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

pier 40 - david shankbone

Sink or swim. (David Shankbone)

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.