No Shore Thing

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Over the last two decades, Tom Fox has undergone a lot of changes, even if his beloved West Side waterfront hasn’t.

Back in the late 1970s, a long-haired, earring-wearing Fox helped squash Westway, the plan to landfill and pave a swath of the Hudson River with a highway and commercial developments. Then came the ’80s and Fox–a green avenger who wore T-shirts with slogans like “Gardeners do it in parks”–founded the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, promoting parks through advocacy and research.

But toward the end of the decade and following an environmental fellowship at Harvard, Fox moderated his parks-or-die stance. By the time he became president of the freshly-minted Hudson River Park Conservancy (HRPC) in 1992, Fox had a perfect sales pitch for an era when government was bowing out of the park maintenance business. Parks can earn enough to pay for themselves, he proclaimed. “Great open space may make your heart sing, but you still have to justify them to bankers,” he says today. “I’m much more pragmatic.”

The idea Fox and other park supporters signed onto was this: The city and state would shell out $200 million of the needed $300 million to build the Hudson River Park, while also creating enough commercial development in the park to cover the rest of the construction costs and a $10 million annual maintenance bill.

Most of the city’s largest environmental groups embraced the self-funding plan as the quickest, most practical route to a park. “I don’t think it’s realistic for a park to be idyllic, which it probably hasn’t been for years,” says Richard Kassel, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The debate really comes down to whether you want a park with some commercial amenities or no park at all.”

But this brand of pragmatism has encountered some reality problems.

After the Pataki administration ousted Fox in 1995, his waterfront market theories took a soaking with the failure of his water taxi service, whose motors were barely powerful enough to overcome the Hudson tide. And, just as Fox overlooked the strength of the river in his business plan, the Hudson park plan is now imperiled by the financial failures of existing waterfront ventures–the Chelsea Piers most notably. If these businesses can’t raise enough money–and there is growing indication that they can’t–the park may not survive.

“It’s a false pronouncement here, the idea that you can fund this park through economic development and lease agreements,” says Glenn Pasanen, associate director of the City Project, a budget watchdog group. “There’s a promise here that’s unlikely to be met.”

Even though $100 million in construction funds are still uncommitted (see “Late Bloomers”), construction is slated to begin this fall on the five-mile-long park, which will include a bike path, public-access piers and a watchband-narrow esplanade extending from the northern tip of Battery Park City to 59th Street.

But will New Yorkers want to dodge the kamikaze traffic of West Street to stroll along a waterfront park littered with development? West Siders, for whom the park is being built–the same people who organized to kill Westway–are beginning to voice support for a free park maintained–gasp–by public funds. Says Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who represents the lower West Side: “A park is not a profit center; it’s the responsibility of government.”

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When the city and state–who each own half of the 150 acres of land and piers–adopted Fox’s plan for the Hudson River Park, they were trying to avoid exactly this kind of fight.

There was supposed to be enough park to overcome any claims of a sell-out. Under the HRPC plan, about 13 piers would be open to the public for sport activities, purely passive enjoyment as well as concession stands, such as boat rentals and food carts. Another 24 piers would contain commercial ventures to pay for maintenance, in addition to municipal and other commercial uses, like New York Waterways, that aren’t officially part of the park. New lease agreements on three already-commercialized areas would anchor the plan: Pier 40 in the Village, the 23rd Street Chelsea Piers and the piers in the vicinity of 42nd Street, which are home to the Circle Line, World Yacht and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Add to these a sprinkling of concession stands, and the plan’s architects believe the Conservancy could reap the needed funds for park upkeep.

But making $10 million a year may not be that easy. HRPC board member Ross Graham, a retired state legislative aide to former state Senator Manfred Ohrenstein who serves on the Cmeservancy’s board, estimates the Conservancy may only see about $7 million from the main development areas. Still, she says HRPC just doesn’t view this funding shortage as a problem. “In the end someone will figure out how to pull in the other $3 million,” Graham reasons. “If you get seven out of ten, you’re going to find the other three.”

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Yet the Conservancy may end up struggling to collect even this $7 million.

From West Street, Chelsea Piers blazes into view with a giant outdoor video screen that assaults passersby in unrelenting color to partake of phone, banking and soft drink proferrings from its official sponsors. From the river, the development is an aluminum colossus that spans from 17th to 23rd streets with piers resembling four felled 90-story skyscrapers thrown across the Hudson.

Yet beaneath the glimmer, the piers’ financial infrastructure is full of holes. The sheer immensity of the 30-acre complex and the rundown state of its piers caused construction costs to balloon from $25 million to $75 million, saddling its inexperienced owners with high-interest debt. Moreover, attendance at the complex–which is a long trek from subways and across West Street’s dangerous traffic–hasn’t been large enough to make up the difference.

In 1996, one year after opening, executives at Chelsea Piers LP were so strapped for cash they renegotiated the original 20-year lease, which started out at $2.4 million in annual payments to the Park Conservancy and soars eventually to $4 million. Under the new agreement, Chelsea Piers gets a rent break in exchange for staying on the piers for an additional 29 years.

Yet despite this financial lifeline, Chelsea Piers is still sinking. During the first six months of 1997, the latest figures available, the complex made $15.2 million. But $22.8 million in expenses, including rent and financing debt have steeped Chelsea Piers in $7.6 million worth of red ink. And once additional expenses are factored in, the loss plunges to $10.8 million. “The company’s auditors have raised concern …regarding the ability of the Company to continue as a going concern in light of recurring losses from operations suffered by the company,” according to financial records.

Dowdy old Pier 40 in the West Village, by contrast, is the waterfront’s steadiest earner, generating almost $4.5 million a year in lease payments to the Conservancy as a parking garage for city trucks and buses and 2,000 neighborhood cars. But when the pier becomes part of the park, revenues will probably drop since up to half of the space will be converted into much-needed ball fields, walkways and sports courts. HRPC had hoped that a revitalized waterfront would lure new businesses to the 1.2 million square foot building upon which all of those amenities would be placed, but so far there have been few takers–not even the flower market the Conservancy also expects to bloom on Pier 40.

Meanwhile, the city’s agreements with the midtown waterfront tourist companies only bring in about $1 million total.This is ugly math for park boosters. The money will have to be made somewhere, and some groups fear it will be from cultivating even more commercial development in the park. “[HRPC] may come back and say, ‘It turns out there’s pressure to privatize in the name of covering costs. It turns out we’re going to have to take more of the piers,'” worries Jim Lane, senior attorney at the New York Sierra Club.”

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Tucked behind Chelsea Piers and further obscured by its parking lot is the lone fee-free pier in the sports complex, Pier 62. Lucky for Elizabeth Thompson and her grandson, she found it. Only the razor-thin Chelsea Park five blocks away and three other specks of parkland dot the Chelsea landscape.

“It’s about time they fixed up the waterfront,” she says. “They should have built this park a long time ago.”

To understand the fervor with which locals talk about parks, examine the statistics: The city’s Department of Planning recommends that New Yorkers have at least 1.5 acres per 1,000 people to enjoy as park. But instead of relaxing in this football-field-and -a-half of open space, every 1,000 residents of Chelsea, Clinton and the Village has to share park space that is, on average, just a little larger than two endzones.

And those endzones are getting shaggier and filthier. Both the city and state have mowed millions from their parks budgets in recent years. The city alone sliced one-third of the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget from 1987 to 1996, according to the Independent Budget Office. And spending on maintenance in city parks has dropped 24 percent during this time. To make up the difference, some individual parks have essentially merged operations with strong private fundraising organizations, such as the Central Park Conservancy, which last month was handed day-to-day control of Olmstead’s CK SP masterpiece by the city.

It’s a longshot that the Hudson River Park will ever draw similar big-ticket benefactors. If it is to survive, it will need revenue from one of two sources: government or increased commercial development. Yet the 1992 Memorandum of Understanding between the city and state that created the HRPC and established the principles that guide the park firmly wrote the city and state out of park funding.

“The city and state are committed to build a park as a self-sustaining [entity],” says Bill Zwart, legislative aide to state senator Franz Leichter, a Hudson River Park advocate who supports the current funding plan. “If it becomes a drain on city and state funding year after year, they’re not going to build it.

Although Pataki has been unwilling to shell out park maintenance money, he has made a concession to environmental groups. Last spring, he proposed a bill that would limit the amount and placement of commercialism in the park–and make the conservancy independent. His attempt to squeak the bill through at the last minute was thwarted by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who bowed to pressure from local groups who worried that an independent HRPC would not be accountable to the public, but Pataki wants to try again this year.

Oddly, if the bill succeeds, it will wrest the park from the control of the governor’s former chief campaign fundraiser, Charles Gargano, who runs the Empire State Development Corporation, which currently controls HRPC.

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After years of frustration, the loudest proponents of the current Hudson River Park funding plan include some of the most powerful environmental groups in the city, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who have formed the Hudson River Park Alliance. “Many people want to see a park on the waterfront and plans to move forward have been stalled for a very long time,” says Andrew Darrell, executive director of the Alliance. “Shouldn’t the revenues be keep locally for park use instead going to the city and state?”

But other groups, like the Sierra Club, New York Public Interest Research Group and City Project, are not ready to write government out of park maintenance. They continue to challenge the city and state’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the waterfront.

Whether they ultimately succeed or not, one thing’s for certain: The current plan has momentum–the rarest of commodities after 25 years of stalemate on the waterfront. In an election year, and with $200 million already committed, the plan is likely to continue under the terms of the 1992 memorandum–even without a rock solid funding system to keep it from falling apart in the years after the ribbon-cutting.

Such risks don’t bother the shapers of New York’s new waterfront. They want action. This spring, Tom Fox will be back with another small fleet of water taxis that will be faster and, he hopes, more successful. “I’m an environmental entrepreneur,” he says. “I look for an opportunity and I exploit it.”