When Sandy swept into the town almost two months ago, Hudson River Park—as its name might suggest—was among the places inundated by the swelling sea under more than a dozen feet of water.
The surge washed over the historic piers and brand-new lawns, filling skate parks, swamping ball fields, submerging mini golf holes and surrounding the merry-go-round. Yet much of the park, in the traditional sense, came through fine.”I think we lost only five trees and a few plants,” Madelyn Wils, president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, said at a post-Sandy conference last Thursday.
It was the more manmade features, the development that undergirds the park and pays for its upkeep, that struggled to weather the storm.“The buildings, however, did not fare quite as well,” Ms. Wils explains. “We’re still without power, because we are on our own grid, and we’ve had to work on our own to restore that.”
This is only the latest, and in some ways the least, of the troubles on the waterfront, where a bitter disagreement between Ms. Wils and the park’s biggest backer, developer Douglas Durst, reveals cracks in the public-private model by which the city’s parks are so often built and maintained these days. These partnerships are both sustainer and straightjacket, leading to the creation of more parks in a generation, but also limited means to keep them up and running. Call them libertarian parks.
On October 29, the very night Sandy hit, Mr. Durst, the iconoclastic developer, was scheduled to appear before Community Board 2 to present a study he had recently paid for out of pocket on the dilapidated Pier 40, the earliest centerpiece of the park.
The 14-acre pier, built just off Spring Street in 1964 as the New York base for the Holland America Line, has more than 2,000 parking spaces along with two massive ball fields. Also home to a kayak launch, two harbor cruises and the New York Trapeze School, the pier is not only an asset for the community, but also for Hudson River Park itself, as it generates some $6 million a year in revenues for the park trust.
But the pier has slowly become a drag on the park, its roof starting to crumble—leading to the closing of a rooftop soccer field and a number of parking spots—and the nearly 4,000 pilings holding up the two-story structure starting to give.
While Ms. Wils and the trust estimate the price of repairing everything to be as much as $125 million, Mr. Durst had planned to go before the community board and argue that the repairs could be made for only $30 million, and that they should be paid for as soon as possible with the trust’s money.
The meeting was rained out, and now Mr. Durst pegs his plan at $44 million, because he believes the central ball fields, along with some other important pieces of the pier’s infrastructure, should be elevated out of the floodplain post-Sandy.
Mr. Durst has long been a staunch advocate for the park, serving since 2002as chairman of the board of Friends of Hudson River Park, an affiliated group that acts as both a fund-raiser and watchdog for the trust that operates the park. He was also its largest donor, giving a total of $2.3 million over that span and frequently buying the biggest tables at the annual fund-raising gala.
Since the summer, Mr. Durst began to float an idea that the pier should be fixed up as soon as possible, with the parking consolidated to the lower floor, and the upper areas turned into office space for tech firms and art galleries. The ball fields and other facilities would remain intact.
Meanwhile Ms. Wils and other Friends board members have been pushing for an approach in which a private developer would come in and pay for the repairs, along with what is expected to be a transformation of the pier. It would no doubt be a grander project, but also a more expensive one, and probably a more privatized one too.
Housing has been bandied about as a sort of panacea—ever since Richard Meier built his Perry Street “lofts,” who wouldn’t want to live on the Hudson River waterfront?—but locals also hate the idea of allowing the park to become some millionaire’s backyard.
That is why Mr. Durst has been pushing his plan for adaptive reuse on his own. It is also why Mr. Durst quit the Friends board last week. His name has already been wiped from the advocacy group’s website, along with that of vice-chair Ben Korman, who used to run the parking at Pier 40 and also quit the board in protest.
“There was a difference of opinion of the direction that the park should go in,” Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for Mr. Durst, told The Observer on Friday. “Douglas is still deeply committed to the park, but given his difference of opinion from the leadership of the park, it became impractical for him to continue with the trust and with Friends.”
One person close to the situation said this amounted to “a pissing match” between Mr. Durst and Ms. Wils, who was appointed president and CEO of the trust in June 2011. “He’s taking his ball and going home,” said the source.
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.”
This debate is at the heart of the fight between Mr. Durst and the rest of the park’s leadership. He wanted up-front investments to protect the park, while other board members wanted the private sector to pay—perhaps rightly so, since the park could barely afford even the $30 million-to-$44 million tab Mr. Durst had touted.
“If it was up to me, not one more dime goes into Pier 40,” Diana Taylor declared at a recent board meeting. “Period.” (In addition to being a Friends board member, Ms. Taylor is, of course, Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend and in some ways his surrogate.)
The problem is that the legislation that created the park—by virtue of it being the first—is the most restrictive of the public-private parks in the city. It limits residential and certain other types of development and caps leases at 29 years. In comparison, more than 1,000 apartments will be built as part of Brooklyn Bridge Park, with leases up to 99 years.
The trust has been lobbying Albany for years now to relax the restrictions, often to fierce outcry from locals, who oppose most forms of new development. (It’s the Village and Soho, after all.) So far, everything from an outpost of Cirque du Soleil to a Major League Soccer stadium has been proposed, but all have been sunk by neighbors.
The trust insists it does not favor housing, it simply wants that as one of the options on the table. “The community needs to understand that if they want a park, they need to be willing to do what it takes to maintain a park,” Ms. Wils told Crain’s in May, when she unveiled plans for a 115-room hotel and 800 apartments on the pier—but with expanded open space as well, a palliative to all that development.
“It’s never what you want to do, for sure,” said Rob Pirani, a vice president at the Regional Plan Association and member of the Governors Island Alliance, that park’s watchdog. “It’s the difference between a real estate project and building a neighborhood.” But he also conceded that without the public-private partnerships, public officials might not have agreed to underwrite these parks in the first place.
Meanwhile, the entertainment complex Chelsea Piers, the other big money-maker for the trust, has sued, alleging two decades of deferred maintenance on its piles. The repair costs have been estimated at $100 million, a price the trust could hardly afford. (The fact that there is an expensive place for people to rock climb, ice skate and drive golf balls on what is ostensibly public land, meanwhile, gets at the heart of the problems with this type of park. It’s a nice amenity for the neighborhood, but only for those who can afford it.)
There is some hope on the horizon, as the park’s third major commercial project, Pier 57, is finally getting underway after years of delays. Young Woo, a hip downtown developer, has teamed up with designers Lot-Ek, known for building with shipping containers, to transform the pier into an artisanal market. Cute, but again, commercial. There will be a public walkway around the pier and expansive open space on the 1.6-acre roof—but there would be even more public space without those stores. The proposal was just approved by the Community Board last week, the first step in the months-long public approval process.
“Despite these and other challenges, including the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy, the Friends and the trust remain wholly committed to working together to secure resources for the park and sustaining its future,” Ms. Wils and Friends executive director A.J. Pietrantone said in a statement released after Mr. Durst’s departure.
Ms. Leicht hopes they can pull it off. “I do think getting it right here is essential before we continue to forge ahead on these types of parks,” she said.