As President of the City Club of New York, one of the three plaintiffs in the Pier 55 (a.k.a. Diller Island) litigation, I’ve followed the history and collapse of this project very closely over the past two and a half years.
The fantasy style of the island seems to have inspired a parallel fantasy (never supported by any data) that the project had overwhelming public support, particularly from people living near the Hudson River shore. Letters to the editor recently published in The Villager debunk this. Those neighbors opposed the project, in part because of anticipated noise. Personally, I’ve received at least 150 communications about the collapse of the project. Almost everyone I encounter has an opinion. Exactly one has been negative. The rest welcome the project’s collapse and give a wide variety of reasons for their dislike. Some think it ugly, others not so much ugly as inappropriate for the gritty, former shipping center of NYC. Others criticized the blockage of a substantial amount of river views and prevention of recreational boating over much of the water area.
Many are primarily concerned with possible damage to the natural environment and its non-human inhabitants, potential impact on traffic, and the abandonment of space (Pier 54) intended for docking visiting historic vessels.
We raised an important issue of access to the island and won significant concessions in that regard. The Hudson River Park Trust’s almost total relinquishment of control over the price of tickets to events would have made it possible to charge rates many members of the public could not afford. We also noted that the project was not entirely a gift. It would have cost the Trust over $35 million. The Trust would have received $1 a year in rent. And after 30 years, the Trust would have acquired an island that all involved believe would never turn a profit.
However, we recognized that much of this concerns taste and personal interests, and decided to focus on compliance with the law, especially legal procedures such as in environmental laws and requirements for competitive bidding that ensure public participation and careful consideration of alternatives.
While that was an uphill battle in the State courts, where the case began, we won an extremely important victory in the Federal District Court which voided a permit granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps had failed to recognize that the State’s designation of the water area of the park as an estuarine sanctuary was not some gauzy puffery, as the Trust argued, but an enforceable requirement. The Trust was obliged to maintain the water area primarily for conservation of the marine environment and protection of fish and other marine flora and fauna, and related research and education, and only secondarily for the pleasure of humans. As a result, the Corps did not sufficiently evaluate the pros and cons of, and alternatives to, the project under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA). The Court went so far as to express doubt that the project, as planned, could meet the standards of the CWA. The Trust and Mr. Diller did not appeal. So the decision stands as an important precedent that the Trust will have to seriously consider in connection with all future water area projects.
A few days after the Diller Island collapse, the Whitney Museum announced a desire to build a very large (but minimally visible) sculpture at the Gansevoort Peninsula. Contrary to the doomsday vision of some editorialists, the Whitney demonstrated that the Diller Island failure will not put a damper on other major projects and gifts. The Whitney effectively stated the real lesson of the Diller Island experience by assuring that it, unlike the Trust in regard to Diller Island, will act openly, involve the public, and comply with applicable law. Those were the major points we raised in our litigation.
We believe that there are many issues of mutual interest to the City Club and The Trust with regard to resurrecting Pier 54 and moving other park projects, and hope to work closely with the Trust.
-Michael Gruen, President of The City Club of New York
Michael Gruen is the President of The City Club of New York—an independent nonprofit devoted to civic advocacy. Its members have advocated for New Yorkers on various issues including preventing the construction of a shopping mall in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and downsizing the up-zoning of East Midtown.