A Fierce Coalition Prepares Last Stand Against Hudson Park

A visitor walking along a newly built path in the unfinished Hudson River Park might notice a noisy swirl of construction activity inland as bulldozers and steamrollers reconstruct the adjacent Joe DiMaggio Highway. Looking out toward the Hudson, by contrast, the pedestrian would hear little but the lapping of water against rotting piers, the increasingly dilapidated structures that are supposed to provide most of the future park’s recreation space.

The silence along the shoreline has long been music to the ears of a small but vocal coalition of environmentalists and preservationists on Manhattan’s West Side. And they are gearing up for what may be a dramatic last stand against the massive plan put forth by the Hudson River Park Trust and its chairman James Ortenzio, as the United States Army Corps of Engineers prepares to decide on whether to issue permits to allow construction on the piers. According to a top Army Corps official, the decision could come as early as March. The permits are critical to the progress of the $350 million project, and the uncertainty over the Army Corps’ intentions has already caused work to fall behind schedule. The park had been scheduled for completion in 2003.

Led by veteran activist Marcy Benstock, who is credited with helping prevent the construction of Westway in the 1980’s, a group of diehard park opponents views the project as the work of deal-making politicians and greedy developers. Ms. Benstock’s small but adamant coalition has been lobbying furiously to make the granting of any construction permits contingent upon a Federal Environmental Impact Statement, which would take two to four years to complete.

Ms. Benstock wants to see the Hudson River return to what she considers its natural state, that is, before the European settlement of Manhattan Island. She regards the Hudson River piers and any other manmade structures near the water to be “clutter” that should be allowed to rot away. And she insists that an E.I.S. should be required of the park project. “We’re talking about our country’s most basic environmental law,” said Ms. Benstock, an intensely focused Buffalo native. “The question is whether the rule of law and environmental concerns will prevail, or whether the political system is now so corrupt that there’s nothing but greed and giving to get.” Groups allied with Ms. Benstock include the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront & Great Port, Friends of the Earth, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Ms. Benstock’s nemeses include, among others, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. The three elected leaders collectively appoint board members of the project’s oversight committee, the Hudson River Park Trust. They, and nearly every other elected official in the city, disagree profoundly with Ms. Benstock. “I do not think we need an E.I.S.,” said Ms. Fields. “This park … has been more thoroughly reviewed than any other in the city.”

At one point, the E.I.S. issue seemed to give Ms. Benstock and her allies some momentum in their crusade. U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler of the West Side wrote a letter to the Army Corps asking for completion of an E.I.S. before any work permits are granted. And the two Senators of Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, unexpectedly jumped into the fray last fall. Citing unspecified concerns from local New England fishing industry groups, they wrote a letter similar to Mr. Nadler’s.

Moynihan Steps In

But the letters inspired a rapid backlash from politicians who can hardly believe that such a highly praised project-a park, no less-could be derailed. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who rues the day that plans for Westway collapsed over concerns about the striped bass that spawned under the piers, responded in November with a letter to the Corps insisting that “a full [E.I.S.] is not warranted.” Mr. Schumer agreed. And New York leaders wondered exactly why two out-of-state politicians were butting in on a local issue. “It’s outrageous that Senators from Massachusetts are interfering in the inner workings of the City of New York,” fumed Deputy Mayor Randy Levine, a member of the Park Trust’s board. As for Ms. Benstock and other critics, Mr. Levine said: “They are a group of people who like protesting. They will never be satisfied with anything unless the entire city is one open park.”

According to several park supporters, Senators Kennedy and Kerry have privately indicated that they were reconsidering their request for an E.I.S. And in an interview with The Observer , Mr. Nadler carefully distinguished himself from park opponents. “I support the Hudson River Park, and I support the current plan,” he said. “I think as a matter of principle all major projects should have a Federal E.I.S.” The offices of Senators Kennedy and Kerry did not return calls for comment.

Meanwhile, some of the most passionate pleas to dispense with any further environmental studies have come from within the environmental community itself. Paul Elston, chairman of the New York League of Conservation Voters, noted that the state has done its own E.I.S., based upon which the Federal Environmental Protection Agency approved the project. And, he said, the United States Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the piers, which Ms. Benstock would like to see disappear, were actually good for fish, providing fertile breeding grounds for a variety of species. “These [Federal agencies] are the professionals,” said Mr. Elston. “They’ve examined the question very carefully, and they’ve come to the same conclusion as the state. We don’t want any short-circuiting of the process in general, we just don’t want it done when the facts tell us that it’s not necessary.”

And some environmentalists are directing their most withering criticism at the project’s diehard critics. “[Ms. Benstock] and the radical environmental fringe have been trying to derail this world-class waterfront park for over a decade,” said Tom Fox, the former head of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, who first proposed the park and headed the oversight body in its formative years. “The only thing that would be acceptable to these people would be if the West Side waterfront reverted to how it was when Henry Hudson came up the river in 1609, which might be great if there were only fish there. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of people across the street who desperately need open space.”

Even as the two sides battle over future construction, parts of the park-which will run from the Battery to West 59th Street-are in place. An immaculately manicured bike path already is in use at the project’s southern end, hinting at the emerald beltway still to come. And the Hudson River Park Trust has sent out requests for design and engineering proposals for the next segment. The park’s administrators have said all they need are the Army Corps permits to begin reconstructing the West Side piers.

“For years, the piers and pilings have deteriorated, and we just want to fix them,” said Mr. Ortenzio, a powerful fund-raiser for the Republican Party and chairman of the Park Trust. “They are in a way organically emitting more into the river than we would by any of our calisthenics. There is this misapprehension on the part of those who want the E.I.S.-I think if the Army Corps told us anything, it would tell us to fix these structures and do something with them. Not to save them would be disrespectful to history.”

The Army Corps itself is indicating that a verdict may be near. Joseph Seebode, the chief of the regulatory branch of the Corps’ New York district, told The Observer that the Corps’ environmental assessment of the project was nearly complete, and that he expected a decision on the E.I.S. “within the next few weeks,” which could lead to permits “in very short order.” In the meantime, said Mr. Seebode, the Corps was helping the Park Trust to coordinate with Federal agencies, environmentalists and historic preservationists (much of the park lies within a designated historic district) to eliminate any remaining elements of controversy in the project’s design.

According to Mr. Seebode, public reaction to the park has been overwhelmingly positive. “A large number of environmental and other groups that are very supportive of this project want it to go ahead as soon as possible,” he said. Of those who oppose the project, Mr. Seebode said the environmental issues the critics raise are not “as significant a concern as those groups conceive [them] to be.”

Beware the Critics!

Still, some park supporters warn darkly against any premature dismissal of Ms. Benstock and her allies. “For such a small group, they’ve obviously been very effective,” said Madelyn Wils, a board member of the Park Trust. “And I don’t think that people like this who have had such a strong agenda and made a career out of this one issue will step down easily.”

Indeed, others said, the dangers inherent in bureaucratic delay already have begun to manifest themselves. Planned park space is being whittled away while critics and supporters argue. For example, a newly announced plan to expand a proposed convention center on Pier 94 at West 55th Street figures to dominate an area that had been designed to be a landscaped park for residents of Hell’s Kitchen. Similarly, an area proposed as “greensward” by Battery Park City is now crossed with new, and permanent, access roads for livery cars. “I’m concerned that hard-fought elements that make this park special are starting to disappear because of the amount of time it’s taking to achieve the [Trust’s] goals,” said Vince McGowan, a member of Friends of Hudson River Park and a former vice president of the park oversight body.

Another threat to the park is that further foot-dragging will lead to a loss of some of the $200 million in funding that the state and city already have committed to the project. “The dollars are tied into some budget years, so we do certainly stand the chance of losing dollars fiscal year by fiscal year,” conceded Ms. Fields. “It is certainly something that we need to be aware of, that that would happen.”

Ms. Benstock is unmoved by such concerns, seeing the proposed park as a repeat of “the Westway boondoggle,” which would have seen hundreds of acres of the Hudson River landfilled and paved for a highway. “The corruption that was at the heart of Westway is the same here, that is a desire to use irreplaceable natural resources as the site for giving out leases and contracts for pork-barrel projects,” she said.

Nor does it concern Ms. Benstock that she is fighting an increasingly lonely battle, opposing many of the same environmentalists who she so successfully rallied earlier in her career to defeat Westway. “The only reason the wonderful, dedicated people that have stuck with this for so long have done so is because of the phenomenal importance of the environmental resources at stake here and the laws that protect them,” she said. “Any true environmentalist who has the real facts opposes this plan.”

Additional reporting by Laura Seigle.