West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 12 | August 22 - 28, 2007

Talking Point

Pier 40: Corporate socialism vs. smart capitalism

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

One month ago, the Pier 40 Working Group released its report on the two proposals for redevelopment of the 14-acre W. Houston St. pier. The report was greeted at the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors meeting with a comment by Henry Stern, the city’s former Parks commissioner, that the Working Group’s recommendation was a request to institute “socialism” in a capitalist society.

Stern’s musings might be humorous if the concepts underlying his statement weren’t shared by too many in power, both in the Trust and in government.

Explaining his comment in the Aug. 15, issue of The Villager, Stern’s fundamental premise came down to this: “In the case of Hudson River Park, the state law, sponsored by West Side lawmakers, which created the park in 1998, mandated that the park be self-supporting financially.” According to Stern, this “capitalist” imperative requires that Pier 40, as a whole, be given to one developer so that its income potential can best be tapped for the park.

Commissioner Stern is wrong on both counts.

Nothing in the Hudson River Park Act requires that the park be “self-supporting financially.” Section 7(1)(d)(xi) authorizes the Trust to “apply for or accept any gift or grants of funds ... or other and in any form from the federal government, the state or any city of New York or any agency or instrumentality of the foregoing or from any other source.” Section 7(1)(g) gives the Trust the power “to develop and oversee an annual financing plan that will combine contributions from the federal government, the state, the city of New York and private sources for the planning and development of the Park.” In fact, Hudson River Park would not exist without hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from the state, city and federal government toward its development.

What makes Hudson River Park different from the park system that Henry Stern ran for Mayor Guiliani and Mayor Koch is that, in addition to government contributions, it keeps its revenue and may use that revenue “solely to improve, operate and maintain the park.” In fact, under Article 7 of the park act none of that money may be used “to attract, expand or retain a business within the Park.”

No one has established — no bidder, no advocate, no government official and not Henry Stern — that either proposal to develop Pier 40 will be the best way to generate income for the park from the pier. Yes, Henry, even Related’s capitalist proposal to spend $700 million only guarantees the park $5 million per year in income from the pier — and the park is already making $6 million a year from the parking on Pier 40 without any gargantuan development. Some might even say that this is use of Trust money “to attract...a business.”

What does the approach which Henry Stern endorses at Pier 40 represent? First, it represents government taking the easy way out. Instead of studying various alternatives — and coming up with a business plan which maximizes income from that part of the pier not needed for public recreation and leisure — the Pier 40 approach Stern favors lets the developer do this planning. Of course, the developer gets a handsome fee for its work: It gets to keep the profits and only has to pay a “minimum rent” to the park for 30 years.

Second, this approach represents a growing trend toward what I would like to call “socialism for corporations.” It is an approach, which has become more popular post-9/11, in which public land or property is “rented” to private developers who build public amenities on the land along with profit-making ventures (usually residential real estate or commercial office buildings). When Henry Stern was Parks commissioner, parkland was only given in this manner to the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, who paid so little for the property which made them so much. Giving Pier 40 to Related — or to the CampGroup, for that matter — would rank up there with the stadium giveaways. Even worse, “socialism for corporations” on Pier 40 would not only result in parkland being used for private profit, it would be foul and pollute the surrounding community, as well as the park the project is supposed to help.

Henry Stern missed the point made by the 1,500 people who turned out at public hearing in Greenwich Village in May and “evoked an earlier era.” But the Trust ought not miss their point. The Trust, the mayor, the governor and the borough president should not pit themselves against those who turned out and said “No!” loudly and clearly. Learn by negative example from Richard Nixon, who “survived” (Henry Stern’s word) after leading the McCarthyist purges, but who (Henry forgets to mention) was chased out of office by the American people because he couldn’t hear them. Practice capitalist democracy — work with your constituents and see government prosper and “serve the people” while doing so.

Schwartz is chairperson, Pier 40 Working Group and Community Board 2 Waterfront Committee.

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