Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Victoria MacKenzie-Childs, co-owner of the historic Yankee Ferry, finds the gate locked at Pier 25 at N. Moore St. in Tribeca on Nov. 22.

Trust plays hardball; Yankee is forced out

By Josh Rogers

After a tense week of lockouts, charges and countercharges about endangering the historic Yankee Ferry in the Hudson River Park, the Yankee’s park career neared what could be its final days as the owners prepared to tug the ship to a new home in New Jersey to make room for construction of the park’s Tribeca section.

Richard MacKenzie-Childs, who owns the ship with his wife, Victoria, didn’t come close to saying he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” as another Yankee, Lou Gehrig, famously said at the end of his career and life, but he did say relations with the Hudson River Park Trust were considerably better since last week when the Trust tried to lock him and his wife off Pier 25 at N. Moore St.

“I think they did it to make a point that they were very serious about asking us to move,” he said Tuesday. “We always knew they were serious but I guess they wanted to add an exclamation point.”

He will wait a few days for the current storm to pass and plans to move the ship across the river to Liberty Harbor Marina in Weehawken, N.J.

Last week, he was forced to climb over the pier fence in the rain on the night of Nov. 21 to get back to his wife and vessel because the Trust changed the locks four days after giving the couple the combination.

Julie Nadel, a member of the Trust’s board of directors, said it was “grotesquely irresponsible” of Trust staffers to leave a ship on the National Register of Historic Places and people behind a locked fence without giving them full access in an emergency.

Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, said on Nov. 22 that if necessary, staff people would be able to quickly notify Park Enforcement Patrol officers to open the fence.

The next day the Trust gave the MacKenzie-Childs the new combination. It was the same day Nadel made a forceful complaint to the Trust and that Downtown Express, a sister publication of The Villager, published a front-page article about the lockout. Martin said because of the reduced staff level for Thanksgiving weekend, the Trust decided the safest thing was to give the couple the combination over the weekend. He said the Trust did not change the locks after the weekend because it looked like the Yankee’s owners were close to finding a place to move.

MacKenzie-Childs said he made an agreement Tuesday to dock at Lincoln Marina until the spring, when he will have to find a new home because the marina is expecting a new boat. He has begun conversations with people in Greenport, L.I., and he is hopeful that they will have space in the town marina for the 140-foot ship, at least during the three years the Tribeca section of the park is being built.

“It’s just a relief,” he said. “It’s temporary but it buys us some time and the knot in my stomach is no longer there.”

His monthly rent will go from $500 to $1,200 but he said the new marina is giving him a good deal because the rent includes various services for the boat. His first choice was to remain in the Hudson River Park.

“We really think we benefit the community and would prefer to be in the park,” he said. As to whether he wants to return in three years, he said: “We would like to at this point. There’s probably no better boat to be in the Hudson River Park than the Yankee because of its history.”

He said there are not many vessels left as old as the 98-year-old Yankee that have ties to New York City. The ship also has a strong connection to Lower Manhattan in particular since it previously shuttled new immigrants from Ellis Island to the Downtown mainland, was a Statue of Liberty ferry and has been berthed in Tribeca since 1990 when Jimmy Gallagher, the previous owner, tugged the ship from Rhode Island to Pier 25 to restore it. The ship has been mostly nonoperational since the 1980s when it was last used as a ferry to Block Island.

From Weehawken, the vessel’s next stop will be for hull repairs on Staten Island that are expected to take about a month.

Preliminary fence work has begun around Pier 25 and Martin said once Con Ed cuts the pier’s electrical power, the contractor would not have been able to begin the heavy work if the Yankee was still there. The Trust would have been billed $5,500 a day for the delays.

Connie Fishman, the Trust’s president, declined to comment on whether the Trust endangered an historic vessel last week by changing the locks. Trip Dorkey, the state-city authority’s chairperson, said he did not know the details, but did note the owners had full access to the ship when he visited the pier Sunday.

He said he had little sympathy for the couple since they are violating the law governing the park by living in it and have known for years that they would have to move for construction. “They promised to leave and they’re still there,” Dorkey said hours before the deal to go to Liberty Marina was reached.

The Trust has known people have lived on the Yankee since the agency was created in 1998 and has treated the violation with everything from benign neglect to strong objections short of an eviction order.

The current and previous owners say the only feasible way to preserve an aging vessel such as the Yankee is to allow people to live on the boat.

Martin said he did not think the ship was put at risk, but even if it was, the owners deserve the blame because they have known for years that they would have to move. “They endangered the vessel by not making arrangements,” he said.

He said there is no room in the park for the Yankee during construction, an assertion disputed by Nadel, the MacKenzie-Childs and Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2.

The board passed a resolution on Nov. 17 calling on the Trust to “not eschew its responsibility to preserve historic vessels in Hudson River Park.” In its application to build the park back in 2000, the Trust asserted the construction would have “no effect” on the Yankee and other historic ships.

C.B. 2 said the Trust should move the boat to one of two piers in its area: Pier 54 near the Meat Market or Pier 40 — on either the north or west side of the pier — near Houston St.

Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of the board’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, spoke against berthing the Yankee on the south side of Pier 40 because it would block the sweeping vista, which he called one of the best views of the river and harbor from Greenwich Village. On a personal note, he recalled that he even proposed to his wife at the tip of Pier 40’s southern finger pier.

The pier’s south side has small kayak and other ship programs, which oppose the Yankee locating there. The board resolution said the Yankee should be allowed to move to the south side temporarily if time was needed to prepare another place for the ferry.

“It’s always been a peaceful boat, well run,” said David Reck, a C.B. 2 member who was perhaps unaware that the ship was armed but not used during W.W. I and II. “It’s never been a nuisance. This has always been a very well-mannered boat.”

Nadel, who serves on the board of the North River Historic Ship Society in addition to the Trust, said evicting the Yankee will be a blow to the park. “Kicking out any historic ship would hurt any waterfront park,” she said. “What you end up with is nothing but benches, grass and trees.”

The Tribeca section of Hudson River Park is being built with a $70 million federal grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is also a state-city authority. The plan calls for rebuilding decaying Piers 25 and 26 near N. Moore St., adding plant life, a playing field and restoring many of the piers’ existing uses, including places for historic ships, kayaks, river-life studies, beach volleyball, mini-golf and a playground.

Martin has said previously there is room for the Yankee on Pier 40’s north side, but the Trust doesn’t want to put a stationary vessel there and close off the possibility of welcoming visiting ships to the pier. He said none of the L.M.D.C. money can be used to prepare a temporary home for the Yankee during park construction.

Gallagher, the Yankee’s owner from 1990 to 2003, said two weeks ago that a home for the Yankee could be built in the park for less than $10,000.

Mike Davis, executive director of the Floating the Apple youth boating organization on Pier 40, said he hopes the Yankee finds a place, but the south side of the pier won’t work. He said he was less open to the vessel coming to the south side after the wife of one of his group’s volunteers showed him a House & Garden article about the Yankee, depicting it as a luxury private residence where the MacKenzie-Childs were running their design business.

Victoria MacKenzie-Childs said she knew the article was seen as “sissy stuff” by some, but she was proud of it. The couple has also opened the boat for public tours, concerts and programs.

When the lock combination had been changed, she felt trapped on the pier last week and is not ready to believe the Trust ever wants them back. “They are trying to smoke us out,” she said last week. “It’s like a kind of warfare.”

“We welcome — we really do — the Yankee coming back and applying for our historic ship policy,” Martin said. Piers 25, 54 (at W. 13th St.) and 97 (at W. 57th St.) are set aside for historic ships but none could accommodate the Yankee now, according to Martin.

With reporting by Lincoln Anderson

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