While the financial problems of the Hudson River Park and Pier 40 are ongoing, the move to establish a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) to raise additional funds is also proceeding (see WestView News, Sept. 2012). The Friends of the Hudson River Park (Friends) is doing much of the work to get the NID established. The Friends chairman, real estate developer Douglas Durst, has assigned an employee of his firm, Matthew Washington, to spend part of his time organizing support for the NID.
At a public meeting and in a private telephone call, he confirmed the rough outline of how the NID will work. The fee on residences and businesses within the district will raise approximately $10 million a year. Of this, $6 million will go directly to support the Park, approximately $3 million for improvements of West Street, such as lights and crossings and maybe even some of the smaller parks on the East side of the street, and $1 million will be for a discretionary fund. As with all Business Improvements Districts, on whose model the NID is based, it will be supervised by the New York City Council. The NID, under the guidance, if not complete control, of the Friends will serve the Park and surrounding area.
There once was a prep school motto which stated “They rule, who serve” and the British Military Academy’s motto is “Serve to lead.” In the minds of some, the question is raised as to whether the service provided by the Friends, backed up with new NID money, will actually let it lead the Park and have undue influence over Park decisions, which is the legislated duty of the Hudson River Park Trust. Besides having a prominent real estate developer as chair of the group, the Friends includes many other real estate executives, along with community and political representatives. Will the Friends use the Park and NID money to benefit the community or their own real estate interests? However, the Park Trust also has many real estate, community and political supporters and has shown itself to be a group not easily pushed around and very forceful when taking a stand. It also has a legislatively mandated group – the community organization dominated Hudson River Park Advisory Council to back it up. It is unclear how decisions will be arrived at when these four bodies, the Park Trust, Advisory Council, the Friends and NID, actually have to set policies.
As for conflicts of interest, whether from Douglas Durst, real estate developers or other business people, there are several possibilities. First, private individuals, even real estate developers, can sometimes put the public good over their own interests, especially if they and their families live in the affected area. Second, they may put their own interests over the public good and use the Park, Friends or NID to their own benefit in a way that harms the public. Third, the interests of both groups may coincide. Significant improvements in an area could benefit the quality of life and real estate value of the community, while simultaneously providing opportunities for private business interests. Anyone familiar with the far West Side from Chambers Street to 34th Street would have to realize that there have been benefits, sometimes mixed, for both the park space deprived community residents and the condo building developers, since the building of the Park.
In theory, the establishment of an NID should have nothing to do with Pier 40, since NID money is not to be used for capital expenses or commercial development. Yet, both Pier 40 and the NID donate funds to support the maintenance and operations of the Park and if Pier 40 income declines as the facility deteriorates, there will be more need for operating funds from whatever source. The most common proposal is to use the parking spaces more efficiently, either with mechanical stacking devices and/or parking attendants so that areas are freed within the present building for commercial and playing field space without massive housing or hotel developments. This has been suggested, in one form or another, by Mr. Durst, West Village Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, and former Advisory Council member and local resident, David Reck. However, Mr. Reck points out that he had made similar suggestions about 10 years ago and they are still being debated. Will these suggestions be implemented over the course of decades, like the repair of the Pier or, for that matter, the completion of the Park itself? One of the theoretical benefits of private trusts and privatization in general, is that they can get things done more efficiently and more quickly then government. The community is waiting.