Barry Benepe, the creator of the Union Square Farmers’ Market, takes a hard look
In the September issue of WestView, Alec Pruchnicki wrote a superb in-depth analysis of the proposed Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) as a possible source of funding for the five mile long Hudson River Park. This park, created by the New York State Legislature in 1998, is unique in New York State in two ways. It is the longest waterfront urban park in the state set in the historic center of its largest city. At the same time, it is the only major park in the state that is required to cover its cost of maintenance and operations from income generated from commercial ventures within the park.
The highly experienced and talented president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, Madelyn Wils, is deeply troubled by the debts being piled up by the park which are not being met by revenues from commercial uses in the park. “We are currently trying to restore our financial balance by developing a long term sustainability plan,” she stated in a recent interview. “We maintain this five mile long 550 acre park with a staff of only 60 employees.” The High Line (of which she is a strong contributing member) maintains its far more limited acreage with 75 employees. In 2011, the High Line listed 39 employees for a mile long park, supplemented by 300 volunteers. Its 2012 report laid out a budget of $100 million against around $16 million for the Hudson River Park. In addition, the High Line is comfortably cushioned with improvement bonuses provided through Chapter 8 of the Zoning Law Special West Chelsea District. This section provides the transfer of development rights from the High Line Transfer Corridor to adjoining property developments. (See The High Line: Down the Road, West View April 2011). The High Line has received some $25 million from this source alone.
The Achilles heel in the law establishing the Hudson River Park is the intent that it be financially independent of public funding for maintenance and operations. This is a fundamental weakness which Assembly members Deborah Glick and Dick Gottfried are failing to address in their proposed amendment to the Hudson River Park Act which would permit residential, office and hotel uses in addition to the currently permitted retail and entertainment uses on up to 50% of the pier surface (which is what the existing pier shed approximately covers). It is unclear whether these uses must be contained within the existing shed or whether it could result in replacement of a portion or all of Pier 40. “Any such plan would require rezoning,” added Ms. Wils. The amendment is in a formative state with no draft currently available. Certainly any such proposal should be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement since the amendment itself might give birth to negative impacts. There should be special attention to visual impacts to the entire shoreline, day and night.
“No one understood the cost of maintaining structures in the water when this law was written,” Ms. Wills trenchantly observed. “We accepted properties in bad shape already in need of major repair with no sources of funding.” The Trust received an endowment from NYS DOT (New York State Department of Transportation) when the land was transferred to it 13 years ago. Income from endowment is supposed to provide operating expenses. Instead, the Trust has been eating into capital, having drawn down the endowment from $28 million to $20 million today to maintain eroding and corroding structures. “At the rate we are spending this down it will be used up by 2015.”
Income to maintain parks would be provided by a Neighborhood Improvement District (really a Waterfront Park Improvement District) and would include parks east of and adjacent to West Street as well as the Hudson River Park itself. The amount provided to HRPT would be left up to the board of the NID. That amount could vary between $4-10 million annually and eventually climb 20% in succeeding years as more development takes place along and benefitting from the park. This potential needs more careful analysis. This could make up declining revenues from the 1,700 car parking garage on Pier 40 the income from which has dropped to a third of the $15 million operation budget. This brings us to the threshold choice facing the HRPT.
If the HRPT continues to pour money into replacing the roof and capping and stabilizing the existing piles in order to maintain the parking garage revenue, would this result in less revenue for the park itself? In addition, the HRPT is awaiting a court decision on a claim of the Chelsea Piers for $37.5 million to replace the physical underpinnings of their profit making private ventures.
These are tough challenges. “We are already spending $6.2 million to repair 19% of the Pier 40 shed. It will cost up to $125 million to bring the pier up to code,” stated Ms. Wils. The Gottfried amendment, if passed, might result in the demolition of part or all of the pier shed and the soccer fields in order to build high rise housing over the air rights provided from demolition of the pier itself. The promoters of the housing have argued that it would create a more open park with views of the river now blocked by the existing shed. However, the pressure to procure funds from commercial development should not vilify the law’s stated purpose “to promote and expand public access to the Hudson River.” Contrary to the belief held by the HRPT that it is required by law to earn substantial income from Pier 40, the law simply states that “Pier 40 may (not ‘must’) be used for parking.” The law further states that “Up to one hundred percent of this pier may be limited to park use,” clearly intimating that the pier does not have to earn revenue at all. Instead, the building eating up so much of the park revenue could be replaced with open fields and deck permitting increased public access to and view of the river which is the act’s basic intent. Considering the limited budgets of both the city and state parks departments, the amendments that Assembly members Glick and Gottfried, our next Mayor, and State Senator should be pursuing is to provide a wide range of options to the HRPT, a public benefits corporation, to continue to grow and maintain this unique waterfront park in sound financial condition. The legislature must continue to assure funding to complete capital investment in completing, and possibly repairing, the entire park, Battery Park to 59th Street.
The HRPT has done an extraordinary job in the last 12 years in developing one of the greatest waterfront parks in the world, encapsulating history, ecology and beauty. Walking along this waterfront summer, autumn, winter and spring constantly brings me joy and encourages me to walk more with greater pleasure. The enormous energy and talent coming from the Trust shows in the exemplary results achieved. Our political leaders must unite to provide the financial underpinnings to make sure that the work continues joining the Battery to Riverside Park. Madelyn Wils has the vision and experience to carry this through. She hopes to reshape West Street (Route 9A highway) into a richly planted Riverside Boulevard as a gateway to the city itself. The magician should be allowed and supported to accomplish her magic. The financing should be provided largely by those who benefit from the park, not just those who sell goods and services. Certainly we should not open the Pandora’s box of off shore high rise development which would be an anathema to the very purpose of the Hudson River Act and lead us down the slippery slope of blocking, rather than experiencing, this marvelous river.