Westway foe still fighting Battle of the Hudson

Marcy Benstock giving her acceptance speech upon winning the Callaway Award for Civic Courage in 2014. Her remarks primarily focused on Westway, the Hudson River Park (which she dubbed “Westway II”) and the lower Hudson River. The full speech, about 14 minutes long, is viewable on YouTube.

BY MICHELE HERMAN | I’ve had a few long conversations recently with Marcy Benstock, director of the Clean Air Campaign, an organization that devotes much of its energy to protecting the lower Hudson River. Benstock and I have known each other since the 1980s, when we were both members of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront & Greatport (since disbanded).

This was after the death of Westway in 1985, the massive highway-tunnel-cum-real-estate-development venture that Benstock was instrumental in stopping, though it had the support of just about everyone in power.

Benstock — a Harvard graduate with a master’s in economics from The New School, recipient of many awards including the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage (2014) — warned that the development aspects of Westway would rise from the dead, this time more furtively. She warned that the piers would be fitted with infrastructure to make way for buildings. She warned that parts of the river between the piers might be filled and built on, too.

This is exactly what she believes is happening now. She points her finger at many players, chief among them the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city public authority that runs the 4-mile-long strip of park. She calls it Westway II — H.R.P.T.’s relentless piecemeal development and granting of lucrative leases for non-water-dependent uses.

Benstock prefers to keep the spotlight off herself; she’s aware that she is an imperfect messenger, easy to dismiss by those with a vested interest in flouting her urgent environmental message. She is passionate and dogged and selfless in her zeal to protect the river she loves, but she often seems to be drowning in detail. Her fliers are dense with single-spaced type; her Chelsea office is packed two cartons deep with papers from old FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. Her sentences are plainspoken and articulate, but there are many of them, and she sometimes diminishes her strongest arguments with hyperbole.

As we talked, I wasn’t able to pin her down about the actual number of new incursions on the waterfront. And I wasn’t convinced that they are proliferating at quite such an alarming rate. I thought back to the frustration I often felt in the ’80s: When the antidevelopment forces sounded most paranoid, it was hard to tell if it was because they were indeed paranoid or because they were speaking truth and no one wanted to listen.

So at Benstock’s suggestion, I attended a board meeting of the H.R.P.T. The main event was a team from Olin Studios brought up from Philadelphia to present its design for Pier 26 in Tribeca. I began to understand what Benstock had been trying, in her imperfect way, to tell me.

This was a truly alarming smorgasbord of overdesign: science-play estuarium, great lawn, elevated forest walk, woodland below the deck, fields, lounge, 35 program spaces, five ecological zones, promenade with large hammocks, re-created marsh, two climbing walls, and a pair of giant sturgeon sculptures.

The board seemed pretty rah-rah about the design, though one board member tentatively said: “I’m concerned about an awful lot of stuff we’re putting on it.” Later there was another timid plea: “Maybe one less piece?”

If this plan goes through, a whole lot of money is going to be spent and a whole lot of contractors are going to profit; Friends of Hudson River Park planned to trot out Robert De Niro and raise a whopping $3.1 million at its annual gala. This is to educate the public about river ecology on a pier that, if river ecology were really the priority, should not exist at all.

Here are some edited excerpts from our conversations:

Do you think the recent demise of Pier 55 a.k.a. “Diller Island” will have an impact on the future of waterfront projects?

I never speculate or anticipate — I just don’t have time. If decisions were made on the merits rather than on the basis of money and power, it never would have been proposed in the first place.

How do you feel about the Whitney’s proposed artwork by David Hammons?

It violates the fundamental principal that underlies the Federal Clean Water Act [of 1972]: Nothing should be sited on water if it can go on dry land.

How do you feel about the activities of H.R.P.T. and Friends of Hudson River Park?

A staggering amount of money is going into pushing projects under the auspices of the Friends, which is made up of titans of finance and deal makers. At every board meeting they either discuss or approve a lease in the executive session, and the leases are hundreds of pages long. There are 75 people on staff and they hire a huge number of contractors. The problem is not with a grand plan, but with making any deal that comes along that happens to violate the Federal Clean Water Act and put people in harm’s way and block views of open water and cost a lot of money. It’s ruinous public policy.

Do you propose returning the Hudson to its natural state?

The river should be allowed to remain in the state it’s in today without any more obstructions harming and ultimately eliminating habitat and blocking river views.

What do you say to critics who argue that the perfect is the enemy of the good? 

Asking that this nation’s most fundamental environmental laws be enforced when they preserve crucial resources and keep people out of harm’s way — that’s not perfect, that’s just sensible policy. It’s lunacy to build in a tumultuous public waterway that’s in a hurricane zone.

How great is the risk?

Lower Manhattan is almost part of the ocean, with gale-force winds and driving rains in a hurricane, smashing everything with corrosive saltwater. There are never no impacts even in calm good weather. That stretch is overdue for a hurricane. The city talks only about flooding, not about the precipitation that is likely. In 2013, a bill was agreed on by a semi-secret task force that includes an indemnification provision. If there’s a hurricane, H.R.P.T. doesn’t have to pay damage claims; the taxpayers pay.

Should Pier 40 be torn down? 

That’s always a puzzler: What to do with the existing piers. I take the position that the existing piers should live out their lives. If portions become unsafe, those portions should be closed, as they have been periodically. There should be no new investment, certainly not $100 million to completely rebuild the pier and infrastructure to support development for new non-water-dependent uses. If people love their parking and that part is unsound now, phase it out. But don’t throw good money after bad forever. As for the soccer fields, I would look for alternative locations on dry land: Check out rooftops and vacant lots and make serious, responsible efforts to find a place for fields.

What’s your position on a new trans-Hudson tunnel?

It should happen. When there’s a genuine legitimate public need for a project, that is allowed to be given great weight in the decision-making. There’s an urgent human need for that tunnel.

Who pays your salary?

The Clean Air Campaign is funded by foundations, public charities and roughly 98 households. They cover my office rent and pay my small salary, which has been the same for 18 years.

Who are you working with these days?

Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, NYPIRG and good groups in New Jersey and Staten Island and all around the country.

Why do you continue to do advocacy? 

New York City is exporting bad ideas across the planet that are destroying fisheries, and fish are the only source for protein for many. There are financial, real-estate, architectural and construction interests that would like to see more building in and above the river here and in cities around the world. They have such political muscle that politicians and journalists are not prepared to go up against them, and the public doesn’t understand.

What keeps you going?

It’s not how I planned to live my life, but at each stage something dragged me along in ways I couldn’t have predicted. I don’t know how I escaped the cultural norm, but money never mattered to me. When Westway was defeated, it was a logical end point. But then various governors and mayors gradually put the pieces in place to build the real-estate portion of Westway in the river in a different way. A staggering amount of time [has been given] by the finest people I’ve ever met and hope to keep meeting, courageous people who work their hearts out for the public good. That’s the saving grace of the battle. The other saving grace is that the work is interesting.