Park Frozen As City Trucks Blockade Pier

Park advocates are charging that the city’s Sanitation Department is unlawfully squatting on a West Side pier that should have been demolished three months ago to make way for the northern end of the Hudson River Park.

The postponement threatens to further derail the long-delayed plan to create a five-mile, 550-acre waterfront park from Battery Park City to 59th Street, the city’s largest open-space project since the creation of Central Park in 1853.

For years, the Sanitation Department has used Pier 97 at West 57th Street as a marshaling yard for its trucks and a depot for street salt. But according to state legislation, that property should have been turned over on Jan. 1, 2004, to the Hudson River Park Trust, the city/state agency tasked with building the park. The entire park had been slated for completion in 2003, but to date the trust has finished just one of six segments-in Greenwich Village. Furthermore, the trust recently spent the last of the $200 million that the city and state had committed for the park’s creation in 1992, and it will probably need a minimum of $200 million more to complete it.

To pay for the renovation of Pier 97, the trust has to once again hit up the city or state for additional funding, a request it cannot make until the Sanitation Department vacates the pier. The Sanitation Department can’t vacate, however, until it completes the long-delayed construction of a new facility at a site across 12th Avenue, which might not happen for another three years. Until then, the Sanitation Department will effectively remain a squatter on the trust’s property. And, in the meantime, construction on yet another piece of the long-overdue park will continue to stagnate.

“I’m just this side of total despair,” said Ross Graham, co-chair of the Friends of Hudson River Park, a civic advocacy group. “I don’t want to create a furor on city and state levels, but I would like [the Sanitation Department] to think they must be more responsive and try harder to find a way to resolve this problem.”

Tom Fox, who was one of the driving forces behind the park’s creation (and who’s also president of the New York Water Taxi ferry service), said he and other park advocates joke, somewhat morbidly, that “they’ll be wheeling us in our wheelchairs” by the time the park is finished.

Ever since 1998, when Governor George Pataki signed the Hudson River Park Act into law, the Sanitation Department has been on notice that it would have to relocate its Pier 97 facility by Dec. 31, 2003. Almost six years later, however, construction crews are just now beginning to excavate dirt from the relocation site.

The delay can partially be explained by unforeseeable events: The initial demolition contractor had to be removed from the job in 2002 for withholding wages from workers, for example. Nonetheless, some argue that the Sanitation Department has been apathetic and slow to take action, confident in the knowledge that the park’s supposed guardian, the Hudson River Park Trust, is by its very nature unable to take a strong stance against city departments like Sanitation.

As a city/state agency, the trust’s board of directors contains an equal number of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees-making it effectively impossible for them to do anything without the consent of both the Mayor and the Governor. And while the arrangement appears to achieve its aim of putting a check on rash unilateral actions, it also makes it next to impossible for the trust to take strong action-like filing a lawsuit-against a city-controlled department like Sanitation.

“It’s unlikely that a board of directors that is half-controlled by the city is going to vote to sue the city,” said Albert Butzel, president of the Friends of Hudson River Park.

The same principal seems to apply when it comes to getting the trust to pressure the Sanitation Department to pay rent for its pier-squatting-an option that Mr. Butzel has proposed.

“The idea that the Sanitation Department should pay rent is not something that the city wants to do,” said Mr. Butzel. “Therefore, the city’s representatives on the board of the Hudson River Park Trust are not going to support a motion where the trust asks for that kind of relief.”

Christopher Martin, a vice president of the trust, released the following statement to The Observer via e-mail:

“We know how important Pier 97 is to the community as a recreation pier and are still committed to its reconstruction. In the meantime, we coordinate closely with the Department of Sanitation on its relocation plans and are confident that they are making their best efforts to complete reconstruction of their new garage as quickly as feasible so that the trucks currently located on Pier 97 can be removed and the pier rebuilt.”

Unlike the trust, which effectively can’t file suit against the Sanitation Department because of its city/state nature, the Friends group is bound by no such restraints. But for now, at least, Mr. Butzel said he has no plans to file a suit of his own, though he will reserve the option if the situation begins to deteriorate hopelessly.

Trust board member Henry Stern, who was the city’s longtime parks commissioner, said the situation at Pier 97 had never come before the board, but he dismissed out of hand the idea of the trust filing suit against the Sanitation Department.

“If you sue the Sanitation Department, you’re really suing the Mayor, because he appoints the sanitation commissioner,” Mr. Stern said. “And neither the Governor’s people nor the Mayor’s people are going to resort to the courts to handle what should be handled within the executive branch.”

Contrary to the claims of some on the Friends, Mr. Stern argued that it is actually advantageous in this situation to have mayoral appointees on the board.

“I believe the presence of the mayoral appointees on the board, including [Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff, gives us more of a chance to persuade the Mayor to get rid of the Sanitation Department (from the pier),” he said.

Mr. Stern also said he felt somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of Sanitation paying rent to the trust, as it might not even be legal for the trust to “commercialize” the pier in that way. However, he did add that he wasn’t opposed to having Sanitation compensate the trust in another way-perhaps by using capital budget funds to help pay for the pier’s demolition and reconstruction.

Mayoral spokesman Jordan Barowitz said the Mayor’s office is engaged in discussions with the trust to expedite the Sanitation Department’s departure from the site.

“There’s an agreement in place that Sanitation will move into the garage across the street within three years,” Mr. Barowitz said. “And in the short term, we have identified some improvements that will enhance access to the park and [solve] some transportation issues.”

The short-term improvements Mr. Barowitz referred to include the Sanitation Department’s purchase of the second of two plots-at 57th Street and 12th Avenue-for their new facilities. The second plot will house some of the trucks that now park on the street next to Pier 97. However, one of the principal reasons the trucks are parked on the street-as opposed to the pier itself-is that construction is currently taking place on the pier. Many of the wooden supports for the concrete structure have deteriorated to the point that they need to be replaced immediately. This has yielded the ironic situation of Sanitation tossing money into a sinkhole to keep up a pier that it isn’t even lawfully entitled to occupy-and which the trust intends on destroying as soon as possible.

A Long, Troubled History

The Hudson River Park emerged from the ashes of Westway, the failed plan to build a submerged highway along the Hudson River out of landfill, which would have extended Manhattan’s western border by 1,000 feet. (West Side activists famously killed the project in 1985 by exploiting the dangers that the project might have posed to the river’s striped-bass community.) In the wake of the project’s defeat, West Side activists-many of whom were Westway opponents-proposed as an alternative the grand, landscaped boulevard that would become the West Side Highway and the Hudson River Park. In 1992, after much haggling, Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins committed $200 million to the project. The park didn’t start in earnest, however, until the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the precursor of the Hudson River Park Trust, finalized a financial and design plan for the entire park in 1995.

At that point, park advocates on the conservancy were aware that $200 million would cover only about half of the park’s costs, but the group expected to garner other revenue from a variety of other sources: the federal government, development fees imposed on new projects rising up along 11th and 12th avenues, and private contributions.

In September of 1998, Governor Pataki signed the Hudson River Park Act into law at Pier 25 in Tribeca, where he was flanked by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and community activists. The signing formalized many aspects of the park’s development-parts of which had been underway since 1992.

“Years from now, this project will be seen as the turning point in the development of Manhattan’s West Side waterfront,” Mr. Giuliani said at the time.

The legislation also ushered the Hudson River Park Trust into existence as stewards of the park. The trust broke up the park’s construction into six segments, from Battery Park City to 59th Street. Aside from the completed Greenwich Village segment and some maritime commerce, like the Circle Line ferry and the Intrepid Air and Science Museum, much of the water frontage still consists of old piers, broken-up concrete and gnarled patches of weeds. (The bicycle/pedestrian path that runs through the park was completed in 1999 by the state Department of Transportation.)

Almost from the group’s inception in 1999, it seemed to many in the Friends group-who were allowed to attend but not comment at trust board meetings-that the trust wasn’t being sufficiently proactive in going after the sources of revenue that would be needed once the initial $200 million was gone. Their fears proved prescient: To date, just about the only private money has come from developer Douglas Durst, who has a development in the West 50’s, and who made a $1 million contribution to the park fund.

Despite the trust’s visible progress, over the years the organization has still fallen short of the hopes of many park advocates. In December of last year, The New York Times reported on a public hearing in which Mr. Butzel, among others, criticized the trust for not actively seeking out other sources of funding. Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, called the trust “an agency in crisis.”

Most members of the Friends group, however, say they are heartened by the efforts of the trust’s new president, Connie Fishman, who was one of the trust’s longtime vice presidents. Under Ms. Fishman’s tenure, according to the Friends’ Mr. Butzel, the trust has become more aggressive in seeking out sources of funding, and Ms. Fishman seems to be serious about bringing a swift resolution to the Sanitation Department situation at Pier 97.