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BY EILEEN STUKANE | The Hudson River Park Trust encountered stiff opposition to its hope for creating the city’s first neighborhood improvement district, or NID, at its final public meeting in February. Following the guidelines used to create a business improvement district, or BID, the Trust was required to hold public meetings for community feedback. During the first round of hearings there wasn’t much ado, but during the second round, some significant resistance emerged.
The proposed NID area includes the 5-mile-long park, plus a two-to-three-block-wide strip bordering the park’s eastern edge, extending from Hell’s Kitchen, through Chelsea and Greenwich Village, down to Tribeca. Initially, meetings for residents in the proposed NID were sparsely attended. Seven meetings were held with little debate until that last February meeting when a new ad hoc group, Neighbors Against The NID, presented its questions and misgivings to about 50 attendees.
All property owners within the NID’s boundaries would have to pay small assessments of 7.5 cents per square foot for residents (equal to $75 annually for a 1,000-square-foot apartment) and 15 cents per square foot for commercial property owners, amounts set by the Hudson River Park NID steering committee.
Neighbors Against The NID, which was formed in Tribeca, is now focused on spreading information about the scope of the NID, which the group charges is creating “bad public policy” in asking “8,000 tax lot owners to bear responsibility for one-third of the operating costs of the largest waterfront park in America.”
According to the Hudson River Park Trust, 17 million people visit the park annually and at least 400,000 people use the park’s available sports and other recreational facilities every year. However, N.A.T.N. believes that the 8,000 lots have somewhat arbitrarily been chosen to support the enjoyment of millions of park users, and that the NID is a “big experiment” that could shift the balance of civic power and put decision-making about a large part of Manhattan in the hands of a very few, the unelected NID board members.
Hudson River Park, which was created in 1998 with city and state funds, was designed to be financially self-sustaining. But last year ended with the park carrying a $7 million deficit. Fees from commercial leases, such as Pier 40 parking, Chelsea Piers and the Circle Line, do not bring in enough revenue to fund the park’s operating costs, a problem exacerbated by the deterioration of Pier 40 and the damage by Hurricane Sandy.
The Friends of Hudson River Park, the Trust’s fundraising arm, has proposed a plan for bringing in $10 million annually to cover maintenance and operational costs, by creating an assessment area, a NID, in which property owners in proximity to the park would be taxed. There is no doubt that the park needs help, and the NID’s supporters believe that the time is right, that the money the NID can bring in will greatly alleviate the financial shortfall, and keep the park from falling into disrepair.
The NID would stretch from W. 59th St. down to Murray St., extending inland about three blocks, though exempting both the Hudson Yards, where new residential construction is now underway, and the recently residentially rezoned Hudson Square. The Friends say since Hudson Square already has a BID and Hudson Yards will be creating one, they didn’t want to tax property owners in these areas twice. However, even though Hudson Yards and Hudson Square are technically within the proposed NID boundaries — based on where the Friends report property owners have benefitted from increased values due to the Hudson River Park — these BIDs won’t be contributing to the park.
In the Village, the NID area would cover from the Hudson River shoreline east to Eighth Ave. and Hudson St., and from W. 14th St. down to the northern edge of Hudson Square. As for how the NID’s eastern boundary was determined, A.J. Pietrantone, the Friends’ former executive director, currently a consultant to the NID steering committee, said it had to with keeping it equidistant from the Hudson River’s swerving shoreline.
Neighbors Against The NID note the proposed district jogs from about W. 19th St. and Ninth Ave. over to 10th Ave. before it comes back east across W. 23rd St., avoiding a section of buildings in Chelsea’s West 20s where residents had voiced strongest opposition to the High Line’s attempted BID — a proposal that was withdrawn in 2011. That cut-over to the west, Pietrantone explained, had to do with the river’s bending shoreline, and the removal of a portion of Chelsea that opposed the High Line BID is “simply coincidence,” he said.
Justification for the tax assessment comes from an analysis of property values done by the Trust along with the Real Estate Board of New York. As reported previously in The Villager, a study of property values from 2003 to 2005 determined that: “Over the 16 years since the Park plan was announced, buildings in Greenwich Village have increased in value by approximately 300%…as compared to approximately 200% for Manhattan as a whole.”
However, Sarah Bartlett, one of the founders of N.A.T.N., said, “I’ve been paying more in taxes that reflect the fact that my property has increased in value. To ask me to be taxed twice for the same increase in economic value is not reasonable.”
Added Amy Johannes, another founding member of the anti-NID group, “A prominent tax that will have little oversight will be placed on a group of arbitrarily chosen neighbors. A single board will control these tax dollars. They are not elected officials controlling tax dollars.”
The NID’s supporters, though, feel the tax is small compared to the good it will do the park. The Friends assure the assessment will never increase; in fact, due to expanding development in the NID area, the Friends say the assessment may actually be reduced in the future. However, an increase, though not anticipated, is not impossible since it can be applied for in a process involving City Council approval.
A more pressing concern, though, is that such a broad swath of different neighborhoods would fall under the singular decision-making power of the NID governing board, which is projected to be composed of about 13 representatives of property owners and community groups, in a selection process still to be formulated.
“Here you have people who want to make a company town from W. 59th St. to Murray St. That’s horrifying,” said Nicole Vianna, another founding member of N.A.T.N. Those in the Neighbors group have cited the features of various BIDs, such as in Times Square, Bryant Park and Union Square, where one can feel a corporate presence in signage and structures.
The draft of the district plan on the Trust Web site proposes the building of pedestrian overpasses, improving crosswalks and upgrading and beautifying the median on Route 9A, which is officially the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation, plus the NID’s ability to have “user rights” in a neighborhood.
Jeff Aser, Friends’ project associate for the NID, explained that the NID “could not just plant a tree on a street if it liked a location without going through a community board and city controls.” On the other hand, according to Friends, neighborhoods could come to the NID, which could advocate to fund studies, and work to implement community ideas for improvement.
Like all BIDs, this inaugural neighborhood improvement district would need approval by the City Council. The Friends have been following the rules for establishing a BID, under the guidance of the city’s Department of Small Business Services. BIDs are usually self-generated by businesses and property owners in a certain area — like Union Square — which decide to vote to assess themselves a special tax to improve things like sanitation services, security and parks and open spaces. A draft of a district plan is presented and then public meetings are scheduled to discuss the plan.
The Neighbors raise the fact that the Friends held all seven public meetings before the 41-page draft of the NID’s district plan was available online on March 15. At meetings the public was provided with marketing-type brochures. However, Pietrantone said, representatives from Community Boards 1, 2 and 4 were on the NID steering committee and knew what the district plan entailed, that the plan was available on request, and the steering committee was “following the process as prescribed by the Department of Small Business Services.”
The Hudson River Park has some other funding coming, however, beyond the NID. The park is getting $2.8 million for repairs on Pier 40 as part of open-space “mitigation funds” for the Hudson Square rezoning. Another rumored possibility is a $35 million matching grant from the Diller Von Furstenberg Family Foundation for the redevelopment of Pier 54, at W. 13th St.
At present, the NID steering committee is preparing its final district plan. In the next few weeks this will be submitted to Small Business Services, which will start two files: one of “support” and the other for “opposition” to the NID.
NID supporters can go online to www.hrpnid.org where the Friends has a form that only allows a “yes” for the NID.
NID opponents can go online to http://nohrpnid.blogspot.com where Neighbors Against The NID is collecting signatures for a petition to stop the initiative. (The site also offers a presentation of the Neighbors’ issues.) Opposition letters can also be sent to: Eddie Eng, Department of Small Business Services, 110 William St., eighth floor, N.Y., N.Y. 10038.
If Small Business Services doesn’t see strong opposition to the NID, it will approve the Friends’ district plan. That plan will then be submitted to the City Planning Commission, and S.B.S. will notify the City Council of this submission. The district plan then goes for review to the community boards, there are public hearings, the borough president weighs in, and the City Council votes on it.
If the Council approves the NID, a local law is enacted and goes to the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee holds two hearings on the NID and, in between those two hearings, if property owners want to oppose the NID, objections must be made through the City Clerk. This is a complicated process that involves an owner obtaining a special form from the City Clerk, and returning it with a notarized copy of the deed for his or her property. Fifty-one percent of the district’s affected property owners must object in this manner for the NID to be halted. In an area as large as the proposed Hudson River Park NID, it’s hard to conceive of how 51 percent of property owners would organize, even if they wanted to.
Feeling most people don’t understand the issues surrounding the NID, the Neighbors group encourages affected residents to study the district plan on the Trust’s Web site. As N.A.T.D.’s Bartlett said, “If the NID goes through, it had better be because people know it and like it and not because people have no idea what’s going on.”