Tribeca river center shifts in different directions

By Josh Rogers

John Cronin investigated the toxic waters of the Love Canal for New York State 25 years ago, but that may not have prepared him for the shifting political waters in Lower Manhattan and Albany as he continues his effort to build a $20-million river study center in Tribeca despite local opposition.

Cronin, the executive director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, next week is losing his biggest champion, Gov. George Pataki, who came up with the idea of creating Beacon seven years ago. Eliot Spitzer will be sworn in as the new governor Monday.

Cronin did get a boost two weeks ago, when the Port Authority’s board of directors directed the Hudson River Park Trust to use $5 million of Port money to help Beacon, a private nonprofit organization, and SUNY-Stony Brook build an Urban Estuary Center on Pier 26, which is being rebuilt as part of the new design for the riverside park’s Tribeca section. The Port amended its October resolution, in which the Trust appeared to have a freer hand to select any group to run the river education center.

“This is government by blackmail,” said Julie Nadel, a member of the Trust’s board and also a critic of Trust policies. “This was approved over the objections of the Port Authority staff.”

It’s not clear why the Port took the additional step of amending its resolution to include Beacon’s name, since spokespersons for the Trust and Pataki, who shares control of the Port with the New Jersey governor until next week, both said the Trust is not obligated to select Beacon for the estuarium. The center will have labs, public displays and education programs focused on the vibrant marine life in the area where the ocean meets the Hudson. It could open in 2009.

Cronin, in a rare public statement about his Tribeca plan, told Downtown Express that if the Trust ends up picking another group, he will not fight it over the Port money.

“I’ll abide by whatever the Trust decides,” he said in a telephone interview.

The Beacon Plan

Cronin said the two-story facility in Tribeca would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 square feet and include labs with perhaps a dozen scientists and graduate assistants on a permanent basis, with additional space for visiting researchers. He also wants the scientists to interact with the public and school children, numbering as high as the thousands. There would be an auditorium, classrooms and public displays and room for large vessels to dock, including Stony Brook’s Seawolf, an 80-foot former fishing ship that rarely comes to the lower part of the Hudson because she has trouble finding a place to anchor, Cronin said.

If the Port’s $5 million comes through, Beacon will need $10 million more for its $20 million goal. Stony Brook has already pledged $5 million. Cronin is confident his group will be able to raise the rest of the money — under the best case, it would come from an individual donor, he added.

In addition to Stony Brook, Beacon is working closely with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massa­chusetts, Columbia University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and has informal consulting relationships with about 45 colleges.

“The best reason [to select us] is that this would be the first of its kind collaboration with some of the best educational institutions in the country,” he said.

Cronin was one of many who focused on the Hudson’s striped bass more than 20 years ago as part of the environmental effort that led to the defeat of Westway, the commercial development-park project that was a precursor to the Hudson River Park. Cronin said an estuary study center would be a fitting part of what is built in Westway’s aftermath.

Cronin has presented his group’s plans to small private groups of the Trust’s directors, but he would be happy to make a public presentation to Community Board 1, if invited. He said his plan is still in the early stages and he welcomes feedback so he can make changes.

Nadel, also the chairperson of C.B. 1’s Waterfront Committee in addition to her position on the Trust’s board, said she doesn’t want Beacon or anyone else to present a plan to C.B. 1 until the community board decides what exactly it hopes to have in an estuarium.

“I don’t want individual groups coming to do a dog and pony show,” she said. “You have to decide what you want first.”

Fair Process?

The Trust has been talking to Beacon about building the estuarium in Tribeca for over a year, and after criticism by Nadel, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and other waterfront advocates, staffers now say they are open to considering other groups that are interested, including the River Project, which ran the original Pier 26 estuary center until it was forced to leave last year to make way for construction of the permanent park.

Beacon’s skeptics cite its close ties to Pataki and its short history in which it has not yet run any programs. In addition, Pataki shares control of the Trust with the mayor (Nadel is an appointee of the borough president, who has influence but not control) and appointed Trip Dorkey to be the Trust’s chairperson. Dorkey also sits on Beacon’s board.

Cronin said his connections will not help. “Trip will not talk to me about this project,” he said. “There’s going to be a transparent, public process.”

He said if he were relying on Pataki’s help, he would have rushed to get a final plan to the Trust in the fall, instead of waiting until next year.

“Don’t you think I would have had a formal proposal to the Hudson River Park Trust a few months ago,” he asked. “I can count the days like anyone else.”

Still, the Port’s recent vote naming Beacon did not sit well with waterfront advocates. The Port also cut its October allocation of $10 million for the Tribeca river center in half, directing the other $5 million for Hudson River Park repairs needed at Pier 86, where the Intrepid Museum was docked and eventually towed to undergo extensive repairs. Franz Leichter, the former state senator who co-wrote the legislation creating the park, is bothered that the Port went out of its way to name Beacon.

“I don’t like losing the 5 million and the Trust should not be forced in this way to accept a plan we have not agreed to,” Leichter, a member of the Trust’s board, wrote in a group email to reporters and waterfront advocates. “We need to see how this can be reversed.”

In a similar email, Al Butzel, one of the leaders in the fight to defeat Westway, wrote: “It’s crummy because the Intrepid should hardly be taking away funding that was intended to be used at Pier 26.  Second, it’s crummy because it ties the $5 million to the Beacon Institute, and except for the institute and ‘Gensler’ [Beacon’s consultant], no one even knows what is being planned.”  

Nadel said the Port’s allocation is not the same as if it wrote a check to Beacon. She predicts the Spitzer administration will not allow the disbursement to go through.

Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, said the Trust is open to other groups and disputed the contention that the Port resolution “in any way” requires the Trust to designate Beacon, which is based in Beacon, N.Y.

The December resolution says “that the remaining $5 million of such funding for the Urban Estuary Center be allocated by the Hudson River Park Trust and/or another appropriate entity for the study of Hudson River estuary preservation strategies by a consortium of educational institutions led by the State of New York and the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries….”

Martin said the Trust never lobbied the Port for the money. Since the Trust needs money to build the park at Piers 26 and 86 and other places, it is not going to look a gift horse in the mouth and question why the Port shifted the money.

Martin described the Trust’s reaction as, “Hey great, we’re building the park and we’ll take anything. We’re glad to get money to build the park, and the estuarium, or whatever.”

Joanna Rose, a Pataki spokesperson, in a prepared statement, said the SUNY-Beacon plan was not the only possibility and that “other, separate, efforts may even take shape.  The Hudson River Park Trust has the responsibility to determine what is ultimately constructed on Pier 26.”

The Port vote does mean less money for the Tribeca estuary center, but Cronin took it in stride. “I can’t say I’m disappointed because the Intrepid got $5 million. She’s a hometown girl,” he said. “She’s a lot bigger than I am, although I never got stuck in the mud.”