Has Donald Trump abandoned all hope of building a magnificent public park in front of his mammoth Riverside South development? That’s what his foes suggest in a new legal assault against the $3 billion megaproject.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the Coalition for a Livable West Side, an anti-Riverside South community group, accuses the developer of reneging on an agreement to build the development in such a way that an elevated section of the West Side Highway could be easily dismantled and then rebuilt underground, with a park covering it.
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Trump committed himself in 1992 to building Riverside South’s main road on a viaduct, leaving room underneath for the relocated highway. More recently, however, Mr. Trump has sought city approval to build the road on landfill. His foes argue that such a move would violate his earlier agreement with the city and, more important, make the removal of the highway far more difficult and outrageously expensive.
Jack Lester, the coalition’s attorney, said Mr. Trump’s change in plans was troubling because the developer won the support of city officials for Riverside South by embracing a plan to build a 21-acre waterfront park above the relocated highway. “It’s bait-and- switch,” Mr. Lester told The Observer . Critics fear that under Mr. Trump’s revised plan, the unsightly elevated West Side Highway will never be moved, and the planned park will be forever in its shadow.
Mr. Trump dismissed the charges as “ridiculous” and insisted he had the city’s blessing to construct the road on landfill. But whatever the outcome, the lawsuit raises intriguing questions about the future of the West Side waterfront and Mr. Trump’s vision for Riverside South.
Mr. Lester said Mr. Trump appears to be cutting his losses for the proposed park now that it seems increasingly unlikely that the Federal Government will spend millions to move the highway any time soon. In recent years, Representative Jerrold Nadler of the Upper West Side single-handedly blocked millions of dollars designated for the project, hoping to bring the entire project to a halt. Moreover, city and state officials said earlier this year that there were more pressing uses for any forthcoming Federal transportation funds.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s foes argue, he should honor his earlier commitments. Craig Whitaker, an urban designer working for the coalition, said Mr. Trump would save millions if he didn’t build the road-an extension of Riverside Drive-on a viaduct. (Indeed, a source close to Mr. Trump told The Observer last year that the developer would be glad to build a less ambitious park overshadowed by the West Side Highway because he would save several hundred million dollars by not building a tunnel.) Mr. Whitaker estimated it would cost taxpayers as much as $200 million to remove the fill and replace it with a supporting structure for the Riverside Drive extension.
“He’s not only not doing what he promised and saving big money that he said he would spend,” Mr. Whitaker said. “He’s hoping to lay incredible future costs on the public.”
On the Backs of Taxpayers
Jane McCarthy, chairman of the land use committee of the City Club, the city’s oldest civic organization, is equally outraged. “The costs of removing the fill will clearly be on the backs of the taxpayers-not Donald Trump,” she fumed. “In the meantime, he gets a project that’s millions of dollars cheaper than if he lived up to his promise to built the viaduct.”
Mr. Lester said Mr. Trump committed himself to building the road on a viaduct in the final environmental impact statement, the document used by the city to evaluate and eventually approve Riverside South. The coalition argues in its lawsuit that the city should force Mr. Trump to submit Riverside South to another serious of environmental approvals before allowing such a major change in his project. What’s more, the group alleges the city and the Giuliani administration have failed in their duty to hold Mr. Trump to his word.
Mr. Trump declined to discuss the lawsuit in detail. But he said he hadn’t given up hope of seeing the highway relocated and a glorious park built above. “In my opinion, the highway will be moved, and it will be moved because the same people that fought against the highway in order to stop the job are now in favor of having a great park because the job has started,” Mr. Trump told The Observer .
Michele de Milly, a spokeswoman for Riverside South, said there was nothing in Mr. Trump’s agreements with the city that required him to build a viaduct. She said it would be no cheaper to use landfill, and that it didn’t make sense to build a viaduct beneath the Riverside Drive extension when the highway relocation was so up in the air. “The fill is much less disruptive,” Ms. de Milly said. “You can’t build a viaduct today without knowing where the highway is going to go.”
City officials familiar with the case could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Trump said the coalition has filed numerous lawsuits to block Riverside South, none of which prevented him from breaking ground earlier this year for the project’s first building, a 46-story resident tower that will include some retail and professional areas. “Hey, look, we have 2,000 people on that site,” Mr. Trump said. “That building’s up to the 25th floor already.”
Surely Mr. Trump would be foolish to expect anything else from Madeline Polayes, the coalition’s president, and her army of determined Upper West Side activists. After all, he has been wrangling with them ever since he bought the abandoned Penn Central rail yard between West 59th and West 72nd streets and announced plans to build a 150-story skyscraper there in 1985.
Needless to say, there was considerable uproar. But in 1991, Mr. Trump won the support of the Dinkins and Cuomo administrations for Riverside South by agreeing to build 17 smaller buildings and by endorsing a plan originally floated by Robert Moses to relocate the Miller Highway and build a park over the abandoned rail yards if the requisite Federal funds were available.
Nevertheless, Ms. Poloyes and her members have filed lawsuit after lawsuit against Riverside South. Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Taub Urban Research Center, dismisses Mr. Trump’s opponents as sore losers whose biggest fear is having their views blocked by Riverside South.
“That has always been undeveloped land that was one day going to be used,” Mr. Moss said. “They had a good run looking at the river. If they want to look at the river, they’re going to have to be like everybody else-they’re going to have to go outdoors. Somehow we are making the unused railroad yards into sacred ground.”
Mr. Lester took issue with Mr. Moss’ characterization. “These are people who volunteer their time,” he said. “That’s what really gets me. These people are accused of having a hidden agenda when all they are trying to do is perform their role as good citizens. This is civic virtue we’re talking about.”
“This isn’t frivolous,” Ms. Polayes said of her latest lawsuit. “It’s very serious.”
Nevertheless, if Mr. Trump seems to be floundering in his efforts to build a grand public park, his foes must shoulder some responsibility. Mr. Nadler, for instance, boasts of stripping $11 million in Federal funds for the highway relocation in 1995, and he has promised to do the same this fall if any of his Congressional colleagues attempt to set aside any additional funding for the project.
A Political Football
If that wasn’t enough, Mr. Nadler, Ms. Polayes and their allies have made it difficult for any elected official to support anything that might benefit Riverside South. Indeed, few would argue that Democratic mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger’s support on the Upper West Side suffered after she endorsed the project in 1992. That doesn’t seem to have been lost on the Giuliani and Pataki administrations, which signaled earlier this year that they wouldn’t pursue the funding for the project with any brio.
Mr. Nadler has numerous arguments for why the highway should not be moved to accommodate Mr. Trump. But he said it would be an especially bad idea right now because the Federal and state governments recently spent $65 million to repair the elevated thoroughfare.
Even so, Mr. Nadler argued that Mr. Trump should be forced to build the viaduct. “Our main reason for opposing moving the highway is that it helps him finance this monstrous project,” Mr. Nadler said. “If the whole project gets built despite our opposition, then once the highway wears out and has to be rebuilt 25 or 30 years from now, then it would make sense to move it, and we shouldn’t block the possibility.”
Brendan Sexton, president of the Municipal Art Society, disagreed. Mr. Sexton, whose organization has a seat on the Riverside South Planning Corporation, an alliance of civic associations overseeing the project with Mr. Trump, argued that it would be easier to dig up the landfill and relocate the highway than to build a viaduct.
“They are fighting legal battles contrary to the interests of that neighborhood,” Mr. Sexton said of the coalition. “These battles are intended to force that elevated highway to remain in the middle of that park, and I just can’t believe anybody really wants that highway to stand right down the spine of this beautiful Hudson River park. It’s maniacal.”
“You can build a beautiful park with the highway in place,” Ms. Polayes responded.
But if that’s the case, Mr. Trump may have trouble getting top dollar for Riverside South’s luxury condos. “There’s no question about it,” said Carrie Chiang, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group, a residential real estate brokerage. “If the highway is moved, there’s going to be a park, and you would be able to create a city within a city, and that would have much more appeal.”
Ms. Chiang didn’t rule out the possibility that Mr. Trump couldn’t overcome such a hurdle with his considerable marketing talents. But she warned that the highway means potential feng shui problems for the wealthy Asian buyers who have flocked to Mr. Trump’s buildings: “Without the highway, there would be the right feng shui . With the highway, you have too much going in front of you. It’s the wrong energy.”
No wonder Mr. Trump insists he hasn’t given up on the park.