Funding the dream of Hudson River Park with special district
By A.J. Pietrantone
Since our creation by neighborhood waterfront activists in 1999, Friends of Hudson River Park has helped to secure more than $240 million to build the largest new park in the city in more than 150 years. During that time, we have also worked successfully to end unwanted uses and protect Hudson River Park from other disruptions. Today the park is nearly 80 percent complete — a unique urban oasis that, when finished, will extend uninterrupted for 5 miles along Manhattan’s West Side waterfront from the Battery to 59th St.
While city and state dollars have been, and will continue to be, secured to build Hudson River Park, under the objectives of the 1998 Hudson River Park Act, the park is supposed to be self-sufficient, with no government funding used to operate or maintain it. Therefore, since 2004, Friends of Hudson River Park has been evaluating several approaches to assure that operations funding for the park will be secured to protect it from succumbing to disrepair and neglect, as other parks in New York have before. We are currently working with the Hudson River Park Trust to expand private-sector fundraising efforts within untapped philanthropy circles.
One additional possible source of reliable park operations funding that we continue to explore with neighborhood community boards, elected officials and other interested parties is a Hudson River Park Improvement District.
An improvement district would offer supplementary resources that could be used to enhance the surrounding neighborhoods’ connection to the park; provide expanded neighborhood representation; and assure a steady revenue stream benefiting both the park and its bordering neighborhoods and businesses. We are developing a proposal — still in the conceptual phase — that maximizes community involvement and includes five key features:
• Guaranteed Community Engagement: The improvement district’s planning approval process would require the involvement of residential and commercial property owners, local community boards, the Manhattan Borough Board (composed of representatives of all 12 Manhattan community boards) and the city’s Department of Small Business Services.
• Transparent Governance: The improvement district’s board would be elected by property owners, commercial tenants and neighborhood residents, and include elected officials from the district and representatives of the community boards.
• Fair Assessment: Friends of Hudson River Park is proposing that commercial and residential properties would contribute different and modest amounts to the total improvement district budget, with residential properties assessed at a lower rate than commercial properties, and public housing and other tax-exempt properties not being assessed. Residential tenants would never be directly charged an assessment.
• Expenditures Outside The Park: By law, the Hudson River Park Trust — the state-city agency that operates and is building the park — cannot spend any money outside the park’s official boundaries. Even a simple step like planting trees and shrubs along the West Side Highway cannot be done without dedicated outside funds. Our plan would provide resources for this, along with pedestrian safety measures and support of other parks and block associations in the area. While bonding is permissible under the law, there is currently no plan to borrow or float bonds for any capital project.
• Reasonable Boundaries: We are exploring a zone of approximately equal east-west distance within the changing street grid and waterfront sightlines along the entire park. It includes some areas below 14th St. that extend four blocks east, as well as one that narrows to two blocks to avoid overlap with existing improvement districts. Final boundaries will depend on property owners’ willingness to participate and specific elements of the district plan that includes all its beneficiaries.
Hudson River Park is almost finished — but making sure that the park thrives for generations to come may be the West Side’s biggest challenge of all. As we recognize the 25th anniversary of the defeat of Westway, we are developing a comprehensive and balanced approach to support Hudson River Park for today — and tomorrow.
Pietrantone is executive director, Friends of Hudson River Park