On May 17, Governor Paterson and several other officials and community leaders assembled on Manhattan’s West Side for a ribbon cutting at Hudson River Park, the 5-mile-long strip of green space, converted piers and bike lanes along the Hudson River. They were on hand to christen the new (and growing) park’s latest section, a 9-acre run that has a new skate park and gardens near West 24th Street.
It is, indeed, the season of parks: Earlier this spring, the long-planned Brooklyn Bridge Park opened its first section, a large pier; and the year-old High Line elevated park that runs through Chelsea is laying materials for its second phase, to open next year.
There’s just one little nagging detail with these expanding parks: There’s not enough money to fund their upkeep, and, for the most part, no one quite knows where it will come from.
All three parks were held up as gems of an economic development agenda in New York, as, theoretically, they were to be self-sustaining or close to it, with the private sector to pay for the ongoing operations. Yet the situation is one of classic overreach, as the administrations of Mayor Bloomberg and three governors put their faith in the panacea concept of the public-private partnership, pledging a win-win for all involved. The logic ran like this: New parks would be built; creative planning would open the floodgates to money from the private sector to fund maintenance year after year; and public balance sheets would be spared. The reality is far less heartwarming. The city and state are now grasping to find ways to make the parks work in the long term and are finding no answers that pass muster with the local communities and elected officials whose sign-off is needed. With this question mark hanging overhead, the fact that the groundbreakings continue-money continues to go into expansion-looks to be something of a reckless move, as officials are betting that some unspecified solution will indeed materialize at some future date.
THE PREDICAMENT IS best embodied by Hudson River Park, the sliver of a waterfront sward that runs from downtown to Hell’s Kitchen. When the park was first authorized in 1998, it was expected that the state and city would pay the upfront construction costs, and the park would pay for its own operations and maintenance, totaling $15 million annually, with rent from a few private developments within its borders, including Chelsea Piers.
But the largest development site in the park, the 15-acre Pier 40 by West Houston Street-which was to bring in the bulk of the revenue-has proved a headache for all involved. Two proposed private developments that would pay the needed money have fallen flat. The latest failed proposal, an entertainment-focused project, courtesy of the Related Companies, fell flat when the local community loathed the thought of what is now a parking garage and sports field being turned into a tourist trap. No other viable options have presented themselves, and now revenue is decreasing as the crumbling roof is increasingly cutting down on the amount of parking at the pier.
The pier is also on its way to falling into the Hudson, as the piles are in great need of repair. Connie Fishman, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, estimates a cost of $55 million to repair the pier’s supports and its roof.
This year, the park’s operating budget is showing a deficit of more than $1 million, a gap that will likely continue or grow in future years, as a small reserve fund dwindles.
“We are exploring any option that anybody with a reasonable amount of intelligence can help us with,” Ms. Fishman said of Pier 40. “We’re at that stage where we have to do anything we can to figure out where we go to get some money to deal with, at the very least, the parking, which is a big revenue generator.”
A BLOCK AND a half to the east and 30 feet above ground, a similar funding gap looms.
The widely embraced and tremendously popular onetime rail trestle that is the High Line needs some $3.5 million to $4.5 million annually to operate and maintain, just over a million of which comes from the city, per an agreement between the Bloomberg administration and nonprofit operator Friends of the High Line.
Private fund-raising is not easy to come by; retail and concessions on the line would fill only a portion of that gap; and a proposal last summer by the Friends group to tax local businesses was met with strong distaste by many, and so the proposal was dropped.
And on the East River next to Dumbo, the Bloomberg administration is plodding away at construction on the $350 million Brooklyn Bridge Park, the new waterfront parkland rising on former warehousing piers. Like Hudson River Park, the city and state agreed to pay for the construction but not long-term operations, which were to be funded by new development along the piers.
But none of that development has started yet, and the bulk of the revenue-some $7.6 million a year from planned housing-is up in the air, as the local state senator, Dan Squadron, has long opposed its development and would have to sign off on its construction. (The Bloomberg administration has said it would not proceed with building out the rest of the park until this issue is resolved, leaving the Brooklyn park on more stable fiscal footing than the other two.)
The Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation’s president, Regina Myer, estimates there are three to four years of reserves available before the park must begin receiving money from new developments. As for the timing on the development of the nonhousing uses (retail and hotel), Ms. Myer did not set a specific time, suggesting the market was still too weak to allow a new development now.
“Over the next several years, we will pursue those development sites,” she said.
“The financial model is viable, but it’s work,” Ms. Myer said of the park, “and working over various economic cycles is the challenge.”