Why is funding the Hudson River Park so contentious?

A graphic on the screen at the start of the Feb. 28 Community Board 2 forum on Pier 40 and Hudson River Park made it clear that right now is a key moment for both the pier and park.   Photo by Robert Stolarik
A graphic on the screen at the start of the Feb. 28 Community Board 2 forum on Pier 40 and Hudson River Park made it clear that right now is a key moment for both the pier and park. Photo by Robert Stolarik

TALKING POINT      BY TOM FOX | The effort to build Hudson River Park began in 1992 when Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins accepted the recommendations of the West Side Waterfront Panel, signed a memorandum of understanding (M.O.U.) establishing the Hudson River Park Conservancy and pledged $100 million each to the construction of the park.

The Concept and Financial Plan was completed in 1995, the Hudson River Park Act was signed into law in 1998 and the Hudson River Park Trust was formed to continue the work of the Hudson River Park Conservancy. But a strange thing happened along the way.

The funding formula recommended to create the first park capable of sustaining its own operation and maintenance was scaled back drastically. However, the concept of a self-sustaining park continued to be a political imperative; even if securing the needed funding wasn’t.

As initially planned, the city and state would fund the construction of the park. That $450 million-to-$500 million investment would result in the appreciation of the adjacent inboard real estate within three blocks of the park, generating new tax revenues.

A portion of this new tax revenue would then be dedicated to maintain and operate the park, along with the revenue from three “nodes of development” and commercial maritime and recreational activities in the park. Commercial activities in the park were minimized so as not to compete with local neighborhood merchants on the other side of the highway.

But the city and state never set up a mechanism to capture the increased tax revenues from the adjacent real estate. They failed to redevelop Pier 40 for more than 20 years and let that facility deteriorate. Worse, they’ve just about abandoned their responsibility to complete construction of the Hudson River Park or secure the funding stream required for park maintenance and operations.

This has forced the Trust’s board and staff to scramble for capital and operating funds and has encouraged fighting among local neighborhoods over limited resources.

The divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be working. In this upside-down world, a lifelong park activist running a local nonprofit is lobbying the government to support residential development in the park — surprisingly advocated for by the park act’s co-sponsor, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried — while real estate developers are fighting against it.

One reason is that the state obviously has other priorities. Pataki appointed one state representative to the Trust Board, Elliot Spitzer appointed the other and one seat is vacant. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the commissioners of the city and state Parks departments serve on the board as ex-officio members, but the state contribution to the park has dwindled to a trickle in recent years.

With minimal state involvement, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has effectively taken over the Trust. Robert Steel, deputy mayor for economic development, is the vice chairperson of the Trust’s board of directors. Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, was executive vice president at E.D.C. before leaving to head the Trust in 2011. The Trust’s new chief financial officer, Dan Kurtz, hired last year, is a former E.D.C. vice president.

The Trust’s difficulty finding funding is curious given the fact that two major West Side rezoning efforts adjacent to the park (Hudson Yards and Hudson Square) have been approved by the city without making any financial contribution to the park. Yet both developments expect the park to provide required public open space for their new residential populations.

It’s even more curious when you consider that in recent years the city has practically thrown money at other city/state park projects and taken over those projects by establishing new city-controlled public authorities to replace state development agencies.

The city pledged $55 million in new funding to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and committed to complete this $350 million project without state support. The city also assumed complete responsibility for the redevelopment of Governors Island, and committed $260 million in new funding to the creation of that park.

Why then is the Trust’s board of directors having such a hard time getting the city or the state to support the park? Diana Taylor, the chairperson of the Trust’s board for the past six years, has been on the board since 1999. She is an expert in banking and finance and has access to decision makers at the highest levels in the state and city government.

During her tenure as chairperson, the West Side rezoning efforts received city approval and the city took over both Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island. Yet, the Trust has had increasing financial problems and a second failed request for proposals (R.F.P.) for the redevelopment of Pier 40.

Is the city setting the Hudson River Park adrift? If so, why, especially given the park’s incredible contribution to the redevelopment of the entire West Side? Is it to create a rationale for residential development in the park? Or is the city bound to repeat history and let West Side property values plummet as a result of an underfunded and neglected waterfront?

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 Act, creating the park) from 1996-’98; and a board of directors member of the Friends of Hudson River Park until 2011.