In one way, the Hudson River Park, established in 1998, has been a spectacular success, and in another way it has been an apparent failure. The previous empty, fenced-off, rubble-filed lots along some stretches of the river, especially south of the city auto tow pound, have been replaced with lawns, benches, playgrounds, biking, and running paths, and numerous inviting amenities. This has significantly improved the environment of the neighborhoods and quality of life for nearby residents.
The financing mechanism, however, has failed. The park was originally intended to be self-financing for operating costs, with revenue provided by commercial rental fees and not from state or city budgets, like other parks. In spite of the fact that this riverside area is the most commercially developed shoreline in the city, and possibly the state, this is not enough to finance operating costs and more income is needed. The proposed Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) is projected to bring in $10 million a year, most of which will towards maintenance and improvements in the park; some will be set aside for improvements in the surrounding area. Yet the method in which it proposes to raise money is a form of regressive real estate tax, with city collection, enforcement, and monitoring before the funds are turned over to the NID board, who will then hand it over to the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT), spend some itself, or some combination of the two. The details of the proposal for, and need for, the NID has been reported in detail in Westview News over the last year, as will the numerous upcoming community meetings and steps in the NID approval process, but the nature of the proposal is clear.
Essentially, this is a disguised real estate tax, limited to the neighborhood residents and businesses. A 1000 sq. ft. apartment in a pre-war walk up apartment house will require the same payment (by the apartment owner or landlord) as 1000 sq. ft. apartment in a brand new luxury condo. A small bodega will pay the same fee as the trendiest boutique of equal size. Fortunately, the payments will be small with $75 per year coming from the 1000 sq. ft. apartments and $150 per year from the businesses. Is this fair?
It should be apparent that many West Side residents and businesses already pay high real estate taxes. First, market and assessed value for many co-op and condo apartments are high in this area and so generate correspondingly high tax bills. Second, condos and co-ops are taxed at a higher rate than single family houses. A recent article in The Daily News (January 27, 2013) by Councilman Mark Welprin, who represents a condo dense neighborhood in Queens, pointed out that the formulas for taxes can result in rates almost twice as high for condos as for single family houses. Some of this is currently corrected with temporary tax abatement legislation, but the basic rates are still on the books. Finally, supporters of the NID have publicized a study which claims to show that the park has resulted in as much as a billion dollars of increased real estate market value in the neighborhoods bordering the completed park areas that juxtapose it. Since real estate taxes are indirectly linked to market value, roughly at a rate of about one per cent, this billion dollar increase has resulted in an annual ten million dollar increase in taxes. In other words, the neighborhood is already paying increased taxes equal to what a NID is projected to bring in. All of these higher taxes go to the city and none come back to the park for operating expenses. Is this fair?
Another possible inequity has been pointed out by New York State Assembly Member Deborah Glick. The city supports lots of parks surrounded by many neighborhoods that pay less taxes then the West Side, but it usually does so without neighborhood or business improvement districts, although there are some. Is this fair?
Furthermore, she has stated that the city should put money into the park because it benefits many people besides local occupants including, Manhattan residents, city dwellers from the boroughs and suburbs (“bridge and tunnel” people) and at least a few of the fifty million annual tourists who visit the area. These people enjoy the park, and some spend money there which often results in sales taxes which then disappear into the city treasury. Is this fair?
Since the park was set up to be independent of operating funds from the city, could it accept money if the city decided to donate? The answer is simple and it is yes. The Hudson River Park Act (page 7) which established the Hudson River Trust which runs the park states in Section 6,”Purposes of the trust… to accept appropriations and grants from federal, state, and local governments…” In principle, there is no reason why the city can’t donate funds either. In a recent detailed look at the way the city runs the parks, with financial support from conservancy groups, The New York Times quoted Veronica M. White, the park commissioner as saying, “Parks are paid for by the tax base, and they should be” (February 18, 2013).
However, the city shows no inclination to donate money to the park. None of the organizations which support the park (Hudson River Trust, Friends of the Park, Community Advisory Board, and those proposing the NID) have publicly demanded or even requested city funds during the present NID development process either. Individuals in these organizations asked about obtaining city funds uniformly state it is impossible. So, how can the impossible be made possible?
At least some pressure should be put on public officials and those who are actively or about to run for public office. Before a follow-up article to this one is written, emails will go out to a wide range of these political leaders and they will be asked:
- Would you support the use of New York City funds to cover potential shortfalls in the Hudson Park operating budget?
- Would you support the use of New York City funds quickly to eliminate the need for the establishment of a Neighborhood Improvement District?
- Would you support New York City taking over the Hudson River Park and running it like any other city park, possibly with the support of a park conservancy such as exist to support other parks?
The answers received, or lack of answers, will be published in a follow-up article to this one. It remains to be seen if political support is really impossible.
If the city takes over the park, the most complete solution to the financial problems that are occurring, what will the result be? The same Times article that quoted Commissioner White also described the wide variation in park maintenance throughout the city and the even wider variation in conservancy support for the parks. Well-off, well-established ones, like the Central Park Conservancy, can raise millions of dollars, and sometimes a hundred million dollars at a time. Others barely get by. Yet, it seems that the parks which get the most money from the city and their corresponding conservancy supporters are the ones which are in the most wealthy districts, with the most politically connected and active residents living nearby. This is almost a perfect definition of the West Side of Manhattan. It is unfortunate that city services so often follow economic and political power, rather then need. However, here is a case where political and economic power can meet a real need, which is to provide and maintain green space to the under-parked West Side. Both political reality and community need coincide.
The park cannot be allowed to deteriorate. The benefit to the West Side is very clear and slowly letting it go back to the abandoned look of the past is completely unacceptable. Parks supporters probably worry about city control being followed by city neglect. This is always possible if the community falls asleep and never puts pressure on the city government; but, the same is true if the present system continues. Inaccuracies in the projections of incomes from present or new commercial sources, more hurricanes, or deteriorations in Pier 40 can all present the park with dramatic financial needs. Remember, the Park Trust has been at this for about 15 years and yet now it must request city real estate taxes in the form of NID fees. There is no guarantee that the next 15 years will provide any more success then a city operated park. The current model has failed. It is time to look for a different plan.