Funding shortfalls could hinder ambitious waterfront schemes planned for several U.S. cities.

Image courtesy Michael Maltzan

The Lens, St. Petersburg, Florida. Click to view more images.

Waterfronts get architects—and politicians—thinking big, and sometimes too big. Even Daniel Burnham (he of “make no little plans”) proposed festooning Chicago’s lakefront with five massive piers, of which only one was ever built. Now that structure, the 3,300-foot-long Navy Pier, is about to get a face-lift that residents hope isn’t too large a financial burden for the “City of the Big Shoulders” to bear. 

Chicago isn’t alone. Across the country, cities are grappling with elaborate waterfront proposals that could strain their recession-wracked budgets. According to Tom Eitler, vice president of advisory services for the Urban Land Institute, when it comes to waterfront property, “usually cities want something dramatic and big, and they want to do it well. The key these days is to figure out how to bring the private sector along to help create those desired public improvements.”

St. Petersburg, Florida, is one city with expansive waterfront plans. In January, Michael Maltzan of Los Angeles won a competition to replace the city’s aging municipal pier with a futuristic ensemble of canted walkways circling a 2-acre underwater estuary garden; officials hope the project, called the Lens, will “rebrand” the city of 250,000. But the project has been dogged by questions about how much of it can be built for the $50 million the city has allotted. By releasing renderings showing not just the Lens but possible future development around it, the city created confusion about the scope of the project and its eventual cost. That led residents who would like to see the existing pier restored, for far less money, to demand a referendum.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to revamp the popular Navy Pier in time for its centennial in 2016. In January, five short-listed design teams presented proposals with prices as high as $300 million. (And those were estimates; as Blair Kamin wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “designers vying for jobs have been known to lowball.”) Each team comprised a long list of architects, urban planners, landscape architects, and other design professionals. Bjarke Ingels Group, James Corner Field Operations, HOK, Grimshaw Architects, and Davis Brody Bond were among the competitors.

On March 15, Navy Pier Inc.’s board members unanimously chose Corner’s 17-member team, which has proposed, among other amenities, a swimming pool with a sand beach and “a surreal and overscaled series of birdhouses and nesting sites.” Even the relatively modest plan—Corner estimates its price at $85 million—represents a financial stretch. Pier officials told Kamin they would aggressively push for the sort of corporate and private donations that helped shape nearby Millennium Park. 

In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy is considering how to develop a strip of land between the Michael Van Valkenburgh–designed park and the change-resistant Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Condos and a hotel on the site, which overlooks the East River, will provide a revenue stream needed to maintain the park (including sections not yet built). That may explain why, when the conservancy solicited proposals in 2011, “rent offer” and “financial feasibility” appeared before “design” on its list of criteria. There were seven submissions; reportedly, the conservancy has narrowed the field to three—by Rogers Marvel Architects, FXFOWLE, and the team of Alloy with Bernheimer Architecture and nArchitects. It is now negotiating with respective developers.

All this comes amid reports that the Hudson River Park, on Manhattan’s West Side, is in serious financial trouble, in part because of the astronomical cost of maintaining the pilings supporting the site, which are plagued by wood-boring organisms called gribbles and teredos. Builder, beware!