Even before Hurricane Sandy buried it under more than a dozen feet of water, Hudson River Park was struggling to stay afloat.
The past decade had seen substantial progress on the long-planned park, made possible by the demolition of the old West Side Highway (which provided some of the initial funding) and the realization New Yorkers actually wanted to return to the waterfront (which provided the drive). By last year, more than 70 percent of the park had been completed, including many of the piers, transformed from places of work into ones for play, and the generous esplanade connecting them all, running from the Battery all the way up to Riverside Park.
But the grass is not always greener in a new park. Like so many other open spaces created in recent years, Hudson River Park receives limited public funding. Instead, it is expected to generate its own revenue through not only fundraising but also development within the bounds of the park, everything from floating restaurants to parking garages. Everything from rock climbers at Chelsea Piers to the tourists taking Circle Line cruises contributes in its own way.
At one time, Pier 40 was the park’s biggest single source of funds, but increasingly, it has become a drag on the park, and a dispute over its future has led to the departure of one of its biggest backers.
Built in 1958 as an air marine terminal for the Holland America Line, Pier 40 is actually one of the younger protrusions from the park, and also the biggest, at 14 acres. But unlike its predecessors, Pier 40 has not been substantially rebuilt to accommodate its new uses, chiefly as a parking garage but also as a popular downtown ballfield (one of the few) as well as being home to a few harbor cruisers (Affairs Afloat and the Hornblower), a dog run, a kayaking company and a trapeze school. The parking alone brought in $5 million a year.
That was before the pier began to crumble. There has been growing concern over the piles holding up the pier, which have only been intermittently repaired over the years, and part of the roof has begun to collapse, closing one of the three ball fields. The Hudson River Park Trust, which runs the parks, pegs the cost of fixing the pier at $125 million, at least $80 million for just the piles. This is money the trust argues it can hardly afford to spend, and it wants to foster some new type of development, most likely housing, to help offset the cost.
Pier 40, located between Spring and LeRoy streets in the Village, has gone from a buoy to a concrete boot dragging the park down.
But Douglas Durst, chairman of Friends of Hudson River Park, a booster group affiliated with the trust, believes the cost of preserving the peer has been greatly exaggerated, and he has been pushing his own plans for the pier for months now, to shore up the piles and then adaptively reuse the structure, adding offices for tech firms to the mix of parking and sports, providing fresh funds and space for a booming Silicon Alley downtown. He has also proposed gallery space.
Mr. Durst even went so far as to pay for a study of the costs of repairing the piles, which was revealed this week in The Villager, where the developer pegs the cost at only $30 million, or as much as $44 million if money is spent to raise the ball fields, which he believes should be the case following Hurricane Sandy. (Ironically, his study was completed just four days before the storm hit, and Mr. Durst had been poised to present it to the local community board on October 29, the day Sandy made landfall in New York.)
Without support for his plan either at the trust or Friends of Hudson River Park, late last week, Mr. Durst left the group, stepping down as chairman. Already his name has been scrubbed from the Friends’ site, as has that of Ben Korman, a vice-chair who also stepped down. Mr. Korman used to run the parking operation on the pier and supported Mr. Durst’s plan.
“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.”
Justin Sadrian, a Friends board member and managing director at private equity outfit Warburg Pincus, was named acting chairman in the wake of Mr. Durst’s departure, a promotion already reflected online.
Mr. Durst believed that his expertise in matters of development was being ignored, and he had openly questioned the desire to build housing on the pier, which he told The Villager “doesn’t work.” Part of the problem, Mr. Durst argued, was that additional development would add to the cost of shoring up the piers—the more built up top, the more that must go down below to hold it up. He wanted the trust to spend money now to protect it, but other board members insisted there was no funds for such work.
“If it was up to me, not one more dime goes into Pier 40,” Diana Taylor declared at a recent board meeting. “Period.”
One person close to the situation said this amounted to “a pissing match” between Mr. Durst and Madelyn Wils, who was appointed president and CEO of the trust in July 2011. “He’s taking his ball and going home,” said the source.
In a statement, Ms. Wils and Friends executive director A.J. Pietrantone said: “The Friends of Hudson River Park and the Hudson River Park Trust are extremely grateful for the many contributions of Douglas Durst and the Durst Organization to Hudson River Park His philanthropy and advocacy for the waterfront and this distinct New York City amenity have had a profound effect on the quality of life for countless New Yorkers.”
Mr. Barowitz said that Mr. Durst, who has not only provided his time to the Friends group but also his money as its biggest donor, would still continue to advocate for the park as a private citizen. Mr. Korman, who could not be reached by The Observer, will attempt the same, as he told Capital New York, which also reported the split.
“With the recent organizational changes made to the Friends, and my growing discomfort with regards to the Trust’s management, I felt that my advocacy would be more effective outside the Friends framework,” Mr. Korman wrote in an email.
Losing two well-to-do backers seems like it could cause a serious blow to the park at a time that it is already desperate for funding, but another Friends board member said it should not have a material impact on the day-to-day operations of the Trust.
In many ways, this is a debate about the nature of how parks get built, maintained and funded in the city. New York has seen a number of public-private parks pop up in the past decade, from Brooklyn Bridge Park to the High Line. The city or state will help pay to build these grand edifices, but unlike Central Park or Prospect Park before them, the city takes little role in the new parks ongoing upkeep. Instead the parks are left to fend for themselves.
(Granted, most ever major open space from Central Park to Bryant Park now has some sort of conservancy, friends group or business improvement district that helps pay a good chunk of the costs for running it, ever since the city began divesting itself of this responsibility in the bankrupt 1970s.)
The argument over who should pay what is playing itself out here, as well. Mr. Durst and Mr. Korman believed the park should front the money to fix Pier 40, and then bring in new tenants to help cover those costs and add to the maintenance kitty going forward. But the bulk of the park’s leadership insists it cannot pay for these fixes up front, and instead wants a private developer to come in and cover them.
In the past, there has been flirtations with everything from building schools here to an outpost for Circ de Soleil, all of which have been defeated for one reason or another, most usually through public outcry. Earlier this year the MLS had even considered it as a possible site for a soccer stadium, but transportation and crowding concerns from the surrounding community quickly stymied that idea.
Among the options the trust would like to see on the table is housing development, currently forbidden by the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, and SHoP Architects was even hired to make a compelling case for such a model earlier this year. The trust insists it is agnostic on which approach would be most suitable, and while housing would probably be the most lucrative—this is housing on the Hudson River waterfront, after all—locals tend to hate residential development, particularly on waterfront plots within public parkland (see: Brooklyn Bridge Park).
The trust has been working for the past year with lawmakers in Albany to try and revise the park act to allow for more types of development. Beyond restricting housing, the legislation limits leases to 29 years, which is seen as too short a time frame to attract a developer who would shoulder the costs of fixing up the pier as part of a larger development package.
But this may be the least of the park’s problems at the moment. It remains without power six weeks after the Sandy storm surge washed over much of the park, including totally flooding Pier 40. “Most of our plants are O.K.,” Ms. Wils said during a panel at a post-Sandy conference hosted by the Municipal Art Socity and Columbia on Thursday. “They’re made to survive underwater, well not underwater, but they can put up with some flooding. I think we lost only five trees and a few plants.”
“The buildings, however, did not fare quite as well,” she said. “We’re still without power, because we are on our own grid, and we’ve had to work on our own to restore that.”
Meanwhile, there is some positive development news, as Pier 57, a cultural and shopping hub also long in the works at 15th Street, won approval from the local community board earlier this month. It will offer activities and access to the pier, as well as desperately needed funds to the park.
Whether something similar will get built at Pier 40, especially before the structure should deteriorate beyond repair, remains to be seen.
“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 Mr. Pietrantone concluded their statement.
“Now with Douglas out of the way, the trust can start to work cohesively on fixing this pier,” said the park source. The trust just has to convince Albany, and its angry neighbors, of the same thing.
Correction:A previous version of this story said the new acting board chair was Jason Sadrian, not Justin Sadrian. The Observer regrets the error.