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BY PAUL A. ULLMAN | I was appointed to the board of the Hudson River Park Trust five years ago by former Governor Spitzer. I asked to be chosen because I love and use Hudson River Park. I also thought I could contribute, intellectually, to the planning and development process of one of the nation’s great urban parks. And, I was terrified about the prospect of the mega-development on Pier 40 proposed by The Related Companies. My wife, motivated by those same impulses, became a co-founder of the Pier 40 Partnership, which created and submitted to the Trust a counterproposal to Related’s plan. As it turned out, neither plan was deemed an adequate response to the Trust’s request for proposals (R.F.P.) and both were rejected.
I began my career on the Trust board with a suspicion (widely held Downtown) that somehow the Trust R.F.P. was rigged such that Related was the only company that could respond. Among the first questions that I asked then-Trust President Connie Fishman and current Vice President Noreen Doyle concerned the process leading up to that R.F.P.’s release. Believe me, I got an earful. It seems that the plan for the R.F.P. was discussed well in advance with the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and the local community boards and also with the staffs of the relevant elected officials. The neighborhood fever, created by the Related proposal, became so hot that the Trust’s prior disclosure efforts were forgotten or ignored. The real reason that Related was the only Pier 40 R.F.P. respondent from the New York City real estate community was that the use and lease-term restrictions imposed by the Hudson River Park Act made large-scale, commercial, capital-infrastructure investment within the boundaries of the park almost impossibly unprofitable.
I provide this story as background because I believe that a part of the political and emotional gauntlet that the Trust is now attempting to negotiate, with respect to its potential proposals to make changes to the park’s governing legislation, has to do with lingering unease about how the Trust has gone about its job of managing the park’s affairs. This despite the fact the park has been such a resounding success.
I am currently member of the strategic task force that has been wrestling with the complexities of how the park act can be changed to better enable the Trust to manage the financial difficulties the park is now facing.
This task force, initiated by current Trust President Madelyn Wils, has heard presentations from the Trust about the park’s financial condition. It has also examined financial analysis, developed by several real estate consultants, showing how various new uses could meaningfully affect the income to the park generated by future development proposals. And, the task force has heard explanations on how tax-exempt bond financing could help the Trust structure a development proposal that would net more income for the park.
Most importantly, over the course of many meetings, various park uses beyond those currently allowed by the park act have been generally discussed, openly and in detail. The task force members are from a wide range of constituencies, and the opinions voiced form a wide range of perspectives. One thing has been abundantly clear almost from the beginning: There is a widespread belief among the task force members, that in order for the park to fulfill its mission, the park act has to change in basic and fundamental ways. And, among those fundamental ways is the allowance of residential development at specific commercial nodes that have already been designated by the park act. While residential development would, by far, generate the most revenue for the park and be the least impactful from a traffic standpoint, other use types that could have an important place in any future proposal are hotel and office development.
Let me be clear, despite claims to the contrary, there is no existing plan for residential development on Pier 40 or anywhere else in the park. There is, however, open and detailed discussion about the idea among members of the task force, many of whom — including myself — live near, use extensively and love the park.
Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” With respect to Hudson River Park, we should, as a community, optimistically confront the realities of the current financial climate and support new ways to fund the park and its mission. The ability of local and state governments to support capital infrastructure for parks that they had previously generously supported is compromised and will remain such for many years to come. To ignore that reality — merely to hope that somehow something will soon change — would miss a wonderful opportunity.
Let me also say that the Trust and their board really should be given their due as a group of people who are serious, substantial and sophisticated and who really care about the park, its mission and its constituencies. Any additional flexibility that is granted the Trust by amendments to the park act will be used judiciously, creatively and artistically to create an environment that gives pleasure to the greatest number of park users. There may very well be a future R.F.P. that will seek plans from local, national and international firms to develop Piers 40 and 76 that includes expanded uses and lease terms. If that day comes, rest assured that the Trust will consult with all the various park constituencies — as it has in the past — such that the process is open, creative, beneficial and successful.
The future of the park can be very bright.