Tom Fox, a Friends of Hudson River Park board of directors member, held a photo of two of the Richard Meier West St. glass towers — as the actual towers loomed behind him — at a press conference on the Christopher St. Pier last month, The Friends have released a report showing that the park has increased nearby property values, which they say justifies creation of a park BID.
A business improvement district for a park? Hey, it just might work
By Lincoln Anderson
Hudson River Park has plenty of new public-use piers and lawns and splendid views of the river and harbor. But one thing it needs more of is money.
The Friends of Hudson River Park is proposing a novel way to close that cash gap by creating a Hudson River Park Business Improvement District to raise funds from neighboring property owners.
A newly unveiled study commissioned by the Friends group, with research done by the Regional Plan Association, confirms that the 5-mile-long waterfront park’s first completed section boosted real-estate values in the blocks bordering the park, plus a few blocks further east. Creating a BID would simply allow property owners enjoying the financial fruits of the park to return the favor.
Representatives of the Friends unveiled the study at a Sept. 25 press event on Christopher St. Pier in the park’s Greenwich Village section, which opened five years ago. As if any reminder was needed of how the park’s presence has helped spur development along the Lower West Side waterfront, just to the north rose the three Richard Meier-designed glass towers and a few blocks to the south was the new, full-block Morton Square high-rise. A bit farther north, the new Superior Inks development, by The Related Companies, could be seen under construction across from the Westbeth artists’ complex.
Meanwhile, joggers chugged by on the park’s breezy esplanade and cyclists glided down the park’s smoothly surfaced bikeway — the most heavily used bikeway in the nation.
“The essence of this report is very simple,” said A.J. Pietrantone, the Friends’ executive director. “Parks are a good public investment — and, if well maintained, continue to be so.”
The idea of a Hudson River Park BID is the brainchild of Tom Fox, who, from 1992-’95, was the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the predecessor of today’s Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that is building and operating the park.
Fox, who now heads New York Water Taxi, recalled that in the 1980s, when the idea of the waterfront park was being formulated, there was basically no money around for parks. So, he said, “We gave up 10 percent of the park — Pier 40, Chelsea Piers, the Midtown maritime area.” These “commercial nodes” would be allowed to generate revenue for the park.
But Fox always envisioned two funding streams for Hudson River Park, which is supposed to be financially self-sustaining: the partly commercial piers, such as Pier 40, as well as “inboard values” — meaning tapping some of the increase in property values around the park that the project has created. Though it would be justified to ask the city to kick back a portion of property taxes from the area around the park, it would be unrealistic to expect that to happen, Fox said.
According to the report, the $75 million investment to build the park’s first section — the Greenwich Village segment — led to $200 million in nearby property value increases in just three years.
A Hudson River Park BID would be somewhat different than most of the city’s existing BID’s, such as the Union Square Partnership or Downtown Alliance, for example, since it would primarily have residential members, as opposed to mainly commercial property owners. But Fox noted that other BID’s do have residential property owners.
“This is not unprecedented,” he noted.
Also, Fox said, the time is right for a Hudson River Park BID because, “We are going into tight financial times,” and the park will need the revenue.
Rob Pirani, R.P.A. director of environmental programs, said between 2002 and 2005, the study period, the Hudson River Park’s Greenwich Village section was responsible for a 10 percent increase in property values one block inland from the park, a 20 percent increase in property values two blocks from the park and a 12 percent increase three blocks from the park. Parini said the fact that increases were higher two blocks away from the park, as opposed to one block away, may be attributable to the West Side Highway’s presence.
“When you buy real estate, you buy into a lifestyle,” Parini said, noting that the park is a major part of that lifestyle.
Although the BID would eventually span the park’s length from Chambers St. to W. 59th St. and encompass the area three blocks to the east of it, the plan is to start with just a portion of this — the area between 14th and Houston Sts., though possibly extending as far as Chelsea and Tribeca.
The idea is not to create a new organizational bureaucracy, but basically to raise funds to support the Trust, the Friends members and Parini said. However, conceivably, some of the money might be used to provide some services “inboard,” such as tending or planting street trees and picking up litter on streets near the park, or maintaining the highway’s planted median.
“We’re looking really at establishing a maintenance fund for the upkeep of the park,” Fox said, adding that projections are the full-length BID could raise $5 million a year for the Trust. While the park’s current annual operating budget is $14 million, that figure will probably double by 2013, when the entire park is completed, he said — so the BID’s financial assistance would come in handy.
This supplemental money, in turn, would help take some of the development pressure off the park’s commercial nodes, like Pier 40, Fox explained.
“You don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said of the risk that megadevelopment within the park poses to the park itself.
Property owners would be assessed a lower fee than the BID standard — likely about 16 cents, as opposed to 25 cents, per square foot, totaling about $100 per year. Condo owners would be assessed directly and co-op owners would pay the fee through the shared expense of their corporation. Renters would not be affected; rather, their landlords would pay the assessment.
BID’s are set up through the city’s Department of Small Business Services. Legally, 51 percent of property owners must support the idea, but usually far more support is required before a BID is created.
Fox said the Friends have already “started talking to property owners” and have started the seventh-month approval process needed to create a BID.
Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s vice president, was at the Friends’ Sept. 25 press conference. Asked her thoughts on the proposal afterward, she said the Trust hadn’t fully examined the final report, but added, “BID’s have obviously had success in other parts of the city. I don’t think there’s any dispute that this park has added value to the neighborhood.”
Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee, called a Hudson River Park BID “a great idea.” However, another park activist, who is listed as a member of the Friends’ board of directors, expressed skepticism that the idea will ever get off the ground.