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BY MADELYN WILS | The change of the calendar always serves as an appropriate time to reflect and learn from the past, and by doing so, best prepare for the future.
There is little doubt that 2012 was a momentous year for the Hudson River Park, and what made 2012 truly different was the enormity of both the achievements and challenges that occurred throughout the 12-month cycle.
We saw record attendance throughout our 5-mile expanse. New programs attracted a slew of new visitors. Hudson River Park continued to serve as the model for other multiuse parks. Our formalized partnership with Friends of the Hudson River Park drove fundraising to never-before-seen levels. Even in a tough financial climate, construction began on the next park section in Tribeca.
At the same time, Superstorm Sandy caused significant damage up and down the park. (The electricity is still off in many sections.) Earlier in the year, a majority of Pier 54 — the spot where Titanic survivors returned to shore — had to be closed down due to pile conditions. And the continuing, rapid deterioration of Pier 40 resulted in closed stairwells, restrooms and public spaces.
To be simplistic, the Hudson River Park Trust’s job is to be a steward on behalf of the park — to help ensure the park is operating in the best possible manner while staying true to the intent and vision of the original Hudson River Park Act that launched the park. It is with that rather elementary notion in mind that we have been working alongside our elected officials, neighborhood leaders and the community as part of a Hudson River Park Task Force to amend the act.
In conjunction with community boards and our task force (which includes elected officials, community boards, environmental organizations and other leaders), we achieved much in the last calendar year, including:
• Broad support for advancing a Neighborhood Improvement District;
• Agreement to include Pier 76 as a revenue-generating pier with broader commercial uses and longer lease terms;
• Agreement on ideas that would reduce park maintenance costs;
• Openness to consider fees from certain passenger ships, and;
• Willingness to consider some new uses at Pier 40, such as offices.
We have reached agreement on a great many steps that will help to meet challenges that the framers of the park act could have never foreseen.
But now — with a goal of pushing legislation forward sometime during Albany’s spring session — is when we must take on the biggest challenge of all, one that will determine the entire park’s long-term viability. Namely, what should we do about Pier 40?
From the beginning, and contrary to the rumor that we are solely focused on a scenario involving residential development, the Trust has been clear that it is interested in hearing any and all ideas for Pier 40 that accomplish three separate goals:
• Generate enough revenue to fix Pier 40 and help maintain a significant portion of the park. (The revenue from Pier 40 has historically provided maintenance for roughly 40 percent of the entire park.)
• Maintain, or preferably expand, the existing amount of open space and play areas at Pier 40
• Occur in a timely fashion in order to save Pier 40.
On the second point, with the increasing number of children moving into the Lower West Side, we now find Pier 40’s ball fields to be booked solid during the spring, summer and fall. Perhaps it is time to realize that the status quo is no longer good enough and increase our park space.
And let’s be plain about what is happening at Pier 40 and why time is of the essence.
Many of the issues with Pier 40 are obvious: the severely dilapidated roof, the aged utilities that have complicated restoring Pier 40 post-Sandy, and numerous shuttered amenities, such as public bathrooms.
And while all of these visible issues cost dollars that the park doesn’t have, what can’t be seen is even more threatening and costly than what can. Underneath Pier 40, the thousands of piles on which the pier literally stands continue to erode. While these piles do not all need to be repaired immediately, we can neither responsibly ignore them, nor hope for a solution that ignores how their repair costs will affect any future proposal for Pier 40.
The Trust stands firmly behind the estimates we have presented previously — which are based on actual costs for similar pile repair of this type — and looks forward to presenting them again in the coming months if there are still questions.
In the months ahead, we also want to hear ideas about how we can best utilize Pier 40 to accomplish the three goals listed above. The Trust is not a developer, and we are therefore thankful that there is no dearth of good ideas from those who have Pier 40’s — and the park’s — best interest at heart.
There is of course one major caveat in the post-Sandy world. Now when we talk about what kind of development is appropriate on Pier 40 or anywhere else in the park, there is a new normal that we must adhere to. We must make sure that whatever is built, structures are hardened against the kind of damage that storms like Sandy can produce. We must also take a careful look at uses proposed for the ground-floor levels along the waterfront.
At the upcoming task force meeting this month, we’ve asked those who have presented ideas in other forums and venues to make official presentations to our group of elected officials and community leaders. We will also recap some of the ideas from the previous two failed request for proposals (R.F.P.’s) on Pier 40 for context. We are hopeful that discussion about these and other ideas that may come forward will help build consensus about what uses could work best on the pier while meeting the three criteria laid our above.
We also know that Community Board 2 is planning something similar for the public. We look forward to participating in that discussion, since it is only through the most transparent process through which the best of ideas can be presented and studied, and hopefully form the foundation of the R.F.P. process.
With our push for legislation now moved to the spring, we have but a couple of short months to hammer out the remaining items that will result in changes to the park that will ensure its viability in the future.
We are hopeful and confident that our upcoming discussion will help set in motion a plan to transform Pier 40 from a dilapidated, crumbling structure to a strong anchor of the park that ensures the entire park’s continued success in the decades to come.
Wils is C.E.O and president, Hudson River Park Trust