A rendering of The Durst Organization and C & K Properties proposal for Pier 57, one of three competing plans being promoted for the pier on the Chelsea waterfront.
Park has come a long way, but we’re not done yet
By Noreen Doyle
I wore a fish costume on my first day of work. It was Halloween in 1994, and I had just left my job at Community Board 4 to become the “community liaison” for the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the predecessor organization to the Hudson River Park Trust. That night, our entire office — 11 people at the time — marched in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade along with some early park supporters. It was a memorable start to my career at the park, not to mention an unusual and happy first encounter with the Greenwich Village community.
I’ve seen a lot of changes along the waterfront since that time. For anyone who wasn’t around then, some of them are probably hard to fathom. Parking lots and auto glass repair shops lined the river, piers were collapsing into the water, trucks and buses occupied the courtyard of Pier 40, the bikeway didn’t exist and a municipal asphalt plant occupied a portion of the current park in Clinton. The only green spaces along the park’s 5-mile-length were some scraggly trees near Christopher St. and a few more near what is now Chelsea Piers.
It’s not just the physical landscape that has been transformed since that time; people’s attitudes about the park have also shifted seismically, especially in the Village. People look at me in disbelief now when I tell them that many people once fought hard against the whole premise of Hudson River Park — a legacy of government distrust engendered by battles like Westway. I remember public hearings where a hundred people would wave posters saying things like “Park, Not Pork.” Virtually no one supported the idea of ball fields at first. At one point, elected officials from other states even wrote to federal agencies to protest our being granted permits because they’d been informed that the park’s creation would destroy commercial fisheries up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Fortunately, many hundreds of other people supported the vision, and thanks to their passion and dedication, reason and science ultimately prevailed. The state Legislature passed the Hudson River Park Act in 1998, and the federal government issued its final construction approval in 2000. Hudson River Park’s Greenwich Village section — where construction first started — opened in 2003.
As of today, 50 percent of the park is now complete and open to the public, and we are hard at work on another 30 percent, with more areas opening this spring (Pier 64) and next year (Pier 25 and Chelsea Cove). Every day, I see people sunning, kayaking, running, biking, throwing, fishing and learning. Not many people get to see such tangible results from their work on a daily basis, and my colleagues and I know how lucky we are to work here.
Of course, these are challenging times for anyone trying to build anything, but Hudson River Park is luckier than most. Thanks to funding secured by Congressman Nadler, we have just approved contracts for several small park buildings in Tribeca that will enhance the greenway. The state and city have to date committed a combined total of $11 million in funding for the coming year, which will be used to continue construction in Tribeca. Grants from the Port Authority and the New York Department of State will allow us to begin thinking seriously about the future estuarium on Pier 26 in Tribeca. Design will continue on currently unfunded areas, such as Piers 97 and 54, so that we will be ready to bid out construction contracts for these public piers when the financial climate improves. We will also continue work with our Technical Advisory Committee of scientists, environmentalists and boaters to update the management plan for the Hudson River Park Sanctuary, the only urban estuary reserve in the United States.
Our environment and education staff expects to serve approximately 20,000 children from across the city and beyond directly with free environmental education and fishing programs. Coupled with the programs offered by many park tenants, Hudson River Park will host an estimated 280,000 students this year alone. We hope parents will visit our Web site to learn how to get their children involved.
In a year in which public and private budgets are being slashed on many fronts, providing free and low-cost ways for people to relax and have fun is more important than ever. In 2009, we will again offer our free movie, dance, music and children’s programs that last year served more than 35,000 people. We will also be partnering with others to support a wide range of water- and land-based projects organized in celebration of the Henry Hudson quadricentennial. Children and adults will continue to play sports at Pier 40 and Chelsea Waterside Park from early in the morning until roughly midnight year-round.
We are able to do all of this because of the Hudson River Park Act and the opportunities it provides to generate the funds we need to operate the park. In our 10-year history, Hudson River Park has never received even a penny of operating funds from either the state or city. Instead, the funds needed to pay our staff, take care of all of the beautiful lawns, gardens, playgrounds and other exceptional places in the park, and operate our educational and recreational programs, are generated by a combination of rental payments, sponsorships, fees and of course the parking garage at Pier 40. By law, every penny made within the park must stay in the park.
Regular readers of The Villager no doubt know about the challenges facing us at Pier 40. The pier structure requires tens of millions of dollars that we don’t have just to continue supporting the existing uses here, let alone make any improvements. The pier also needs to generate considerable revenue for Hudson River Park’s overall upkeep. The recent failed R.F.P. (request for proposals) required the pier to generate a minimum of $5 million per year for the park — about $2 million net less annually than Pier 40 currently provides.
The concept of public schools at Pier 40 is a good idea, and the Trust is now talking directly with the School Construction Authority to determine whether there is an affordable way for the schools to be built in a portion of the space. We are looking closely at whether income from an expanded parking garage (which would require expensive code upgrades) might be sufficient to pay back construction loans if we were permitted to borrow money. Like everyone in New York, we are hoping that some federal stimulus funding might find its way here as well.
One of the positive outcomes of the recent R.F.P. process is that many more citizens are now engaged in thinking about Pier 40’s future, and have offered their assistance to find a path forward. We will be working closely with them and our elected officials in the coming year to try to find a solution to this critical problem.
On the good news front, we are currently assessing three well thought-of proposals submitted in response to our request for proposals for Pier 57 at W. 16th St. Based on the recent public hearing we conducted to present and discuss these proposals, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm about many of the concepts that are being proposed. We are looking forward to working with the developer candidates, elected officials and the community to make a selection that will enhance the park and inland neighborhoods, while also generating increased revenues to help keep the whole park beautiful.
Over all, in 2009, we hope to keep building: a magnificent park and sanctuary for everyone to enjoy, continued strong relationships with community members, and the financial and organizational capacity to care for the park and the people who visit it. On behalf of the Hudson River Park Trust, we appreciate this opportunity to share some of our goals with the community.
Doyle is vice president, Hudson River Park Trust