In it’s heyday, Newtown Creek was home to 500 industries. Over 15,000 vessels traversed the waterway annually. As recently as the 1950’s, ocean-going freighters were a common sight as far east as Maspeth. These days, the creek is nowhere near as active, but there are still many working waterfront facilities. Tugs bring barges to industries on both the Brooklyn and Queens shoreline. A petroleum facility receives barges as far east as Morgan Avenue in Bushwick, requiring the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge to open. Primarily, waste and fuel facilities generate the bulk of maritime traffic on Newtown Creek.
Moving essential bulk materials by barge is more efficient economically and environmentally. From what we hear, a single barge has the same capacity as 28 – 56 long haul trucks, depending on the industry. Compared to other transportation modes, barge transport of bulk materials is safer in terms of worker injuries and generates far fewer emissions of particulate matter, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, CO2 and nitrous oxide on a per ton mile moved basis.
Despite the critical importance of barge transport as a best practice for industries on Newtown Creek, much of the bulkhead along this waterway is in disrepair. Overall bulkhead condition reveals a trend of disinvestment in maritime transit and a decline in related industries. According to Army Corps of Engineers, there were 19 businesses with working docks in 1999, compared to the nine that remain active today, as of January 2011.
Newtown Creek was designated a Significant Maritime and Industrial Area (SMIA) in the NYC Department of City Planning ‘s 1992 Comprehensive Waterfront Plan for its characteristic clusters of industrial businesses and water-dependent uses. In the 2010 update of this plan, Vision 2020, Newtown Creek maintains its place as New York City’s largest SMIA in terms of both land area and employment. After losing half its jobs from 1992 to 2008, the number of jobs in Newtown Creek SMIA grew by nearly 1,400 (totaling 15,000 jobs) from 2000 to 2008.
Underscoring this growth is a shift in the nature of businesses in the area. Vision 2020 notes that almost half of the jobs in the Newtown Creek SMIA in 2008 were in the transportation and warehousing and wholesale trades, and that broadly the work mix was diversifying outside the industrial sector. These trends indicate an increasing reliance on truck-based transportation that negatively impacts upland transportation corridors and the environmental health in neighboring residential areas. While overall growth demonstrates the economic viability of the area, it is apparent that the ample maritime (and rail!) opportunities along Newtown Creek area are woefully underutilized.