NYC Developers Rely on Amazon Hardwoods

Article and photos by Justin Dembski

On a warm day on the cusp of spring, the South Street Seaport buzzes with activity. Couples stroll along Pier 16, the Brooklyn Bridge looming in the distance. A group of teenagers laugh as a friend falls when her skateboard slips out from under her feet. On either side of the pier, the masts and rigging of old ships like the Ambrose, a 1908 lightship, sway in the breeze blowing off the East River.

On one side of the Ambrose, Pier 17 stretches into the water, with towering green construction walls and fencing where, through tiny viewing windows, construction trailers can be seen atop a giant slab of concrete. The Howard Hughes Corporation is building a high-rise tower and boardwalk on the site, which is scheduled to be competed in 2016.

In the Brazilian rainforest, 4,000 miles from New York, loggers cut their way through the jungle in efforts to log jatoba, ipe, cumaru and other rainforest hardwoods. These massive trees are harvested, processed and shipped off for manufacturing into building lumber. Some of that lumber, specifically jatoba, is likely to end up in New York, where it will cover a large portion of the concrete slab that is Pier 17.

The Ambrose buoys in the East River between Piers 16 and 17.
The Ambrose lightship, a mainstay of South Street Seaport, sits adjacent to a construction project that uses Amazonian hardwood.

Since 2005, when the Bloomberg administration launched PlaNYC, its sustainability and resiliency blueprint, New York City has aimed to become one of the greenest cities in the United States. Reducing its use of rainforest hardwoods was a part of that plan because lumbering has a devastating impact on global climate change.

Yet the demand for Amazonian hardwoods remains stubbornly high for city building projects. Pier 17 offers a window on New York’s addiction to rainforest hardwoods.

“New York City is one of the leading consumers of tropical hardwoods in the nation,” according to the “Tropical Hardwood Reduction Plan,” a report commissioned by New York City Department of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, under the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Tim Keating, founder of Rainforest Relief and a leading advocate against the use of rainforest hardwoods, countered, “New York City isn’t one of the leading consumers of tropical hardwoods in the nation; it is the leading consumer of tropical hardwoods in the nation.”

Logging old-growth forests in the Amazonian Rainforest, along with the creation of logging roads, has led to deforestation of as much as 70 percent of the Amazon.

This “loss of forests,” according to a brief published by the Council on Foreign Relations, “contributes as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year, rivaling emissions from the global transportation sector.”

PlaNYC calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since the plan’s creation, New York City has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent.

But New York City’s sustainability calculations don’t take into consideration the emissions generated by logging rainforest lumber. Even with the advent of alternatives like recycled plastic lumber and the availability of indigenous woods like white oak and black locust, New York City developers continue to rely on rainforest hardwoods. Architects and developers often prefer Amazonian hardwoods because they tend to look better than indigenous woods.

Keating estimated that three-quarters of a square mile or more of rainforest could be logged for the Pier 17 boardwalk project alone.

The South Street Seaport is public land owned by the city. In efforts to cut costs on maintenance and relieve the Department of Parks and Recreation of the land’s upkeep, the city leases the land to private developers like Hughes.

Pier 16 juts out of South Street.
South Street Seaport, in Lower Manhattan, on the East River.

Developers place bids on building specifications provided by city departments or a firm representing the city. Instead of the Department of Parks and Recreation controlling the bidding process for South Street Seaport and similar projects like Harlem River Park, the city delegates most private development bids to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).

In the process, the city cedes control of the projects’ design and materials selection to the developers.

Because the NYCEDC is considered a public benefit corporation unaffiliated with any city department, it is not subject to the rules and regulations to which Parks and Recreation and other city agencies must adhere. Nor is it subject to the city’s “sunshine laws,” which make all transactions, bids and meetings by any government agency transparent and accessible to the public. So typically, the design process of projects likes Pier 17 remains opaque.

“This is how we end up in a situation where NYCEDC recommends jatoba, even though the Mayor’s office says we need to stop using tropical hardwoods,” said Keating, “and the New York City Parks Department has spent six years getting off tropical hardwoods and finding alternatives.”

Indeed, in the case of Pier 17, the NYCEDC actually called on Hughes to use jatoba in the building specifications, according to Keating. When he challenged Hughes about its planned use of jatoba, the company deferred to the NYCEDC, he said; the company told Keating that the recommendation to use the rainforest hardwood came from NYCEDC, so “any change in materials should come from them.”

The NYCEDC declined several requests for comment.

“For Pier 17 we worked closely with the City in selecting sustainable materials,” Hughes said in a statement, “and we are strictly adhering to all City regulations.”

A Hughes spokesperson said the company adhered to state and federal laws of Brazil and the United States and worked with its construction contractor to select “reputable suppliers with Forestry Stewardship Council certification at each step of the supply chain.”