacturing facilities became vacant, urban waterfronts were left with large tracts of under-used, misused, and empty property. These properties often went into decay and became the eyesores of the community.

Moving Waterfronts from Vacant to Vibrant

Baltimore , Maryland was faced with such a problem. After the boom in waterfront activity due to World War II, its waterfront fell into decay. Large empty buildings dotted its inner harbor. A report in the 1960s indicated that, unless drastic measures were taken, the city would be in dire financial straights in ten years. Therefore, city leaders decided to plan a massive redevelopment of the empty properties within the inner harbor. After years of work and millions of dollars spent, the project has been an overall success, adding residential and commercial space to a one-time empty landscape. Waterfront cities and towns across the world have taken note and, starting in the 1970's, begun to radically alter the decaying urban waterfront.

Waterfront redevelopment has taken many different courses in the past thirty years. Many issues abound when a city or town decides to transform is vacant or underused waterfront. Two questions need to be asked before undertaking a waterfront redevelopment project: What is the vision for this waterfront? And, what happens after the vision? Each question is discussed below, with the first question being the primary discussion.

What is the vision for this waterfront?

A city or town must first and foremost determine what it intends its waterfront to be. Will it be a tourist attraction? Will it be intended as a shopping destination for its own current residents and/or the visitors who happen to find their way there? Will the waterfront be lined with mixed-use development or by large parks? Will the waterfront still be used as a commercial port, for shipping and/or fishing? These issues must be sorted out before a city can plan for the redevelopment of its waterfront.

Discussions of various waterfront visions


Should the waterfront redevelopment be based on tourism? What will the tourist attraction be? Will it be located on the waterfront, or be a part of the waterfront itself? For example, will the city locate a baseball stadium on the waterfront in order to provide a beautiful view of the bay (such as in San Francisco ), or will the city and private partners develop water-based recreation, such as fishing or sightseeing tours? Some cities have successfully undertaken waterfront attraction projects, but many others have not succeeded; Cleveland is still waiting for a large renewal of its central business district, despite massive spending on a football stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Retail and Housing

Should the waterfront be a retail destination? Will residents, and tourists, leave suburban malls and drive to the waterfront to shop? Should restaurants be built to pull in visitors? Will retail alone be enough to attract people to spend their time, and money, on the redeveloped waterfront? Or, should the waterfront include housing, or only housing? Will people move to the water's edge? Will these new residents have other amenities close by, such as grocery stores, restaurants, body shops, gas stations and more? These numerous questions may breed even more questions, but they need to be discussed before the waterfront is redeveloped. Creating a waterfront for an extremely specific group, such as new permanent waterfront residents, requires specific new development to satisfy their needs.


Should the waterfront instead be comprised of parkland and open space? Would residents or tourists come to the waterfront just to take in its views? Chicago has a prime example of an open waterfront along Lake Michigan , but it can be questioned how much economic impact the waterfront has on the city. It could be argued that the Chicago River, which flows through downtown Chicago , has higher economic impact, with is tourist boats and waterfront restaurants, than the Lake Michigan waterfront has. Parkland is often thought to be necessary for urban quality of life, as people like to lounge on green grass or use the typical amenities of parks (basketball courts, soccer fields, Frisbee, etc.).

Commercial Uses

Should the waterfront still be used as a commercial asset, as a shipping or fishing port? In ocean ports and large lake harbors, waterfronts may still consist of container yards, shipyards, and fishing docks. Should these uses take precedence over other waterfront development, such as restaurants or housing? Would the direct economic impact of a redeveloped commercial port be more defensible than the indirect impact of a mixed-use development?


Should the waterfront be a mixture of all the previous discussions? Should retail and housing co-mingle with tourist attractions? Can these tourist attractions feed off of commercial activity, such as port tours or commercial fishing tours? Some of the most successful waterfront redevelopment projects, such as Baltimore or Boston , are of this variety. The mixture of uses provides many avenues for economic development for the city and the waterfront. Residential spaces provide continual tax revenues, and commercial spaces provide sales and property taxes for the government. New jobs may be created to support the new residential areas (grocery stores, cafés, pubs, etc.), as well as at tourist attractions.

What happens after the vision?

Once the city has determined a vision for the waterfront, it must begin planning and implementing that vision. Master plans of the new waterfronts are crucial, as these plans guide new development in a cohesive manner. Public and private partnerships can be used to pay for the redevelopment of abandoned or under-used properties along a lakeshore. The multitude of financing options and redevelopment techniques are outside the scope of this paper, however. Mostly, it must be noted that after a vision is chosen and a plan is initiated, the politicians, planners, and citizens must work together to keep the vision intact and the redevelopment process moving forward.

The future of urban waterfronts

What is the future of the urban waterfront? Will they continue to redevelop themselves, making use of the natural beauty and attraction of water, or will they again decline as cities decentralize even more? This paper poses more questions than answers, but, as an introductory guide to those looking to redevelop their waterfronts, these are important questions that must be answered before such projects are undertaken. Much of the future of waterfront property may well depend on the health of center cities and waterfront towns, since waterfronts and downtowns are often intimately connected, either visually or physically. However, as long was water is around, people will desire to be near it. This should help drive waterfront development for years to come.


For further reading:

Breen, A. and D. Rigby, The New Waterfront: A Worldwide Urban Success Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996

Burayidi, M. A., Editor. Downtowns: Revitalizing the Centers of Small Urban Communities. New York : Routledge, 2001.

Marshall, R., Editor. Waterfronts in Post-Industrial Cities . New York : Spoon Press, 2001.

Torre, L.A. , Waterfront Development . New York : Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1989.

White, K N., E G. Bellinger, A J. Saul, M Symes, and K Hendry, eds. Urban Waterside Regeneration: Problems and Prospects. New York : Ellis Horwood Limited, 1993.