Parks and Wreck: The Fight for Pier 40 and the Myth of Public Parks

But in many ways, the pair, who both share a passion for the park and its future, would not even be having this fight if Hudson River Park were not so desperate for funds, a conundrum that is at the very foundation of the park’s creation.

It goes without saying that every open space needs money coming in, but for Hudson River Park, it is especially crucial. This is, after all, one of the first public-private, or “self-sustaining,” parks created in the city. Championed by Governor Pataki and launched through an act of the Legislature in 1998, Hudson River Park has become a popular model for fostering new parks, particularly for the Bloomberg administration.

The public-private model has taken hold everywhere from Governors Island to the High Line to Brooklyn Bridge Park, the idea being that the government pays the up-front costs of getting the parks built, but after that it is up to quasi-public agencies to keep them up and running, usually through a mix of commercial activities and fund-raising.

It is a controversial arrangement, since it can often mean that what was once public space must now be given over, at least in part, to private interests. But many supporters of the model, especially in this age of fiscal austerity, argue that without such arrangements, the parks would never get built at all. Those privatizers are winning for now.

On Monday, Brooklyn Bridge Park announced it was seeking developers for the third apartment complex to be built on public land on John Street, within the waterfront park, while a competition earlier this year to develop housing at Pier 1 attracted some of the city’s top builders. On Wednesday, prospective tenants for historic buildings on Governors Island, ranging from local chefs to national chains, will tour the island, hoping to open up shop in one of the 48 pre-Civil War structures. And when the third section of the High Line broke ground in September, nearly one-third of the construction funds came from the Related Companies and Oxford Properties, which are developing the Hudson Yards project the elevated park will surround. All of them are hoping to cash in on the parks, which will benefit the public too, but the question remains: who benefits more?

This is not how it always was. Look at the original urban park, Central Park, which was developed in part to buoy real estate values uptown, but was largely paid for and maintained by the public, as a public benefit that subsequently paid for itself through rising property values.

The Bloomberg administration last year touted the $2 billion boom that resulted from its $150 million investment in the High Line. But the city contributes almost nothing to the ongoing operations of the park—easily the most expensive for a park of its size, with a $9 million annual budget.

In 2008, The Regional Plan Association did a study that found the Greenwich Village segment of Hudson River Park had generated $200 million in economic development while only costing $75 million to build up to that point. Yet very little of that money was reinvested in the park. Meanwhile, capital funds from the city have fallen from a high of $42 million in 2008 to only $7 million this year, due to recessionary cuts at City Hall. Operating expenses for the park are roughly $14 million a year, almost all of it coming from the trust.

“The biggest thing that concerns me is that Hudson River Park was the first in this new, quote-unquote sustainable park model,” Holly Leicht, executive director of advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, said in an interview. “What we’re seeing right now is not very reassuring for this model.”