High Line group hopes district will keep park on track

By Albert Amateau

Friends of the High Line is reaching out to property owners, commercial tenants and residents to establish a 37-block High Line Improvement District to help fund a high level of daily maintenance for the elevated park between Gansevoort and 30th Sts.

The High Line Improvement District Steering Committee, with 24 members so far, including representatives of the Friends, Community Board 4 and major business and property owners, sent out 6,000 letters on July 7 seeking broad support for the district.

“With the first section of the High Line between Gansevoort and 20th Sts. now open and proving as popular as we had hoped, we must insure that the park and its access points are maintained to a level we can all be proud of,” said Robert Hammond, co-founder of F.H.L. and a steering committee member. “We’re proposing ways that a special High Line Improvement District can raise financial support to help maintain the park to that high level,” Hammond said.

The High Line district would take the city’s business improvement district program, which is supervised by the Department of Small Business Services, as a model, Hammond said.

“But where most BID’s also support district-wide security, promotion and sanitation services, the High Line district would just help fund daily maintenance of the elevated park,” he said.

F.H.L. and the Department of Parks and Recreation have entered a partnership whereby the city supplies security for the High Line and maintains the steel-and-concrete structure and its elevators while F.H.L. manages day-to-day operation and maintenance.

“We estimate total maintenance would cost between $3.5 million and $4.5 million a year for Section 1, and for Section 2 between 20th and 30th Sts, which we expect will be open in the fall of 2010,” Hammond said. “The city contribution, which has to be authorized every year, should cover something less than $1 million. We estimate the improvement district would raise about $1 million. And Friends of the High Line would raise the rest, anywhere from $1.5 million to $3 million, through corporate and foundation contributions, membership fees, special events and sponsorships that will be hard to tap in this tough economic climate,” Hammond added. In addition, F.H.L. must fund its own staff costs through fundraising, capital projects, marketing and events that are not part of the maintenance costs and which could not be paid for by the improvement district, he noted.

The $1 million from the improvement district would be raised through a two-tiered assessment structure. Properties in a Subdistrict A, closest to and benefiting most directly from the High Line, would pay an annual assessment of about 9 cents per square foot for most properties. In a Subdistrict B, further away and less directly benefited by the High Line, properties would pay about 3 cents per square foot. Storage and warehouse properties throughout the district would also pay about 3 cents per square foot.

By law, 51 percent of the proposed district’s property owners must sign on in support of the improvement district, though there is no vote per se. However, in all cases when BID’s or improvement districts are established, they have overwhelming support from property owners — in other words, well over 51 percent approval.

Nonprofit owners who use their property for nonprofit purposes would be exempt from the assessment. Commercial property owners could pass the assessment cost on to their tenants.

Hammond estimated that almost half of the district’s property owners would pay less than $100 per year and almost 70 percent of the district’s property owners would pay less that $200 per year.

In other parks that require special maintenance, extra funding has also come from private sources. The private Central Park Conservancy pays for 85 percent of that park’s maintenance, and the private Bryant Park Corporation — part of a BID structure — pays for 100 percent of that park’s maintenance, Hammond noted. For the High Line, the city will pay for about 30 percent of the total maintenance cost, he added.

The improvement district board of directors would be separate from the F.H.L. board. The district would enter a contract with F.H.L. to perform the maintenance work and would negotiate the F.H.L. use of district funds.

“In essence, with regard to how the assessment is spent on High Line maintenance, F.H.L. would be accountable to the improvement district board and the improvement district would be accountable to the property and business owners and residents of the district,” Hammond said.

Forming an improvement district takes between nine months and a year, requires public review and hearings, City Planning Commission review and final approval by the City Council. The steering committee has scheduled two public meetings, both in the ninth-floor penthouse of 511 W. 25th St., one on Tues., July 28, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and the other from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Thurs., July 30.

In another move to give Friends of the High Line more economic clout, the Franchise and Concession Review Committee, a division of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, last week authorized the Department of Parks to negotiate a sole-source concession agreement with F.H.L. to operate and maintain concessions on the elevated park.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson, a member of the committee, voted against the authorization, saying that the Parks Department created a separate agreement whereby F.H.L. may license concessions to third parties. Thompson said the agreement undermines necessary oversight and transparency of public-private partnerships.

Hammond said the vote allowed Friends of the High Line to negotiate with potential concessionaires.

“We would do a full request for proposals for food and soft drink concession at places like the stairways to the High Line, or under the structure itself,” he said. “We would then negotiate with the concessionaire how much revenue would flow to the High Line. It would all be reviewed every step of the way, including by the comptroller,” he added.

Since the opening of the new elevated park’s first section on June 9, the Parks Department has exercised its legal authority to issue a temporary 29-day concession on the High Line to City Bakery, and plans the next 29-day concession to go to Tea Salon, a beverage provider, Hammond said. But like all normal park concessions, any revenues from those go to the city general fund. With F.H.L. in control of the concession agreements, revenue would go to the High Line, Hammond said.