THE PORT OF NEW YORK has another empty marine terminal on its hands. With United States Lines protected from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, the 187-acre Howland Hook facility it used is idle. It's a far cry from the bustling, 24-hour-a-day "hotel for ships" that Jakob Isbrandtsen envisioned when he undertook development of the site, on the northwest corner of Staten Island. Howland Hook has had more than its share of troubles, not the least timing. It came into being at a time of revolution in cargo handling and a swing to fewer, bigger ships.

Owned by New York City, the facility is under lease to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has the unenviable task of finding one or more users. It's not easy, as the dropout of a major prospect - Ceres Terminals Inc., of Chicago - made clear the other day. Bigness begets bigness, and a substantial throughput of cargo is the first essential.These days there are constant pressures for development of unused waterfront for non-shipping uses. Shopping malls, housing, parks and office complexes have become familiar occupants of waterfront once devoted mostly to the loading and unloading of ocean cargo. It's a trend that can be pushed too far. Once a stretch of waterfront is lost, it can never be recovered for the needs of maritime commerce.

Success in finding a new shipping tenant, or tenants, for Howland Hook could alert politicians everywhere not to go rushing off in search of condominium builders as soon as a piece of waterfront terminal property falls into disuse. The Port Authority, as it endeavors to find a new maritime tenant for Howland Hook, may be encouraged by the distant cheers of its counterparts in other ports.

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