Landscape designer Naomi Brooks recently ditched her big country house and moved to Poughkeepsie, where her apartment in a converted fire station has a view of the sleek Walkway Over the Hudson. Fashioned from an old railroad bridge in October of 2009, the pedestrian span draws more than 500,000 visitors a year.
"I think I've been swept away," said Brooks, 54. "I'm within walking distance of everything the Hudson has to offer."
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A block from her home, at a renovated Metro-North train station, Brooks can hop aboard a Hudson Line train and be in Manhattan in 90 minutes. Her gentrifying neighborhood still harbors old Italian bakeries, and an influx of younger residents has brought with it trendy cafes and hiking trails that add another dimension to the community.
Up and down the Hudson, the theme repeats. Development is surging and new projects are multiplying based on three key selling points: proximity to New York City, access to Manhattan via Metro-North railroad lines and the vast commercial potential builders see in ingenious new approaches to the development of public spaces along the Hudson River waterfront.
The surge is driven by historic forces that have turned positive all at once.
First, major cleanups of contaminated old industrial sites are finally winding down and municipalities are rezoning the sites for mixed-use development.
Meanwhile, builders knocked flat by the 2008 recession are getting back on their feet. And lastly, in numerous instances, the complex process of getting projects approved, securing grants and lining up investors is coming to fruition.
Dozens of developers and public officials told Newsday that it all adds up to more than $1.6 billion worth of new development along the river, both public and private.
WESTCHESTER THE HOT SPOT
A majority of the action is taking place in Westchester County, the most affluent and populous of the Hudson Valley counties and the closest to Manhattan. Within the county, the charge is being led by the City of Yonkers. The region's southernmost municipality, sharing borders with New York City, is flush with a billion dollars' worth of projects, ranging from the $7.5 million renovation of the aging amphitheater at JFK Marina to the construction of apartment towers and the conversion of century-old industrial buildings into residences and retail spaces.
"Everything is ready to burst loose in a shared vision between the municipalities, the business community and environmental groups," said Steve Rosenberg, director of the land preservation program at Scenic Hudson, a Poughkeepsie-based environmental group.
Since 2000, Scenic Hudson has spent more than $58 million to salvage riverfront properties, including 23 parcels that have been either sold or donated back to local communities.
The surge of fresh development runs north to Poughkeepsie, where the Walkway's ripple effect is so powerful that tourism-oriented ventures are popping up across the river in the once sleepy Ulster County town of Lloyd.
Developer Joe Cotter's to-do list includes a $200 million town house complex in Tarrytown and a $10 million parking garage in Yonkers.
Cotter said that financing for new projects remains tight but can be arranged when the location is right. He emphasized the synergy between the river and the railroad. The most successful projects along the river take full advantage of both, Cotter explained.
"They need to be right on the river and right at a train station. That offers a lot of protection in this volatile economic environment," Cotter said.
Developers sing the praises of Metro-North, the smallest line run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority but now arguably the prettiest, thanks to $426 million in renovations during the past decade, according to MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders.
The improvements are anchored by two major station overhauls: a $38 million rehab of the Tarrytown stop in the Lower Hudson Valley and, upriver, a $35 million makeover of the Poughkeepsie station.
"We're the economic engine of the Hudson Valley," Anders said.
The successful completion of major cleanups represents the culmination of an effort that got under way nearly 40 years ago.
Rejuvenated sites in Poughkeepsie, Yonkers and Newburgh are bringing new businesses and jobs to all three, said William Janeway, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's regional director for the Hudson Valley. Janeway said the proximity of major cleanup sites -- once a drawback -- now works in favor of development, building momentum for the aggressive use of reclaimed sites.
"When you're next to one project going forward, it's easier to advance the cleanup of another one," Janeway said. "It's these clusters of sites that will be attractive for significant development and cleanup over the next five years."
Much of the riverfront development is shaped by a new approach to the design of urban environments devised at the Project for Public Spaces. One of the best-known proponents of that approach, which the company calls "The Power of 10," is Meg Walker, director of design at the company.
"The concept is that every great downtown, waterfront or park should have 10 great places," explained Walker. "And every one of those places should have 10 things that people can do."
Walker noted that "great places" can be anything from farmers markets and outdoor galleries to food kiosks and youth events. Part of a "great place" is variety, said Walker, who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson and was planning director in that community. She believes that access via walking, biking or mass transit -- or better yet all three -- is a must.
Working as a volunteer, Walker is putting her theories to the test at the Rivertowns Tourism Board, a group of merchants and residents from Hastings, Dobbs Ferry and Irvington promoting the three villages jointly as places that offer visitors a rich layering of activities. Tourists are encouraged to stroll from one village downtown to another on a walkway along the centuries-old Croton Aqueduct.
WALKWAYS, TRAILS A SELLING POINT, TOO
The linkage of public spaces with walkways is an important trend throughout the Hudson Valley. Westchester County has gone so far as to envision a 51.5-mile RiverWalk running through the entire county. More than 30 miles of the Westchester County network have been built, with new segments planned for Yonkers, Ossining and Dobbs Ferry, according to county officials.
To the north, Dutchess and Ulster counties are carving out more than 14 miles of new trails on each side of the Walkway Over the Hudson.
Frequently, the walkways are built over the railroad tracks that were essential to the riverfront during its industrial phase. The tracks are being remade along lines of the acclaimed High Line on Manhattan's West Side.
"Rectangular parks like ballfields are only used by a limited number of people during a limited number of hours a day, but a 'rail trail' is used at all hours, by a broader population, walking dogs, exercising or biking to work or school," said Craig Della Penna, a consultant to developers.
Here is a rundown of key development projects along the Hudson River, by county:
The big-money development is in Westchester, where Yonkers is leading the way with nearly two dozen projects that are either shovel-ready or under construction.
The city's ambitious plans for transforming its 4.5 miles of riverfront focus on the Saw Mill River, a 23-mile tributary that originates to the north, in Chappaqua, and enters the Hudson River at Yonkers. The river has been mostly buried in underground tunnels as it passes through the city, but it won't be for long.
Just steps from the city's Metro-North train station -- in an area that already features riverfront restaurants, residential towers and green spaces -- a section of the Saw Mill River buried for decades beneath a parking lot has been unearthed to become the star of the $18 million Van der Donck Park, which opened in September at Larkin Plaza. Yonkers plans to uncover a second segment of the river as an anchor for a $3 million courtyard at Mill Street, where five vacant, 19th-century factory buildings are undergoing a $22 million conversion into loft apartments with street-level shops and restaurants.
Also pending is a $110 million proposal to bring mixed-use development to a section of the city known as "Chicken Island." Developer Louis Cappelli's detailed plans are due for review by February 2013.
The Saw Mill has become "an environmental draw," said Kimball Wilson, the city's waterfront development director. "That's what makes us different from other cities and towns: We have this city built on top of this river."
The range of projects on the books could pour thousands of construction jobs into Yonkers, with the potential for at least 1,000 permanent jobs, Wilson said. Redevelopment will get a boost from $500,000 in new street lighting and sidewalk improvements. Even the iconic, four-faced standing clock at Getty Square will be replaced. Much of the funding for the street improvements comes from a federal Community Development Block Recovery Grant.
Activity in Rockland is concentrated in the Haverstraw area, with projects ranging from United Water's controversial proposal for a water desalination treatment plant at West Haverstraw -- now in the test project phase -- to plans for a new destination restaurant at a former chair factory on Liberty Street, to another 500-unit residential complex at the 25-acre Harbors at Haverstraw gated community.
But Rockland County officials said the most important driver of waterfront growth is taking shape several miles inland. Nanuet Mall, a '70s style enclosed mall now undergoing a $150 million makeover by owner Simon Property Group, is scheduled to reopen in 2013. Developers believe that new mall -- built around a town square layout with the county's first Fairway Market as anchor tenant -- will boost economic activity throughout the county.
"It will bring people into our riverfront communities like Haverstraw, Nyack, Piermont and Stony Point," said Steve Porath, director of the Rockland County Industrial Development Agency. "This type of shopping will complement those small retail main streets."
The Walkway Over the Hudson continues to be the major story in Dutchess County. The success of the walkway has spawned plans to build a 21-story glass elevator that will finally allow visitors to go directly from the converted bridge to Poughskeepsie's streets. The elevator tower will be built within walking distance of both the Metro-North train station and the waterfalls of Fallkill Creek.
Next to the elevator, the Dyson Foundation is in the process of buying a 2.5-acre site that includes two houses dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, with plans to incorporate them into a new $2.5 million park.
Across the street from the Dyson site, on the banks of the creek, is another park project sponsored by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an environmental organization from Beacon founded by folk singer Pete Seeger. Also in the works is a system of signs -- all will bear the Walkway logo -- to direct tourists to the train station, parks and restaurants.
The Town of Lloyd is getting a major boost from its location at the western end of Walkway Over the Hudson. Highland Landing Park, once home to the river port used by local farms, factories and even visiting whaling ships, is now undergoing a $3 million transformation. A new steel bulkhead and landing dock will stabilize the shoreline enough to welcome tourism vessels, in hopes of building visitor traffic between the park and the walkway, said Matt Smith, the park project manager.
The new park will include a new river walk and landing ramps for private boats, canoes and kayaks as well. Smith believes it will appeal to students and local residents as well as tourists.
"They're going to develop a connection with the river, and it's going to be important to them for the rest of their lives," Smith said.
In Kingston, the Sloop Clearwater team is building a new home port for the 106-foot-long sloop, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sails the river running environmental education tours. The $1.24 million port will be located at the Hudson River Maritime Museum and will likely add to tourism activity in Roundout, a historic waterfront district featuring art galleries, restaurants and shops.
Newburgh has just completed the cleanup of its Consolidated Iron waterfront factory site, but there are no immediate plans for development because "we don't have any funds at the moment," city manager Richard Herbek said. Consequently, the city is concentrating its efforts on making the industrial waterfront more attractive to developers. Newburgh wants to bring in projects that combine residential construction with new retail and office space.
"We know we need to update the zoning laws," Herbek said, adding, "The entire zoning code needs to be updated."
Scenic Hudson has begun a $3.6 million renovation of the old Cold Spring iron foundry, a property it owns in Cold Spring, now the county's top tourist destination. When the 87-acre West Point Foundry Preserve reopens on Kemble Avenue in fall 2013, the historically themed site will have marked trails, a 50-car parking lot and an education center with information about the munitions plant that once built Parrott guns, the cannon that helped the North to win the Civil War.