A ‘master of the universe’ will wrestle with Pier 40 and park
By Lincoln Anderson
In what some Hudson River Park activists are calling “huge” for the Lower West Side park, Governor David Paterson recently appointed hedge-fund billionaire and Tribeca resident Michael Novogratz to the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors.
Novogratz, 45, is a bona fide “master of the universe,” as one park advocate said in awe. He was ranked No. 962 on the Forbes 2008 list of the world’s billionaires. His net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion. Forbes notes his fortune is “self made.”
According to Forbes, Novogratz is a major Democratic contributor, who, along with his wife, has donated more than $100,000 to the party since 2004.
But even more important to his supporters among Hudson River Park advocates is the fact that Novogratz is a “community guy” with a family who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to the park. He and his wife, Sukey, have four children, who play youth league soccer and Little League baseball in Hudson River Park at Pier 40 at West Houston St.
A Princeton graduate, Novogratz was a helicopter pilot in the Army. He worked for 11 years at Goldman Sachs in Asia and Latin America, and for the last eight years has run Fortress global funds.
At Princeton, he was captain of the wrestling team, an interest that continues for him: Through his charity, Beat the Streets, he funds middle-school and high-school wrestling programs in 130 New York City public schools. The nonprofit group gives $1.5 million annually to finance wrestling programs for 40,000 students, paying for mats and equipment and for recruiting coaches. Novogratz is also the team leader for the U.S. wrestling team.
A state-city authority, the Trust is charged with building and operating the 5-mile-long waterfront park, which runs from Battery Park to W. 59th St. The Trust’s board of directors includes 13 members, five each appointed by the mayor and governor and three by the borough president. Several members are ex officio automatic appointees under the Hudson River Park Act such as the commissioners of the state and city parks departments, for example.
In a phone interview with The Villager a week ago, Novogratz said it’s important to have more community people, such as himself, on the Trust’s board.
He was tapped by Paterson to fill the spot vacated by Georgette Mosbacher, a cosmetics magnate who was national chairperson of John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.
“When you look at the Trust’s board, there are not a lot of local community members on it,” Novogratz said.
Borough President Scott Stringer’s three appointees are considered the board’s community members. They include Pam Frederick, from Tribeca, a former chairperson of Community Board 4; Lawrence B. Goldberg, an attorney and member of the Village Reform Democratic Club; and former state Senator Franz Leichter, a co-author of the park’s founding legislation, who lives on the East Side. Although he isn’t technically a “community member” appointment, Paul Ullman, who was put on the board two and a half years ago by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer, fits the bill. Ullman, who also works in finance, lives in the Village. Like Novogratz, both Frederick and Ullman have children who play youth sports on Pier 40.
“We’ve got four kids, and I’ve got 11 nieces and nephews,” Novogratz said. “We definitely are users of Pier 40 and the whole park itself. That’s why I wanted to be on the board to have some impact on the park.”
Novogratz was living in Tribeca right before 9/11, and after that lived in the Meatpacking District at 14th St. and Ninth Ave., above Gaslight bar and lounge. A few years ago, he purchased Robert DeNiro’s former Tribeca apartment, while Mickey Rourke moved into Novogratz’s former place in the Meat Market.
His brother, Bob Novogratz, his wife, Cortney, and their seven children live nearby and are the stars of Bravo’s hit reality series “9 By Design,” in which the couple turn run-down buildings into luxurious abodes.
Michael and Bob have an equally high-powered sister, Jacqueline Novogratz. She, too, lives nearby and is the C.E.O. of the Acumen Fund, which, according to its Web site, has used philanthropic capital to invest $40 million in businesses around the world that “serve the poor with life-changing goods and services.”
Given his financial prowess, one would expect Novogratz to shake things up on the Trust, and try to move things in new directions, especially concerning Pier 40. The 14-acre pier desperately needs millions of dollars in repairs with its crumbling concrete roof and corroding metal support piles being the most pressing concerns.
In recent years, two efforts by the Trust to find private developers to lease the pier long term and upgrade it have failed. Some proposals have prompted howls of opposition from community members, most recently The Related Company’s failed “Vegas on the Hudson” plan for Cirque du Soleil theaters and a Tribeca Film Festival megaplex.
Novogratz said, for the first few board meetings, however, he plans to “shut up and listen” and learn.
That’s not to say he doesn’t already have ideas for the park such as creating a conservancy to raise funds, along the lines of the Central Park Conservancy.
“I’m sure that needs to be discussed,” he said. “That’s got to be in the cards, to be discussed pretty thoroughly.”
Asked if his wealth would in any way be an asset for the park, he replied, “I think the only thing I can add to the board is some common sense as a guy with some financial acumen.”
As for how he got interested in the Trust, Novogratz said he first got involved in the High Line park project a few years ago. Robert Hammond, a co-founder of Friends of the High Line, asked him to join their board, but Novogratz felt they already had a solid board. Hammond suggested the Hudson River Park Trust, and put him in touch with James Ortenzio, the authority’s former chairperson. At the time, the Trust was “looking for a chairperson,” Novogratz recalled. But Spitzer ultimately appointed Diana Taylor to fill that spot.
Two years later, it was the lame-duck Paterson who appointed Novogratz to the Trust, even though the two didn’t know each other before.
“I wouldn’t call this a political appointment by any stretch,” Novogratz noted. “He’s got nothing to lose. I’m not one of his boys.”
As for the Pier 40 conundrum, Novogratz said, “I always thought you need to try to preserve the really communal feel of Pier 40 but you have to be somewhat practical, in that the park needs money and the pier needs to get fixed. None of the commercial plans were good at preserving the spirit of the park and the alternative plans didn’t really work.”
Right now, though, with the down economy, he said regarding Pier 40, “I think it’s probably a period where you just try to grit it out.”
Uses he said he thought could be a good fit for the pier are schools, as well as “broader, bigger sports facilities.” Preserving the sprawling, artificial-surface, courtyard field is a must for him.
“You can’t split the fields,” he stressed. “It’s the continuity of that central space that gives it the good feeling. It’s like our Central Park. It needs to be preserved to a certain degree.”
Asked about the fact that commercial, government and emergency helicopters are still landing and taking off in the park at the W. 30th St. heliport although tourist flights were ended in April Novogratz, a licensed chopper pilot, called it “an important heliport.”
“People use that from the mayor on down,” he said, noting these individuals are “big taxpayers” for the city.
On the economy, in general, the financial titan said he doesn’t see any short-term relief on the horizon, unfortunately.
“I think it’s going to be a struggle,” he said. “For the most part, it’s going to be a low job recovery.” The service industry won’t see much rebound, but jobs tied to the global economy in finance, technology and media will do well, he opined.
Ullman said of his new fellow Trust board member Novogratz, “Good man, very successful, very involved in the community.”
Tobi Bergman, head Pier Park & Playground, or P3, a local nonprofit group advocating for space for youth sports, said he didn’t know Novogratz well, but that he’s heard only positive things about him.
“Here’s the thing he is in the community, he’s part of the community, he’s got a family that’s a good thing,” Bergman said. “I think that people appointed to the board should live in the communities adjacent to the park.”
Although many Downtowners recoil at the mention of a conservancy feeling they are unaccountable, quasi-governmental entities Bergman said Novogratz’s idea might be worth exploring.
“I personally am not afraid of a conservancy,” Bergman said. “They’re not for all parks, but in certain parks they can certainly help out. Let’s remember what a disaster Central Park was before the Central Park Conservancy came along. I think Pier 40 is a fundraising opportunity. I also think you could raise money for keeping the river clean.” Hudson River Park’s marine estuary includes all of the water extending out to the end of the piers.