Riverboat Renaissance

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A century ago, they clogged the East River. Now, ferries are coming back in a huge way — and the ride is briny, breezy, buoyant and brisk


  • With the Empire State Building as a backdrop, a NYC Ferry vessel heads southbound down the East River opposite East 34th Street. A major expansion of the city’s ferry system kicking off on Aug. 15 will connect the East 90th Street landing near Carl Schurz Park with Wall Street by way of 34th Street. Photo: NYC Ferry

  • A 1910 photo of an East River ferry with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. Century-old routes plied by commuter vessels between Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side will be revived on August 15 when NYC Ferry starts whisking passengers between Wall Street’s Pier 11 and East 90th Street. Photo: H. Strehm / New York Public Library Digital Collection

  • A NYC Ferry boat heads northbound up the East River opposite Fulton Street and the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. Starting on Aug. 15, an expansion of the city’s ferry system will include a new route with a stop at the East 90th Street landing just above Gracie Mansion. Photo: NYC Economic Development Corp.

“You can even grab a beer on your way home!”

Cameron Clark, executive at NYC Ferry

Boatloads of commuters on the Upper East Side will be able to bypass the subway and speed to jobs in midtown and downtown when the city on Aug. 15 launches a massive expansion of its existing ferry system.

The embarkation point is the East 90th Street landing, just north of Carl Schurz Park, from which riders will be whisked to 34th Street in a mere 16 minutes, then down to Pier 11 on Wall Street only 18 minutes later.

Work-bound residents of the East 20s, Stuyvesant Town, East Village and Lower East Side will also be able to zip up and down the East River when officials on Aug. 29 inaugurate a second new nautical route.

That line will connect two existing ferry docks, on 34th Street and Wall Street, with two newly built jetties in Stuyvesant Cove Park on 20th Street and Corlears Hook Park below the East River Park Amphitheater.

The twin transit options are expected to bring efficient, enjoyable and hassle-free rides — with skyline vistas and a fully-stocked bar — to New Yorkers long inured to the daily trudge into a hellish subway system.

“New York City has reclaimed its waterfront — and access to it in a time-effective, cost-effective manner can be better provided by water than by subways or bridges,” said Cameron Clark, a senior vice president at NYC Ferry, which operates the ferry lines under contract with the city.

“Let’s face it, we’re a series of island boroughs surrounded by water whose forefathers came here on vessels. We have a network that’s been here a long time, and now, we are seeing its revitalization,” Clark added.

Indeed, waterborne commuter routes — heavily subsidized to the tune of $6.60 per passenger and costing only $2.75, a price pegged to match the subway fare — have been a resounding success:

Nine million annual boat rides are projected by 2023. That’s double the initial forecast. Fleet capacity has also doubled. Twenty vessels, each with 149 seats, are now plying the harbor. Demand continues to soar. So six 350-passenger ships are being added. Ocean Queen Rockstar, the first jumbo-sized ferry, arrived in July.

Since it debuted in May 2017, as a successor to a handful of ferry firms that stumbled, NYC Ferry, a subsidiary of cruise-and-charter company Hornblower, has launched four routes that connect Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens. Now, it’s growing to six routes with 21 stops that span 60-plus nautical miles.

The first new run, the four-stop Soundview Route, will kick off next week in Clason Point Park in the Soundview section of the Bronx and then pass through Hell Gate to the 90th Street landing before heading down to 34th Street and Wall Street.

Two weeks later, the second expansion, the five-stop, 32-minute Lower East Side Route, will originate in Long Island City, cross the river and head for points south, berthing at underserved Corlears Hook, below the Williamsburg Bridge off Grand Street, before terminating at Pier 11. Roughly a million passengers a year are expected to hop aboard.

The three neighborhoods set to benefit from the new routes — the Upper East Side, Lower East Side and The Bronx — have “historically been transit deserts,” said James Patchett, president of the city’s Economic Development Corp., the lead agency overseeing the ferry operations.

“Now, for the cost of a subway ride, New Yorkers who live and work in these communities will have a fast, affordable and convenient way to get around the city,” he added in a statement.


EDC has been building new docks and upgrading existing infrastructure as it seeks to accommodate the surge in maritime traffic, and one of its key projects is the landing just north of Gracie Mansion at 90th Street.

Since at least the late 1800s, the site has served, sporadically, as a ferry port. Around 1930, a replacement pier was built, and for half a century, it was used to berth fireboats. Marine 5, the last such vessel to tie up there, shipped out in 1980. An ecological learning center for school kids moved in. It was shuttered in the early 1990s.

Since then, the city and private firms have made short-lived efforts to jump-start the landing for ferries, providing occasional service to Randall’s Island, Brooklyn and Yankee Stadium and the former Shea Stadium in baseball season, among other destinations.

The rebirth now underway at the foot of East 90th Street appears more ambitious: EDC is projecting that around 400,000 passengers a year will either board, disembark or transit through the landing.

Getting to the site, at least at first, could prove a tad tricky. A chunk of seawall on the East River Esplanade near 89th Street collapsed in May 2017, and as the area’s promenades are being reconstructed, EDC is opening a temporary access path to reach the waterfront via the park.

There’s a steep hill along the route, and because of the slope and the ongoing construction, the temporary path will include a staircase. Once the work is complete, however, a fully ADA accessible path will be built to provide an easier approach to the landing, officials familiar with the project say.

East Side residents enthused about the new ferry service. “We think it will energize and activate the waterfront, attract people, and hopefully, push the city to expedite the urgently need infrastructure repairs to the Esplanade, particularly in East Harlem,” said Jennifer Ratner, chair of Friends of the East River Esplanade.

Meanwhile, Clark is pitching the waterways as a passage, not just for commuters, but for New Yorkers looking for inexpensive “staycations” in other communities in town.

The ferries run seven days a week, and offer free transfers, so an East Sider boarding on 90th Street could explore, for instance, Williamsburg, Red Hook, South Brooklyn, Governor’s Island or the Rockaways, he said.

And Clark ticked off some of the little frills of riverboat travel. “You can charge your laptop, pick up a sandwich — and even grab a beer on your way home!” he said.


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