Why is funding the Hudson River Park so contentious?

A graphic on the screen at the start of the Feb. 28 Community Board 2 forum on Pier 40 and Hudson River Park made it clear that right now is a key moment for both the pier and park.   Photo by Robert Stolarik

A graphic on the screen at the start of the Feb. 28 Community Board 2 forum on Pier 40 and Hudson River Park made it clear that right now is a key moment for both the pier and park. Photo by Robert Stolarik

TALKING POINT      BY TOM FOX | The effort to build Hudson River Park began in 1992 when Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins accepted the recommendations of the West Side Waterfront Panel, signed a memorandum of understanding (M.O.U.) establishing the Hudson River Park Conservancy and pledged $100 million each to the construction of the park.

The Concept and Financial Plan was completed in 1995, the Hudson River Park Act was signed into law in 1998 and the Hudson River Park Trust was formed to continue the work of the Hudson River Park Conservancy. But a strange thing happened along the way.

The funding formula recommended to create the first park capable of sustaining its own operation and maintenance was scaled back drastically. However, the concept of a self-sustaining park continued to be a political imperative; even if securing the needed funding wasn’t.

As initially planned, the city and state would fund the construction of the park. That $450 million-to-$500 million investment would result in the appreciation of the adjacent inboard real estate within three blocks of the park, generating new tax revenues.

A portion of this new tax revenue would then be dedicated to maintain and operate the park, along with the revenue from three “nodes of development” and commercial maritime and recreational activities in the park. Commercial activities in the park were minimized so as not to compete with local neighborhood merchants on the other side of the highway.

But the city and state never set up a mechanism to capture the increased tax revenues from the adjacent real estate. They failed to redevelop Pier 40 for more than 20 years and let that facility deteriorate. Worse, they’ve just about abandoned their responsibility to complete construction of the Hudson River Park or secure the funding stream required for park maintenance and operations.

This has forced the Trust’s board and staff to scramble for capital and operating funds and has encouraged fighting among local neighborhoods over limited resources.

The divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be working. In this upside-down world, a lifelong park activist running a local nonprofit is lobbying the government to support residential development in the park — surprisingly advocated for by the park act’s co-sponsor, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried — while real estate developers are fighting against it.

One reason is that the state obviously has other priorities. Pataki appointed one state representative to the Trust Board, Elliot Spitzer appointed the other and one seat is vacant. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the commissioners of the city and state Parks departments serve on the board as ex-officio members, but the state contribution to the park has dwindled to a trickle in recent years.

With minimal state involvement, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has effectively taken over the Trust. Robert Steel, deputy mayor for economic development, is the vice chairperson of the Trust’s board of directors. Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, was executive vice president at E.D.C. before leaving to head the Trust in 2011. The Trust’s new chief financial officer, Dan Kurtz, hired last year, is a former E.D.C. vice president.

The Trust’s difficulty finding funding is curious given the fact that two major West Side rezoning efforts adjacent to the park (Hudson Yards and Hudson Square) have been approved by the city without making any financial contribution to the park. Yet both developments expect the park to provide required public open space for their new residential populations.

It’s even more curious when you consider that in recent years the city has practically thrown money at other city/state park projects and taken over those projects by establishing new city-controlled public authorities to replace state development agencies.

The city pledged $55 million in new funding to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and committed to complete this $350 million project without state support. The city also assumed complete responsibility for the redevelopment of Governors Island, and committed $260 million in new funding to the creation of that park.

Why then is the Trust’s board of directors having such a hard time getting the city or the state to support the park? Diana Taylor, the chairperson of the Trust’s board for the past six years, has been on the board since 1999. She is an expert in banking and finance and has access to decision makers at the highest levels in the state and city government.

During her tenure as chairperson, the West Side rezoning efforts received city approval and the city took over both Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island. Yet, the Trust has had increasing financial problems and a second failed request for proposals (R.F.P.) for the redevelopment of Pier 40.

Is the city setting the Hudson River Park adrift? If so, why, especially given the park’s incredible contribution to the redevelopment of the entire West Side? Is it to create a rationale for residential development in the park? Or is the city bound to repeat history and let West Side property values plummet as a result of an underfunded and neglected waterfront?

Fox was a citizen appointee to the West Side Task Force in 1986; a citizen appointee to the West Side Waterfront Panel from 1988-’90; the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy (which completed the Hudson River Park’s concept and financial plan) from 1992-’95; a member of the Hudson River Park Alliance (which supported the Hudson River Park Act, creating the park) from 1996-’98; and a board of directors member of the Friends of Hudson River Park until 2011.

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7 Responses to Why is funding the Hudson River Park so contentious?

  1. It's outrageous that HRPT and our tenured "park activists" have taken twenty years to initiate the special park district (NID). Now that they have, it is too little, too late. The district's east boundary is arbitrary, the proposed "flat tax" is absurdly low for the large population of ultra-wealthy who increasingly dominate Tribeca and the West Village and it makes no attempt to capture, via a small transfer tax, any of the appreciation of the real estate values the park has created.

    The NID should probably extend to 6th avenue in Hudson Square and follow Bedford Street, Seventh Avenue, and Greenwich Avenue up to Hudson Street. I live in a small apartment east of Hudson street and am more than ready to pay the modest tax that will be no more than chump change to many of my condo, loft and townhouse neighbors.

    CB2 was either negligent or asleep at the wheel when it approved zoning changes for Hudson Square without attaching any park subsidies to that impending real estate bonanza. Additionaly, CB2, HRPT and our civic leaders ignored the potential to create special development sites, where height, bulk or use exemptions, might have been traded for cash to fund the park and pier restoration. Ignoring the financial pressures to build a few taller buildings is like ignoring geothermal energy because chimneys and smokestack are more contextually appropriate.

    HRPT has done nothing to advance park development and preservation at Pier 40 and seems intent on playing a waiting game with the public until there would seem no other choice but conceding the pier to commercialization. The financial study commissioned by the Pier Champions last year should have been performed by HRPT ages ago.

    If the NID is expanded and strengthened, it would not pay for Pier 40's repairs, but it might relieve some of the pressure that the pier must only become a huge cash cow.

  2. Nice. Some IDEAS added to the usual anonymous complaints. HRPT has done "nothing"…mmm…really? "Tenured park activists"? C'mon, they're trying to do something, and they put their names on their ideas, there are MANY well meaning people there who have given it their all. Cash? They just got some, for both Pier 40 and for Carmine Street Rec. It is too little, I agree, but we take that question up at election time, (and what are you proposing there, A LOT of people are talking about this one). You definitely have something with your Hudson Square rant (of course it should have had a concrete "if NID happens" commitment in some manner attached), and your NID mapping (many of us have argued Hudson Square AND up 6th Ave to Greenwich Ave. then over Greenwich Ave. to Hudson). Put your name on it, come to the table, and be available to rejection and resentment of your ideas like everyone else, so the community can come up with one consensus idea to take BACK to HRPT and the electeds and the "park activists" as you call them. And say "this is what we want", amend the Trust Act for it (if necessary). Ideas, ideas ideas. Keep 'em coming. We have the power to control the fate of Pier 40 if WE come up with community acceptable, realistic, creative and economically viable ideas that don't include housing. More ideas. When it really comes down to it, we have to have an idea, the money or a path to get it, and a coalition to TELL the electeds, "this is what we want, and it does not include housing". Or else. I argue for a small soccer arena. Want to set up a meeting at a friend's apartment (you say yours is small) or a pub so I can pitch it?

  3. And for Tom Fox, once again, great. We've seen this same article from you in so many words previously. Everyone appreciates your work and history in the park, but what are you recommending we do, what is your idea, your plan, your solution? Do you want us to march, do you want us to do something politically to change the Act or amend the City tax code? Is there something we can do to force the Trust and the City and State to honor the original agreements? If so, guide us, lead and we will follow. What's the plan? And even if that was your thinking is it even possible any more, Park Act-wise? Has that ship sailed? Decisions have to be made. There is an obvious disconnect between aspects of the Trust and the community, with intransigence and condescension coming from individuals on both sides. And that includes sniveling, rote condescension from individuals within the Trust who are strictly thinking in EDC terms, as well as ridiculous arrogance from both elected officials and long time residents of the Village who view any compromise from those of us who have been here ONLY twenty-something years as some affront to their "hard won" 60's way of life. Guess what, both of you are getting in the way of a Pier 40 solution. For the Trust, open your eyes, this isn't and never will be the usual "it's a done deal" force it down your throat luxury housing type situation. For the Village old timers, your inability to accept that the new guard has a progressive AND pragmatic bent is killing any hope of salvaging Pier 40. It was your job to make sure those old park related financial agreements were honored, and you failed. Good economy or bad, you failed, and if you have no solution now, you must step aside and let us come up with an acceptable, non housing commercial plan for Pier 40.

    • Patrick

      I got involved in the West side waterfront when I lived in the Village on Bank Street almost 30 years ago and obviously I am still involved, or I wouldn't be bothered writing for the Villager. I spent about 8 years of my life working to defeat Westway and create the Park. But I moved out in 1986 and don't live there any more. Although I have stayed involved for the past 25 years, clearly my time on watch has passed. It is time for younger people, like you and others, to take the fight from here.

      I'm just trying to describe what was envisioned when the local and environmental community agreed to the concept that the Hudson River Park would have to be self sustaining. The fact is the politicians didn't follow-up on the securing the funding required; so they can't insist that the Park be self sustaining. It's as simple as that; and you should tell them so.

      As the first president of the Conservancy from 1992-95, I did fail to get elected officials to implement the recommendations of the West Side Waterfront Panel and develop a secure funding source for the long term maintenance and operation of the Park. But it wasn't for lack of trying, which unfortuantely appears to be the case today. Without the political will and leadership, both in the community and the Trust, nothing will happen to change the situation.

      What can be done. Plenty.

      The most important thing is to make sure that the Neighborhood Improvement District is established. If the politicians won't take care of the Park then the people should realize that they are not powerless. It's in property owners self interest to make sure there is adequate funding for the Park or their quality of life and the value of their property will suffer.

      Property owners in Hudson Yards and Hudson Square got away with not being forced to contribute to the Park but the reality is that there developments will not be as valuable without a well maintained Hudson River Park. They should be joining in the effort and supporting the NID application. I am not sure if you remember what a deteriorated Bryant Park and Union Square did to surrounding real estate values. They tanked as junkies and homeless took over the Parks. The same could very well happen on the West side.

      The Hudson River Park Act should be amended to allow longer lease terms, among other things, but not residential development in the Park. Residents in the Park will feel proprietary about "their Park".

      Protest, organize, speak out, keep public officials accountable, fight City Hall, tell the Governor to pay attention, tell the Mayoral candidates about the need to fund the Hudson River Park. The fight isn't over until you give up and whining won't change a thing – take it to the streets. Every four years elected officials pay attention. This is an election year, make it an issue.

      That's the way the "hard won" way of life from the 60's was won. However, from my perspective that way of life is quickly pasting and a very new breed of individual inhabits the far West side, primarily as a result of the creation of the Park. Work with everyone, form coalitions based on mutual interest, redevelop Pier 40 in creative and resourceful ways; but don't put housing in the Park.

      Good luck, the Park is counting on you!


      • Tom, don't misunderstand my comment as a slight to the 60's movement, but rather as my ongoing difficulty with the eras heroism being summoned endlessly in the Pier 40 fight, with little if any of its creativity or entrepreneurial spirit being brought to the table in the form of alternative ideas. Your comment was vigorous, peerlessly informed, and welcome. Your history of advocacy for the waterfront has had clear, tangible, magnificent impact.
        And most certainly not an attack on your present whereabouts; anyone who objects to your location has a narrow, parochial view, and that has been my point. I want it to be understood that I aim squarely at certain intransigent locals, political and civilian, for two reasons:
        1.) constant objection to everything, justifiably or not, without advancement of a politically progressive, economically realistic solution in its place. Within the (changed or unchanged) confines of the Park Act, which is not going away. In short, unless there is a grassroots movement afoot to repeal the Park Act and change the core nature of the park's structure, Pier 40 activism must be creative and proactive rather than defensive. The lack of ideas betray a need for soul searching in what it means to be Greenwich Village.
        2.) the prevailing idea from certain quarters that some form of Village "tenure" means that Village advocacy and activism are their birthright alone. That it allows outright dismissal of equally progressive, vastly updated instinct in neighbor citizens, some of whom have ecologically responsible and community centric, non-housing solutions for this pier.
        Tom, we both agree that the politicians didn't follow-up on securing the funding required, but where we diverge is crucial: I believe that they can and must insist that the Park be self sustaining,
        1.) Because it is the law, and
        2.) Because they didn't prevent the law's existence. The Act's existence. They authored it, or in opposition tailored it. You author the Act, or codify who pays the capital cost, then your job is to get that money, or change or repeal the Act. And we don't see that happening, in fact what we see is a vigorous defense of an Act previously opposed. They can't have it both ways, AND have neither way be successful. Not while a crucial neighborhood asset is at risk. They have failed, and now have to proactively create compromise, not simply oppose and defend.
        The Act will be there, either as it is now, or altered slightly, after all of our local pols are gone. It won't just evaporate. We must create a responsible commercial solution consistent with the current primary Pier 40 use. Now.
        We have a new generation gap in Greenwich Village. Our Village elders are blowing a world class waterfront opportunity, preferring instead to posture defensively in the tried and true vote rich fight with traditional enemies like luxury developers, who, OF COURSE are going to come to this field of battle. Glick vs. luxury developers on Pier 40? Pointless and fruitless grandstanding bearing no new ideas, and zero guidance on what MIGHT have a shot at ULURP if brought to the table. Office space for tech? That's all you got? Quite frankly no different than housing for many of us. Commercial office development and residential development both place use on the pier which forever loses park space to park users.
        The Pier 40 Champions, who the rest of us have deferred to and for the most part been working in support of, in our own way, also bear responsibility and now need to make amends to those of us outside their group who cast our green-space and adult recreation lot with them, and were outright betrayed with the time-wasting and financially excessive lobbying for luxury housing.
        With that kind of money we could have already been in the design stage of a community owned and professionally operated, economically productive, community usable and park sustaining men's and women's soccer arena, and headed toward ULURP, with a viral fundraising mechanism in place. And our local politicians on notice come primary season, that we want this or some similar solution, or else.
        We demand a timetable for a presumed successful Pier 40 ULURP in this calendar year, or we begin to look for a solution at the polls. It's that important. No more sacred cows.

        • Patrick

          Thanks for the clarification and kind words.

          I agree that the Act should be amended. The first thing that should be done is remove the requirement that the Park be self supporting. If the politicians will not let the Park share directly in the bounty it has created (appreciated inboard real estate values); they should have to provide the Park with funding for operations, maintenance and capital replacement with annual budget appropriations, as if it were any other park. Understanding that a 20 year lease term is not enough to provide a return on the capital investment in pier reconstruction, the lenght of allowable lease should be extended as well.

          However, I disagree about the privatizing effect of residential, perhaps because I am an older person who has seen how housing can influence the use of adjacent public space when the residents feel they have a proprietary right to control what happens around their homes and castles. I do believe that would be particularly problematic with a heavily used sports facility.

          While it is true that the techies will still travel to and from the facility they won't feel as proprietary about the adjacent uses. Even though they may not go home early; they do go home (to somewhere else) which reinforces that they are just using the space for a specific purpose.

          There are other ways to get resources for the Park as well. The deal for Hudson Square rezoning is not done yet. Trinity's application with the new changes will be reviewed by the City Planning Commission and then return to City Council for a vote. Locals have until 5 p.m. on April 12 to submit comments to the Council. People should advocate for an annual contribution to the Hudson River Park from the rezoning. In addition, any rezoning of the St. Johnsbury building sahoul require annual contributions to the Park as well.

          Identifying and implementing an appropriate redevelopment plan for Pier 40 is indeed a conundrum but I trust that well intentioned people will work it out and you seem to be a caring and creative individual and I am sure that the effort is enhanced by your participation.

          I wish you and the Greenwich Village community luck in the redevelopment of Pier 40 and if I can be helpful please let me know.

          Have a Happy Easter


          • Hey Tom,
            Hopefully you are remembering someone else's argument that housing on the pier would not be privatizing, unless I am reading you incorrectly. I have been consistent and vigorous in promoting the idea that housing of ANY type on the pier WOULD have a privatizing factor in relation to both field and park use, as well as a "creep" factor of additional space being stolen later for "security", or other purposes. In other words, I have ceaselessly opposed housing and pitched a small soccer arena as a compromise solution, because 1.) everyone who works there goes home, and 2.) it's available for public use the majority of days of the year, in a manner creating additional field space.

            Re: your point that the Act should be amended to remove the self supporting requirement, and I have also said this many times, I fully support it, but see it as a possibility long past. Impossible. But then, why are we proposing this, and not the Assemblymembers and Senators? Is there anyone in our political community who openly promotes this idea, with a funding mechanism to back it up should it happen.

            Honestly, I see little difference in effort needed between me trying to get an arena together as a revenue source, and a politico trying to amend the Act and get the park back somehow into the general park system.

            Both gargantuan tasks, but both possible. Contact me through my Pier 40 blog, and let's have a snack (are you in NYC?) and see what we can do to promote Council contact pre-April 12. I can put together an online form.

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