Downtown Boathouse hopes to return to Pier 26

[media-credit name=”Downtown Express by Terese Loeb Kreuzer ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Graeme Birchall, secretary of the non-profit, volunteer-run Downtown Boathouse, making a presentation to Community Board 1’s Waterfront Committee about where kayaks can be launched around New York City.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  Almost seven years have passed since the volunteers who run the Downtown Boathouse pulled the last of their kayaks out of Pier 26 near North Moore Street on the Hudson River and sadly shut the door of their funky boathouse behind them. Since 1995, when 100 members of the public had kayaked on the Hudson at that location, the Downtown Boathouse’s program of free kayaking at Pier 26 had grown to accommodate thousands of kayakers.

In 2005, more than 12,400 people signed waivers and lowered themselves into kayaks at that location for a spin around the embayment or a jaunt up and down the river. But the management of Hudson River Park said the pier had to go. It was decrepit, unsafe. The boathouse would be replaced with something much finer. It would take just three years to rebuild and reopen.

Of course, that didn’t happen. But now that construction on Pier 26 is actually under way with an estimated completion date of the spring of 2013, the Downtown Boathouse gang hopes to get its old home back and is angling for Community Board 1 support.

To that end, members of the Downtown Boathouse appeared before C.B. 1’s Waterfront Committee on Feb. 15. “We wanted to give the local community a sense of what we want to do and to get some feedback from them as to whether that’s what they want,” said Graeme Birchall, secretary of the Downtown Boathouse. “Community Board 1 gave us a letter of support in 1990, which is what got us going. They gave us another one in 1999, when we started to really expand the public program of free kayaking.”

Bounced out of Pier 26, the Downtown Boathouse group relocated to other piers along the Hudson and to Governors Island. They now have kayaking programs at 72nd Street, Pier 96 at 56th Street and Pier 40 at Houston Street — all run by volunteers and all free. But none has ever equaled the popularity of the Pier 26 location.

“One of the reasons why Pier 26 was so popular – it is close to the subway,” said Birchall. “It’s a lot closer than any of the more northerly locations. Pier 96 is very isolated. The blocks around it are strictly industrial. And the way Pier 96 is laid out, you can’t see it from the walkway.”

Pier 40 is relatively convenient, he said, but was only supposed to be temporary, so the Downtown Boathouse didn’t invest a lot in the facility. And the 72nd Street outpost is out of the way for many of the Downtown Boathouse’s fans.

According to Birchall, the Downtown Boathouse has put more than a half million kayakers on the Hudson since the program started. “From what we can guess, we put out 65 percent of the total number of people who go kayaking every year in the city,” he said. “In the park itself, it’s more like 90 percent, and if you count children, it’s much higher than 95 percent. That’s what we do with no government money, no subsidy and no corporate sponsorship.”

Birchall said that the Downtown Boathouse’s demographics reflect the city’s demographics by sex, age, race and income. “We provide kayaking to the public but we’re not a kayaking organization. We’re not a club. We’re just serving the public. There is no other city, basically on the planet, where you can go to the waterfront and get on a kayak for free. The historical reason for this had to do with the way the city abandoned the waterfront in the 1950s and 1960s and gave an opportunity for people to get in there and do funky things. Now the city has an intense interest in the waterfront. We’re a little queasy about the fact that most of it consists of a promenade and a fence. They’ve spent billions of dollars cleaning up the harbor, but mostly all you can do is look at it.”

At a cost of approximately $6.2 million funded by the city and the state, the Hudson River Park Trust is currently building a boathouse and a restaurant on Pier 26. The Pier 26 boathouse will be one of four (or possibly five) under the Hudson River Park Trust’s jurisdiction that will be subject to an RFP requesting operators in the coming months. The other boathouses are located at Pier 96, Pier 84, Pier 66 and possibly at Pier 40 (it is not presently clear whether that location will be included.)

A single R.F.P. will be issued for all locations, and respondents will be able to bid on as many of them as they wish.

A separate R.F.P. will be issued for the restaurant on Pier 26.

The Downtown Boathouse group regards this prospect with some trepidation. They view their operation as “family friendly” and hope that any restaurant that comes to the pier would be consonant with that ambiance and not a rowdy hangout.

Also, it’s by no means certain that they will be able to return to Pier 26. They know that the Hudson River Park Trust is strapped for cash and they wonder whether the rent for the new boathouse would be beyond their reach. In the old days, they paid no rent but maintained the pier and went “dumpster diving” to keep their boathouse in repair. They built the original docks themselves.

“We’re not rich but we make a lot of people happy and we think we deliver a lot of value to the city,” said Birchall. “We don’t need a gold-plated boathouse to do what we do.”

The Downtown Boathouse group seeks community support for their vision. “Go kayaking!” said Birchall. “That’s a good start. The harbor belongs to the people. There should be free access.”

The kayaking season starts in mid-May when the water warms up enough, and runs through mid-October.