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Who Needs a Working Waterfront, Anyway?

The increasing recognition of waterfronts as a recreational and redevelopment asset belies its continued value for trade and industry. Will Doig makes the case for the oft-antagonized shipping industry in the tug-of-war over waterfront real estate.
March 14, 2012, 9am PDT | Ryan Lue
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Often described as a public asset, the waterfront has a way of captivating the public imagination, inviting frequent controversies over who gets to develop on it, and what.

Consider, for example, the case of two deep-water berths in Providence, Rhode Island that were sold to a metal recycling company late last year. The "battle [had] been raging in Providence for several years," Doig reports – "on one side, a developer who wanted to turn the shoreline into apartments, offices and hotels. On the other, the maritime industries that have been working there since the turn of last century." Shortly after industry won out, the complaints started rolling in: "Who put this big, ugly heap of metal on our lovely industrial port?"

Doig points out that the reality of waterfront industry stands sharply at odds with the imagined nostalgia of old-time working docks often invoked by many developers and "seen as a way to lure high-earning residents."

But while the shipping industry is soaring – "the container trade has doubled since 2000, and 2012 is expected to be another record-breaking year" – the benefit of booming real estate developments tends to be much shorter-lived. Take New Jersey's "Gold Coast," where in the 1980s, new residents lawyered the scrapyard and repair docks out of town, only for the real estate market to slump not too long thereafter.

Doig highlights a number of advantages that a working waterfront offers: high-paying, blue-collar jobs; environmentally cleaner shipping than trucks or trains; and a more diverse urban economy.

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Published on Saturday, March 10, 2012 in Salon
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