By Arthur Z. Schwartz
Friends of Hudson River Park will soon be holding its 20th Anniversary Fundraiser with a minimum price of $2000 per ticket. The Friends Board is made up almost entirely of very wealthy people: bankers, developers, commercial lawyers. But Hudson River Park had a very humble birth. It was born of volunteer parent activists, who brought nothing to the park but vision and determination, and a “we shall overcome” attitude.
Seems hard to imagine now, but the concept of building a Hudson River Park had far more opponents than proponents in the early 1990s. The Park was an idea which grew out of the failed Westway plan, a multi-hundred million dollar, Federally funded project which would have buried a highway under what is now West Street, and built a park on top. Having a new highway built on the west-side of the Village and Chelsea caused outrage, and an environmental lawyer named Al Butzel, brought a lawsuit under the National Environmental Policy Act on behalf of several environmental groups; the suit succeeded in blocking Westway because the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that the Army Corps of Engineers issued had some fudged numbers about striped bass.
Subsequently, plans were proposed which involved renovating the collapsing wooden piers, and building a waterfront park. But they were opposed by Village activists who claimed that if built, the Park would look like Battery Park City, with high rise condos blocking the community from the waterfront. At the same time, most of the same environmental groups which had defeated Westway wanted a park, because they saw the benefits of public interaction with the River, and because a park could be a vehicle to provide estuarial protection.
Butzel organized them into a coalition, called the Hudson River Park Alliance, to push for legislation creating a park. He found support from Chelsea-Hells Kitchen Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Upper West Side State Senator Franz Leichter, who, working with Butzel drafted the Hudson River Park Act.
But, Greenwich Village-Soho Assemblywoman Deborah Glick was a steadfast opponent, and a leading naysayer, so when the bill was introduced in 1997, Speaker Sheldon Silver wouldn’t allow it to the floor. Glick was a key ally of the now convicted Assembly Speaker. Community Board 2 wasn’t much better. CB2 was staunchly anti-park, so much so that when the bike path was proposed in 1995, the Board voted “No” by a margin of 42 -1. I was the only vote in favor.
Kids playing Little League baseball and youth soccer in the Village-Soho area had very little playing space. The only non-blacktop field was at JJ Walker Park, and that was solid clay, with hills and holes, and susceptible to becoming a mud bath when it rained. I was on CB2 and the Little League Board when I was elected District Leader in 1995. Tobi Bergman, then President of the Little League and Jeff Lydon, President of the Downtown United Soccer Club, and Mike Mirisola, a Bleecker Street merchant and Little League father came to me in the Spring of 1996 with a proposal to use the courtyard of Pier 40 as a field. The courtyard was filled with parked buses and trucks. Both leagues pledged to raise $250,000 to build a field. They asked me to set up a meeting with Governor Pataki (the Pier was under State control); on a day in late Spring we went to the Governor’s office in Albany and met with a staff lawyer named Rob Balachandrin (who would later become President of the Hudson River Park Trust).
Rob loved our proposal and called us several days later and said “Ok, its yours, if you can raise the funds.” The Pier Park and Playground Association was created to help raise the funds (also known as P-3). We did not dare tell CB2, or else they and Debra Glick would try to undercut us. But in the Fall of 1996 we got word that the State, through a new entity called the Hudson River Park Conservancy, had leased all of Pier 40 out to a parking lot operator –at $4 million per year, for four years. The lease was to take effect on a Wednesday. That Monday a group of parents and kids went to the Governor’s Office at 633 Third Avenue, and kicked a soccer ball around the lobby, demanding to meet with the Governor. Didn’t work. So the parent leaders looked at me and said: “You are a lawyer. Don’t we have a contract? Can’t you get an injunction?” I agreed to try. We had 36 hours.
I filed suit the next evening, at around 5pm, called the Attorney General’s office, sent over a set of papers, and proceeded to set up a night session with the Judge on duty, Alice Schlesinger. She saw us at 8:00 p.m. in her kitchen, in the Gramercy Park area. We argued our “breach of contract” case for two hours. We said that once the lease commenced we would never get a chance to effectuate our plan. The Judge agreed and issued a TRO.
The next day, I got a call from Al Butzel, asking about the case, and then asking if I had considered a claim under SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act. I said I didn’t even know what SEQRA was. So Al came down to my office, and did a quick tutorial, and together we amended the lawsuit. An amazing litigator had joined our team, which now also included Tribeca Civil Rights lawyer Dan Alterman.
Months of litigation followed, now in front of Justice Jane Solomon. Turned out (as Al had guessed) the Park Conservancy had never even done an Environmental Assessment, a key requirement of SEQRA. In the summer of 1997, Judge Solomon warned the Park Conservancy that she was likely to throw the $14 million contract out altogether. Soon after, we got a call. It was from James Ortenzio, President of the Conservancy, and Chair of the NY Republican Party. Governor Pataki wanted to make a deal. Through the Fall we met numerous times at the Governor’s office, and hammered out a deal, which included the leaseholders, Meier Cohen and Ben Korman. We would get a field on the roof, and an indoor field. P3 would get an indoor batting and practice area, and funding to run programs, and, the biggest part—the State would foot the bill, a cost of over $2 million. The Governor and I announced the plan to a huge press event on Pier 40, December, 23,1997. Pataki remarked that I was the most co-operative Democrat he had worked with all year. The Times reported it like this:
Proponents of the athletic sites, to be used mainly by children on Manhattan’s West Side, had long envisioned the Pier 40 venture to be an important first step in the revitalization of the riverfront. But they had been at odds with the state, which owns the pier and had planned to continue using it entirely as a parking garage for the next four years.
“This is a small step, but it sets an important precedent,’’ said Arthur Schwartz, a Manhattan lawyer who represented a coalition of parents’ groups, environmentalists and Greenwich Village advocates who had sued to block the state’s plan for parking, and to secure part of the pier for recreation.
‘’This is the first time that a commercial space on the waterfront is being converted to parkland,’’ Mr. Schwartz said, ‘’and once it begins drawing people out there, they are not going to be inclined to give it up.’’
Parents were ecstatic. We were going to get a new waterfront field, in time for the 1998 youth soccer season. Tobi and I became active participants in Al Butzel’s Alliance, actually incorporating a group called Friends of Hudson River Park—Greenwich Village.
In June 1998, the Gottfried-Leichter Bill once again made it through Committee. We had a new CB2 Chair, Alan Gerson (later to be elected to the City Council) who was not anti-Park. Alan knew that there was a growing constituency for a park, and he asked Sheldon Silver to allow the bill to go for a vote if it was approved by CB2. Silver agreed. There followed one of the wildest CB2 meetings every, 500 people in the old St Vincent’s 11th Floor Auditorium, hundreds of them kids in uniform. Speaker after speaker implored CB2 to support the bill. An anti-park person called the Fire Department, which made some people leave the room. But we got to vote. By a 10 vote margin, the resolution to support the legislation passed. Gerson called up Silver on my cell phone, and told him the CB2 vote. It was the last night of the legislative session, and somewhere around midnight, the bill passed the Assembly and then the Senate. Deborah Glick voted “NO.”
In September, Governor Pataki signed the bill and made a 50%-50% funding deal with Mayor Giuliani (whose representatives on the Conservancy Board had voted against the Little League Pier 40 deal). The next week Governor Pataki kicked out the first soccer ball at the ribbon cutting of the rooftop field. Thousands of kids and parents trekked up to the roof of Pier 40 for soccer games and then Little League games. A park constituency was born. The Hudson River Park Alliance folded its tent. We in the Village handed over our Non-Profit name to Al Butzel, and Friends of Hudson River Park was born.
Nothing thereafter was linear. Because Federal money was involved, at Glick’s urging, Congressman Jerry Nadler demanded that a Federal EIS be done. That slowed the park down two years. But thousands of parents and kids continued to cross West Street and use the rooftop field. Construction of the Village Segment, the first section of the Park to be built, began in early 2001. By Spring 2003 the Park had opened. There was an effort in 2002 to come up with a long-term plan for Pier 40, but the Trust Board did not agree with the recommendation of its own Task Force and CB2, so no plan was adopted (a dilemma which exists until this day). Under the Hudson River Park Act, parking uses in the Pier 40 courtyard had to end by 2003. When no new plan for Pier 40 was agreed on, we filed suit again. This time the Trust folded without litigation. In 2003 fields were built in the Pier 40 courtyard, making it one of the largest athletic facilities in NYC outside of a major park, like Central Park.
Activist participation in the Friends Board peaked around 2006. Friends had sued to get the Sanitation Department off the Gansevoort Peninsula, to get a restaurant off the 23rd Street park space, and to stop helicopter tours. In early 2006, Friends was part of an effort to shoot down a development plan for the Pier which would have allowed Related, Inc., to build an entertainment complex. But in 2004, Governor Pataki had appointed Emperor Michael Bloomberg’s multi-millionaire consort, Diane Taylor as President of the Hudson River Park Trust. After the Related, Inc. fight, Diana Taylor wanted the activists off the Friends Board; if that plan was refused, she threatened to start her own 501(c)(3). The purge began, and Friends became a place for wealthy people to act like they are the ones helping grow a park.
The Park never had a better friend than Governor Pataki. Although he was funding the Park piece by piece, it was moving along. Under the Spitzer-Paterson Administration funding slowed down, and then, under Andrew Cuomo, money came in so slowly that it didn’t allow any meaningful construction. Friends, which had always put pressure on the State for funding, no longer played that role. Pier 40 began to fall apart, and only by selling air rights has it secured money for necessary capital repairs. Cuomo, facing a competitive Governor primary, just recently committed to finishing the Park.
The Park remains an amazing place, even though it is not completed. Pier 40 is a mecca. But in the 20th Anniversary Celebration, one would think that Friends, and the Park Trust, were conceived by some wealthy benefactors, and that what exists at Pier 40 was part of the Park Plan.
Just ain’t so.
Arthur Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village. He is President of Advocates for Justice a public interest legal foundation. He chaired the CB2 Waterfront/Parks Committee for most of the period between 1998 and 2014, and served on the Board of Friends of Hudson River Park from 1999- 2009. This is an expanded version of a piece published in the Villager.