Let’s return to the vision of the Hudson River Park

BY TOM FOX  |    In 1992, New York City and State embraced a new concept in urban park development and much of the nation’s park community watched with hope.  Accepting the recommendations of a joint panel established to plan the future of the West Side waterfront, they agreed to build a new waterfront park that would be self-sustaining.

The Hudson River Park turned a decaying and dangerous waterfront into one of the most desirable places in the city. The park has protected a critical estuarine habitat, preserved the city’s maritime heritage and enhanced lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, particularly those living in adjacent neighborhoods that were among the city’s most park-starved communities. It’s often been described as the 21st-century equivalent of Central Park.

Similar to the creation of Central Park, replacing the tow pounds, bus and sanitation garages and abandoned piers with the a park has had a tremendous economic impact as well, burnishing the image of our city, increasing tourism and enhancing the value of the adjacent real estate.

The original cost estimate for the 5-mile park was $500 million. The city and state pledged $200 million toward the initial construction capital and agreed to split the remainder equally. To ensure that the park didn’t compete with other city and state parks for scarce public resources, Hudson River Park was designed to support its own maintenance, operation and capital replacement from a variety of revenue sources that would be dedicated to the park.

The initial plan was to preserve existing commercial activities in the park, such as the Circle Line, World Yachts and the passenger ship terminals in Midtown. Piers in three locations, comprising about 10 percent of the park, were set aside for maritime- and recreation-related development to complement the park, bring people to the waterfront and generate revenue. The Chelsea Piers, the first of these development areas, opened in 1994.

The last piece of the financial puzzle was to capture a portion of the appreciation of inboard real estate within three blocks of the park. Numerous studies showed that creating new parks increased adjacent real estate values and the property along the West Side was underdeveloped when the park was proposed. Housing, offices and hotels — thought better located inboard where there was existing infrastructure — were prohibited in the park.

However, the range of financing mechanisms recommended for the park weren’t implemented. The Hudson River Park Trust, the entity established to build, maintain and operate the park, has been unable to secure the funding originally planned for the park. Interagency turf battles prevented the Midtown piers and the millions in revenue they generate annually from being transferred to the park. Until now, no effort was made to capture the appreciation of inboard real estate values.

That has made it impossible to manage the property properly. For example, Pier 40, a 14.5-acre pier designated as a development area, has generated more than $80 million since the park’s inception. But with less revenue than originally planned, the Trust had to use that money for operations instead of reinvesting to maintain Pier 40’s pier-shed building. Preventative maintenance is far less expensive than major repairs.

Now Pier 40 needs tens of millions of dollars for repairs. Threats to close this important recreational resource unless residential development is allowed there are wrong. Residential development in the Hudson was a bad idea when the park was first proposed. The city is pushing the redevelopment of the Midtown rail yards and the rezoning of Hudson Square Downtown. Both projects are adjacent to the park — and it’s adjacent to the park, not in the park, where the residential development belongs.

The foundations required for residential towers in the Hudson would be tantamount to landfill, and the shadows cast by high-rise buildings would impact a vital fish sanctuary and also park users. The residents in the new buildings would feel a proprietary sense of ownership over the park, which could be in conflict with the idea of baseball and soccer teams playing outside their windows.

The debate over landfilling 200 acres of the Hudson to create an underground interstate highway paralyzed redevelopment of the West Side waterfront for more than 15 years. Plans for residential development in the Hudson would certainly stir the environmental activists who defeated Westway and mire the park in unnecessary controversy — and litigation — for years.

It’s time to return to the original vision of the Hudson River Park. Transfer all the waterfront property within the park’s boundaries, and the revenues they generate, to the Trust. Redevelop Pier 40 properly. Establish a Neighborhood Improvement District to generate additional revenue from the inboard property owners adjacent to the park, and ensure that both the Hudson Yards and Hudson Square make major contributions to the park each year.

New Yorkers wouldn’t plan an apartment complex in Central Park, and we should ensure that we don’t put one in the Hudson River Park either.

Fox was a citizen appointee to the West Side Task Force in 1986; a citizen appointee to the West Side Waterfront Panel from 1988-’90; the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy (which completed the Hudson River Park’s concept and financial plan) from 1992-’95; a member of the Hudson River Park Alliance (which supported the Hudson River Park legislation) from 1996-’98; and a board of directors member of the Friends of Hudson River Park until 2011.

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