When an Expansive Waterfront View Promises More Than It Can Deliver

October 14, 2008 at 5:57 pm Leave a comment

A few years ago, Elizabeth Mulvihill, a retired Suffolk County school principal, made the unlikely move from Long Island to South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ms. Mulvihill had reached a time in her life when she did not want to be driving anymore. So she sold her car and started looking for a spacious apartment in the city that she could afford; something, above all, with convenient transportation.

She ended up sinking a chunk of her savings into a $1,040,000 two-bedroom apartment with stunning views in Schaefer Landing, a development of three buildings on the East River that opened in 2006. The closest subway stop is a mile away, uphill, but Ms. Mulvihill’s real estate broker assured her that regular ferry service would connect her to Manhattan — a breezy 15-minute ride. And the developer’s brochure showed ferries crisscrossing the river from the new shiny tower.

When Ms. Mulvihill arrived, in December 2006, the ferry — which makes four runs daily in each direction, at $4.50 per one-way trip (less for more frequent riders) — was one of those dream amenities that are usually the purview of other, more livable cities, places with direct trains to airports and unfailingly polite cab drivers. From her living room on the 10th floor, she could see the yellow New York Water Taxi coasting in her direction, and would head downstairs to catch it in time for a doctor’s appointment in Midtown or a meeting with a client of her educational consulting business.

But last year, right around Christmas, the ferry stopped. The company told riders it could not afford to run in winter, when its year-round, tourist-friendly ferry lines around Manhattan were too short on business to subsidize the not-yet-profitable commuter line crossing the East River. Life changed dramatically for Ms. Mulvihill, who lives alone. She sometimes took the bus to the L train, but even that involved a haul uphill, and the wait seemed endless, and then she would have to transfer once she got to Manhattan. A trip to the doctor that once took 15 minutes stretched to over an hour.

“I found myself feeling stranded,” Ms. Mulvihill recalled. “You get depressed. You just don’t want to leave the house.” Her bright, sunny apartment started to feel like a glass cage — through which she could still see that shiny strip of water separating her from a more active life. Water, water everywhere, but no way to cross it.

The ferry service resumed this spring, but last week Ms. Mulvihill and other neighbors in Schaefer Landing learned that the company would be halting it again for the cold-weather months, this time starting Nov. 1. It seems that New York Water Taxi had been expecting to find out this summer whether the city had accepted a bid it submitted two years ago for a contract that would have made it the beneficiary of a subsidy in 2010 that the government had pledged for ferry service. The company had planned to keep running the ferry without interruption provided it could cover basic operating costs with some help from the city. But the city has not reached a decision, and given that agencies were just ordered to cut $1.5 billion from the budget over two years, any new financial commitments — even small ones, like the $40,000 per month the ferry company says it would need — strike some people as uncertain at best.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said City Councilman David Yassky, whose district includes the area of South Williamsburg where glass towers are springing up at a pace that makes Duane Reade’s expansion look sluggish. “It’s very easy to picture this administration canceling that 2010 commitment,” added Mr. Yassky, who is pressing the city to offer a subsidy now. “Once they get started, it’s a lot harder to cancel it.”

With city grants to nonprofits drying up and schools ordered to slash $185 million from the current budget, it is perhaps understandable that subsidizing a luxurious amenity for a few hundred owners of fancy condominiums might not seem a priority. But without steady ferry service, the developers will probably have a much harder time selling the buildings, which, even on younger legs than Ms. Mulvihill’s, are at least a 15-minute walk from the subway.

Even before the stock market crashed, it seemed likely that the area was overextending itself with new housing; a ferry service that can’t be counted on could create a full-blown glut. And the ferry subsidy is a pittance compared with the tens of millions of dollars that the city has extended to the area to subsidize affordable housing (not to mention $1.25 million for the South Williamsburg ferry landing).

“A priority for this administration is to encourage the use of waterborne commutation to ease congestion on our roadways,” said Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, adding that the city and the City Council would eventually subsidize ferry service on the East River.

But Councilman Yassky’s anxiety reflects the general fear of what happens when a city’s development expands ahead of the infrastructure — and a stock market collapse makes the chicken-and-egg dynamic all the more precarious, turning new expenses, no matter how small, into a hard sell. Sometimes even the smallest distances simply can’t be bridged.

Now in limbo, an area that is eager to attract pioneers is already losing some of the ones it already has: Ken Stein, the president of the board of the south building at Schaefer Landing, says he knows of two tenants who will not renew their leases because of the loss of ferry service, and that an owner is selling for the same reason.

Ms. Mulvihill said she never would have bought the apartment if she had known the ferry service would come and go with the seasons. “I thought this was a safe investment, given the stock market,” she said. These days, she’s come to think otherwise.

By SUSAN DOMINUS
New York Times

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