The Battery’s Down: Boiling Residents Gird for Takeover

Here we are at Battery Park City, the idyllic planned community on the banks of the Hudson River. Breathtaking views of New York Harbor. Meticulously manicured parks. A blend of high-rise and low-rise residential and office buildings, designed by the likes of Robert A.M. Stern, Cesar Pelli and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, tastefully placed throughout 92 acres, creating a uniquely urban-suburb ambiance. It’s pricy, but the folks who live there swear it’s the only place they’d live in the city.

But what’s this? A swarm of rollerbladers! And what are all these kids from Jersey City doing on the park swings? The jackhammers are so loud, it’s hard to hear over the din. As for the public schools-why, some kids are hiking it all the way up to Roosevelt Island.

Battery Park City, haven on the Hudson. These days, it’s crowded, it’s noisy, it’s mired in political conflict and residents can barely contain their rage at the community school board.

What’s more, things are likely to get worse. The Battery Park City Authority, the state agency that runs this city-within-a-city, has embarked on a major development campaign that could double its population and devour a significant amount of its open space. That plan’s biggest booster is authority chairman James Gill, an appointee of Gov. George Pataki. “I get a headache if I don’t hear the sound of pile drivers,” Mr. Gill told a reporter this year. Residents reach for their Tylenol if they do. “They are moving too forcefully, too fast,” said Anne Compoccia, a longtime Battery Park City resident and chair of lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1. “It’s too big. This is insane.”

But that’s not all. Battery Park City, this refuge from urban realities, is about to come face-to-face with the City of New York. In March, residents discovered that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is considering a city takeover of Battery Park City. “We haven’t made a final decision,” a city official told The Observer . “But it’s very likely that we may just take the thing back.”

By law, the city is entitled to acquire the project at the end of this year if they retire the $900 million in bonds issued by the authority. What would that mean for residents? Speculation both inside and outside the community would have it that the beautifully manicured lawns, parks and other recreation facilities will be maintained by the city’s Parks Department, as a cost-cutting measure. The same goes for the private security force, which will likely be replaced by officers from the New York Police Department.

Residents are terrified. For the parks alone, it could mean that the maintenance budget of $4 per square foot is slashed to the going city rate of less than 40 cents per square foot. “I think it’s a terrible mistake,” said Lisa Hagerman, who lives in a rental apartment in Battery Park City with her husband and daughter. “I don’t think I know anybody here who would support that. If I owned here, I would be really scared.”

How could you blame them? Most residents have made a major investment to live in the community. According to Ed Hardesty, a broker at Douglas Elliman and a Battery Park City resident himself, two-bedroom apartments are selling from $400,000 to $700,000, depending on their views. But those robust prices actually took a dip, said someone else familiar with sales, after Mr. Gill publicly professed his adoration for the sound of pile drivers. A city takeover probably won’t help.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Battery Park City has long been held up as a shining example of what can result when enlightened public officials join forces with creative private sector types. The project has been widely praised for its elegant buildings and its marvelous parks. And after spending $21 million on its operating budget and $63.5 million on debt service, Battery Park City generated a $48.3 million surplus during its most recent fiscal year. The surplus goes directly to New York City’s general fund.

It’s so beautiful-clean, spacious, safe and with cool river breezes-that some residents said they rarely feel the need to escape. Most buildings have concierge service and private gyms. And you can get nearly anything delivered-from organic produce to dry-cleaning to champagne. “All you need is a phone and a credit card and you can rule the world from down here,” joked a Battery Park City mother.

Yet for all of its successes, the 7,500-resident complex is an angst-ridden place. Battery Park City’s popular esplanade and grassy areas are overrun on weekends by rollerbladers, bikers and sunbathers. But tops on the list of Troubles in Paradise is Mr. Gill’s expansion plan.

Mr. Gill was unavailable for comment. But Tim Carey, the authority’s new president, defended Battery Park City as still a wonderful place to live. He said his agency is simply trying to take advantage of the real estate boom and develop Battery Park City according to a 20-year-old master plan. “I’m not saying there isn’t overcrowding in the parks,” Mr. Carey told The Observer . “We try to do the best we can on that. But we haven’t heard the other complaint about overbuilding.”

As for a possible city takeover, Mr. Carey conceded that there was little the authority could do: “It’s a decision the city has to make, not me.”

Yet Mr. Carey’s predecessor, John LaMura, resigned in April after a bitter feud with Mr. Gill over the level of development in Battery Park City. He said it was a mistake for the authority to aggressively build according to a 20-year-old plan when the project had already met its goals of economic self-sufficiency and lower Manhattan was so starved for open space. “The only way to assure that all of the issues are met [in Battery Park City] is to revisit the master plan,” Mr. LaMura said.

There are plenty of residents who feel the same way. “I don’t know who all this new development is supposed to benefit,” complained a longtime resident. “I’ve been out on the esplanade only once or twice in 15 years. You’ve got rollerbladers, bikers, people playing hockey out there now. That’s not the way they sold this place. It was supposed to be a park. What the hell should I go out there for? To get killed? I look out my window and see the Colgate sign. That’s enough for me.”

It wasn’t always so. The authority was created in 1968 to oversee the development of a futuristic micro-metropolis to be constructed on landfill, some of which came from the excavation of the World Trade Center. The project ground to a halt because of fiscal difficulties in the mid-70’s. But it was revived after former Gov. Hugh Carey signed a 1979 agreement with former Mayor Ed Koch for the state to take control of what had been city land and the project’s design in exchange for guaranteeing the authority’s bonds. What followed was indeed a marvel.

Under the visionary leadership of Richard Kahan, the authority’s president at the time, the World Financial Center was completed, attracting such tenants as American Express, The Wall Street Journal and Merrill Lynch. So were the project’s first apartment buildings. Battery Park City’s first residents soon settled in.

From the beginning, rollerbladers were attracted to Battery Park City’s esplanade. But even as their community grew during the real estate boom of the 80’s, residents still felt they were living in a sheltered enclave far removed from Manhattan.

That began to change in 1992 with the completion of the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in the north end of Battery Park City. The 7.5-acre park quickly became known as one of the city’s best oases, drawing hordes of sun worshipers. The crowds only increased, residents sigh, when the Hudson River Park Conservancy created a bike path linking the esplanade to a lengthy stretch of the waterfront running all the way through Chelsea. That led to the discovery of Battery Park City by a new wave of rollerbladers. “The esplanade down here is so crowded on weekends,” grumbled Jennifer, who lives in Battery Park City with her banker husband and daughter and did not wish to give her last name. “I don’t see how they could fit any more people. We used to be able to go out on weekends and easily find a spot in the park. Now if you don’t get there early, you don’t get a spot.”

One resident has gone as far as to sue the authority, claiming that “Battery Park City [has] become infested with dog waste.”

“Well, it’s unfortunate,” Mr. Carey said of the overcrowding. “But we’ve become a very popular place. That’s because it’s such a wonderful place.”

Meanwhile, the real estate market rebounded and Battery Park City became a sought-after place for young married couples with children. But with the project’s new popularity came more growing pains.

Last year, Battery Park City’s first elementary and middle schools opened after years of lobbying by residents and Community Board 1. It should have represented a rite of passage for the community from its pubescent incarnation as a haven for young Wall Street couples to a mature neighborhood. But a long-simmering competition between Battery Park City and other downtown communities for limited resources boiled over when parents from the upscale waterfront community successfully lobbied the local school board to zone the elementary school so it favored their children, at the expense of most of those from the other side of the West Side Highway.

“They double-crossed us,” said Paul Goldstein, the community board’s district manager. “We did not get access to the school that a lot of people beyond the boundaries of Battery Park City worked very hard to get built and opened.”

Then, like a repentant referee trying to make good on a bad call, school officials threw open the doors of the intermediate school to, well, just about everyone, creating a magnet school serving students from as far north as 96th Street. “The whole question of making Intermediate School 89 a magnet school was ridiculous,” said City Council member Kathryn Freed, who previously chaired Community Board 1. “Here we were fighting for an [intermediate school] because there were none downtown, and all of a sudden it’s not our community’s.”

A school board spokesman denied that anything extraordinary had occurred. But local parents became hysterical upon learning that many of their children, some of whom lived in apartments directly above the school in the same building, would have to go elsewhere. “They’re a bunch of bastards,” fumed a Battery Park City mother. “The school board [members] are flaming liberal bastards who could care less about this community.”

Mr. Gill, a politically connected attorney close to former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, entered the picture in 1996. Mr. Gill is an admirer of the late Robert Moses. So his affection for bricks and mortar isn’t all that surprising. But the aggressiveness with which he pursued his goal to see more buildings rise was somewhat unnerving.

Almost immediately, Mr. Gill clashed with Mr. LaMura, a conservative Republican from Long Island, who has advocated privatizing Battery Park City. “LaMura was trying to finish the build-out and close up shop,” said a state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Gill is looking to create a new domain and new projects for the authority.”

The fight finally became public last August when the authority referred allegations to the State Inspector General’s office that Mr. LaMura had used his expense account to pay for a personal trip and had given a raise to his chief aide without proper approval. Mr. LaMura denied the allegations. His allies thought the charges had been trumped up to get him out of Mr. Gill’s way. A spokesman for the Inspector General’s office said the case is still under investigation.

Under Mr. Gill’s leadership, five new residential buildings have risen, along with the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Two more are under construction along with two new hotel projects. But Mr. Gill isn’t through. He has told The New York Times this year he had “every intention” of awarding the project’s seven remaining development sites. Mr. Gill has also expressed interest in having the authority oversee the restoration of Governors Island.

“We’re going like the hammers of hell,” he recently told a reporter.

If Mr. Gill didn’t get a headache from the roar of pile drivers, many Battery Park City residents did. “There are enough jackhammers in this city,” grumbled Neils Knudsen, a computer specialist who has lived in Battery Park City for two years. “You can go anywhere in this city and hear jackhammers. I’d prefer a little more quiet. I think it’s time for it to slow down so we can maintain the esthetics of the place. It’s a park area.”

What’s more, Mr. Gill recently irritated many of Battery Park City’s well-heeled residents when he said the complex had enough “yuppies.” “I love reading about him in the newspapers,” said a resident. “He’s always saying something stupid that he has to take back.”

“I think he’s got some issues,” said another.

There were many in the adjacent neighborhoods who also feel that Mr. Gill is overbuilding. “Every time anyone suggests that to Battery Park City,” Mr. Goldstein said, “the chairman seems to claim that we’re going to cost the state millions and millions of dollars in revenue if he doesn’t build on every square inch. But we think the authority’s job is not just to generate revenue but to create livable neighborhoods that serve multiple purposes that are good for the people who live in Battery Park City and the surrounding community.”

Mr. Carey responded that the authority has agreed to leave one of Battery Park City’s valuable development sites vacant so it can be used as a community baseball field. “I think that the authority has been listening to the community,” he said.

Yet even yuppie-bashing Mr. Gill is starting to look good now that Mr. Giuliani is mulling a takeover.

A city official said the Giuliani administration is talking to financial experts about floating city bonds to replace Battery Park City’s bonds and moving ahead. “We’re going to talk to the business interests down there,” he said. “We’re going to talk to the residents. We’re going to talk to the residents and we’ll see if they are happy. If they are happy, then we’ll leave them alone. If they are not happy, then we will seriously look into it. It’s very simple to take it over.”

That is, if there is anybody left in Battery Park City. “I can go spend $3,000 a month to live anywhere,” said Ms. Hagerman. “I want to live here because it’s nice. We can go somewhere else and they can turn it into a slum.”