Community Boards

Ice-Capades on the Esplanade?

Rink Planned for Hudson River Park

When the temperature drops and the slush turns to ice and then back to slush again, many New Yorkers abandon outdoor exercise for the warmer climes of an indoor athletic club. But the heartier and perhaps more romantic of them head to the city’s skating rinks to revel in a winter wonderland of clinking blades, chipped ice and frosty breath.

These New Yorkers may soon have one more reason to look forward to winter recreation. The Hudson River Park Trust recently announced that the storied rinks at Rockefeller Center and Central Park, as well as the lesser-known facility at Riverbank State Park in uptown Manhattan, may be joined by a downtown counterpart.

On Nov. 18, downtown residents gathered at Community Board 1’s public meeting expressed delight at the idea of a downtown skating rink, but they were not without reservations. The trust’s plan to build the rink with public money and install it near Hudson River Park’s Pier 40, at Houston Street and the Hudson River, was received with something less than enthusiasm.

“We want them to rethink the location,” Linda Roche, chairwoman of the board’s waterfront committee, announced at the meeting.

Pier 40, the park’s largest pier, is currently dominated by the largest car park in Manhattan, with over a million square feet of space. The 15-acre pier is also home to kayaks, batting cages and athletic fields, installed as part of the Hudson River Park Trust’s mammoth redevelopment of the West Side waterfront.

The ice rink would be built just south of Pier 40, wedged between the river and a new public walkway. Board members fear that the plan, which would involve narrowing the walkway, would cause congestion along the well-traveled path.

“Putting [the rink] on the esplanade at that location really bottlenecks the esplanade,” said Ms. Roche.

Pier 40 is one of the only locations within the waterfront park that has a large, reliable power supply, which is why it was chosen for the rink, according to Albert Butzel, president of Friends of Hudson River Park. The trust is also under pressure to increase commercial activity at the pier to raise more revenue, the bulk of which is generated at just a few locations (such as Chelsea Piers) within the five-mile-long park.

Board members also expressed reservations about using fiercely contested federal reconstruction funds, administered by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, to build the frozen-pleasure park. The LMDC has pledged $2.6 million to develop the ice-skating rink.

“LMDC money has more vital purposes,” said youth and education committee chair Paul Hovitz.

“It seems like everyone and their brother has an application before the LMDC for funding,” district manager Paul Goldstein told The Observer . “We’re just afraid they’re going to run out of money.”

Lower Manhattan has not always been without an ice-skating rink, although arguably it has never seen a successful one. Two rinks resided briefly downtown during the late 1990’s: one at the South Street Seaport and the other at the World Trade Center. The seaport rink, which was small and ill-advertised, closed after a few seasons. The Trade Center rink was even shorter-lived: Six months after the New York Rangers hoisted the coveted Stanley Cup at the base of the Twin Towers to celebrate the rink’s opening, the Port Authority rather dramatically demolished the facility. (Fledgling hockey and figure-skating programs were abruptly quashed when the Port Authority was sued during an ugly dispute with the rink’s operator, whose president likened the agency’s severe tactics to the Gestapo’s.)

The Hudson River Park Trust has not been without its own rink-related problems. A community group recently threatened to file suit against the trust over its initial attempt to push through the rink proposal without public review, in apparent violation of the law. The trust relented and opened up the process, but it still has not held a public hearing on the plan.

At its Nov. 20 board meeting, the trust postponed a vote on the ice-rink proposal. “Whether or not we go forward at a future date remains to be seen,” said Hudson River Park Trust spokesman Chris Martin.

In the meantime, the trust is exploring an interim plan for the pier, which may include adding an outdoor athletic field.

Some members of the community want the rink to be built on the pier itself, within one of the larger proposed structures, to avoid the issue of a cramped walkway. Others aren’t thrilled about the idea at all and hope it will be abandoned altogether. The rink may well lose money, Mr. Butzel told The Observer , and the current plan for an open-air facility is questionable considering the frigid winds that blow in off the water.

“I’d rather they would go ahead with something that wouldn’t have these kinds of burdens,” said Mr. Butzel. “I’d love to see them use the money to build part of a real park.”

-Megan Costello

First Avenue’s Second Name: Veterans Way

With the conflict in Iraq showing no signs of subsiding-2,054 soldiers wounded in combat and 432 killed as of Nov. 23-it would appear to be an inopportune time for the Bush administration to propose closing various V.A. hospitals throughout the country. That, however, is exactly what the Department of Veterans Affairs is studying at this moment.

The appearance of the V.A. hospital on 23rd Street and First Avenue on the list of hospitals to undergo “feasibility studies” has not gone unnoticed. Over the last four months, efforts to publicize the possible closing have included demonstrations and a City Council resolution to condemn any reduction in funding or services at the facility. On Nov. 12, in another effort to publicize the hospital’s possible plight, Community Board 6 passed a strongly worded resolution that supports a pending New York City Council bill, Intro 603, to temporarily “co-name” the stretch of First Avenue between 23rd and 25th streets as Veterans Way. If Board 6 has its way, a new street sign will be erected alongside the First Avenue sign, where it will remain for approximately six months.

Intro 603 was conceived by the City Council and is sponsored by Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Council members Margarita Lopez and Eva Moskowitz, among others. With Board 6’s blessing, the bill was sent to the Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee which, said Ms. Lopez, is expected to approve it. If the committee does approve it, Intro 603 will then be voted on by the full Council, most likely some time before the end of December.

According to Ms. Lopez, the Department of Veterans Affairs has not adequately notified veterans that it intends to study the hospital for a possible closing. “This will have consequences beyond the veterans’ hospital,” Ms. Lopez told The Observer . “It’s going to have consequences for Bellevue hospital; it’s going to destroy the care that we had carefully put together for veterans that come from as far away as New Jersey and Staten Island.” She said that the street renaming is “not just a symbolic message, but a very clear political message to the powers in Washington” to keep the hospital open.

Lou Sepersky, the chair of Board 6’s transportation committee, told The Observer that the request was made by city officials as part of a concerted effort to publicize what many see as preliminary efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to close the hospital. “Co-naming is a way to call attention to some issue or person [the City Council] registers as significant,” Mr. Sepersky said. “I’m a vet-the issue of vets’ health care is one that resonates with me. I care about the issue above and beyond just the street co-naming.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs, however, disputes that the Manhattan V.A. hospital will be closed. “The national draft CARES [Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services] plan does not identify the New York V.A. medical center for closure,” John Mazzulla, a spokesman for the department, told The Observer . “What it does do is recommend that the New York V.A. medical center be studied further for the possibility of shifting inpatient beds to the Brooklyn V.A. center, leaving a large ambulatory care-or outpatient-center in Manhattan.”

The department is currently studying various cost-cutting measures through its CARES commission and has already recommended the closing of seven hospitals throughout the country, none of them in New York City. The commission is due to release its report in December; thereafter, the Department of Veterans Affairs will decide whether or not to follow the recommendations.

Despite the Department of Veterans Affairs’ denials regarding the closing of the Manhattan V.A. center, city officials continue to ramp up their preservation efforts. On Nov. 16, there was a rally in Times Square to protest the possibility of a closure, and the City Council, in tandem with Board 6, is monitoring the situation. “The idea behind this whole thing,” said Ms. Lopez, “is to make clear that [the Department of Veterans Affairs] cannot just say they’re going to close this hospital and pack up and leave.”

-Matthew Ian Grace

Board Blessing or Not,

Bloomie’s Celebrates Holiday Spirit

Rudolph was all glammed up, Frosty was entertaining a gaggle of mannequin tots, Harry Connick Jr. was belting Christmas carols, and traffic wasn’t going anywhere on Third Avenue on Tuesday, Nov. 25. Thanks to permission from the Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office to shut down two lanes of Third Avenue traffic between 59th and 60th streets from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Bloomingdale’s was able to celebrate the unveiling of its holiday window display in relative peace.

But not everyone was feeling holly-jolly about the festivities. Among the bah-humbuggers was Community Board 8, which had been concerned about the traffic congestion resulting from the unveiling, scheduled just two days before Thanksgiving. The board says it didn’t have adequate time to review the street-activity permit application from Bloomingdale’s, which it received on Oct. 29, a mere four weeks before the scheduled event. (Generally, applicants approach the board six months to a year before a slated event.)

At its Nov. 19 public meeting, the board voted overwhelmingly to reject the department store’s tardy application. “Why should they [get the board’s approval] if they already have the approval of the Mayor’s office?” Barbara Chocky, chairwoman of the board’s street-fairs committee, asked the board rhetorically. But even the board acknowledged that its vote was too little, too late-a mere token protest at that point.

With the city’s blessing, the show went on, with Harry Connick Jr. and his 16-piece big band performing songs from his new album, Harry for the Holidays , in celebration of window director Harry Medina’s display.

“Third Avenue will be transformed into a stage,” predicted the Bloomingdale’s press release. “My God! It’s going to be a blast,” Mr. Medina told The Observer , anticipating Tuesday’s unveiling of his first Bloomingdale’s holiday display. “When we did Radio City last year, they closed down traffic and it was totally jam-packed,” he said, recalling the window display he designed for the famed music hall last holiday season.

Bloomingdale’s insists that it fulfilled the proper permit-application protocol. “We followed the process to obtain the permit,” said Anne Keating, senior vice president of public relations for the department store. Jennifer Falk, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s office, agreed, noting that the board was misinformed about the proper procedure. “Commercial events do not need an activity permit,” she told The Observer, although Bloomingdale’s did receive a permit from the Street Activity Permit Office. “There are very specific rules outlining permits, and [Bloomingdale’s] does not need a permit.”

However, when The Observer reviewed the city’s application rules, it found otherwise. “A street activity permit shall be required to conduct any street activity … [that] may interfere with … traffic,” the document read in part. In addition, it stipulated that “applications for street activity permits … [are] filed with the Office of the Community Board.”

“This looks like a textbook case of disorganization to me,” said board chair Charles Warren, adding that “Bloomingdale’s should know better.”

Procedural details aside, Bloomingdale’s seemed surprised that not everyone was catching the holiday spirit. “This concert is a gift to the city,” said Ms. Keating, who noted that $50,000 and additional proceeds from event sales would be donated to Music Education Initiative Inc., a nonprofit organization. “The community board is making a positive into a negative.”

According to sources at Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys, closing off several lanes of traffic for the unveiling of a window display is uncommon. “People tend to get a bit pissed off in New York when you close off the street,” said one source.

The board is not alone in its concerns about the street closing. The Zucker Organization, which is constructing a high-rise residential building on the same block, fears that equipment and material deliveries wouldn’t reach the site. The real-estate developer wrote in a letter to Ms. Chocky on Nov. 13 that “the construction of our site can be significantly impacted if workers and material are denied access during the morning and early afternoon.”

Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of fashion direction, was confident that the Zucker Organization would not be affected. “The traffic will move,” he said, adding that if the company didn’t believe this, “we would not recommend closing down the entire street.”

“We’re a neighborhood store, and the last thing we want to do is upset our neighbors,” Ms. Keating added.

But Mr. Warren felt differently. “If they’re trying to be a good neighbor, it seems to me that they would want to work with us,” he said.

-Ronda Kaysen

Nov. 25: Board 12, Alumni Auditorium of Columbia University’s William Black Research Building, 650 West 168th Street, 7 p.m., 212-568-8500.

Dec. 2: Board 7, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, 1000 10th Avenue, 7 p.m., 212-362-4008.