Home News NYC’s special riverfront park: The history and future of Hudson River Park

NYC’s special riverfront park: The history and future of Hudson River Park

The 4-mile-long, 500-acre Hudson River Park is nearing completion and is the largest park built in Manhattan since Central Park more than a century and a half earlier. It transformed a derelict and dangerous waterfront, protected the Hudson River estuary, created new recreation opportunities for millions of New Yorkers, enhanced tourism and the image of the city, preserves maritime commerce, and stimulated redevelopment in adjacent neighborhoods.

However, if the meaningful community participation and focus on public benefit that created the park isn’t continued, we are headed for troubled waters.

The elevated Miller, or West Side Highway, allowed north-south traffic to pass over a bustling commercial waterfront until a truck and car fell to the street below in 1973. Commercial maritime use of the piers had declined — bridges and tunnels replaced ferries, jets replaced passenger ships for European travel, and container ports moved cargo to New Jersey.

In 1974, the city and state released a new plan to fill 234 acres of the shore, out to the tips of the piers, from Chambers to 36th St. and bury a new interstate highway under the landfill. The $2.3 billion project known as Westway, would be topped with 3 million square feet of commercial and residential development and a 98-acre park. That began the 50 years of confrontation and cooperation that has since resulted in a magnificent public park. 

After a decade-long battle between environmental, community and civic advocates and public agencies, real estate, construction, and business interests “Westway sleeps with the fishes,” especially the Atlantic striped bass The defeat, set the stage for the revitalization of Manhattan’s West Side waterfront. 

Between 1986 and 1998 a unique planning process included citizens in the decision-making. The focus was on the basics like designing an appropriate roadway, removing bus garages, tow pounds, sanitation facilities and parking lots from the waterfront. Interim improvements were implemented, the first revenue producing commercial area at Chelsea Piers was developed, and the public planning and environmental review processes were completed. 

The final plan was for a tree-lined urban boulevard with bicycle and pedestrian paths running along the river. The property along the shoreline and 13 piers were dedicated for public use and the 400 acres of underwater property designated as a marine sanctuary. The Daily News published editorials and op-eds strongly supporting the park’s creation.

However, public funding was very tight at the time, and a unique funding formula was proposed to build and help sustain the park. City, state, and federal funding would be complemented by revenue from three areas comprised of 4 million square feet of space on piers within the park. The commercial development was limited to maritime, recreation, or entertainment and the revenue generated to be used solely for park purposes. 

Many agreed that a $1.5 billion public investment revitalizing the waterfront would increase the value of adjacent property, and the city/state commission recommended several options for a new public financing mechanism to capture a small portion of the increased value attributable to the park. 

The 1998 Hudson River Park Act officially established the park but Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused to create a mechanism to capture a portion of the increasing value of adjacent real estate before the park was built. While claiming that city and state parks’ agencies were more appropriate to build and manage the park, they established the Hudson River Park Trust, as a state development authority, to oversee the project. 

Mayor Mike Bloomberg then rezoned the adjacent West Side neighborhoods from warehousing, transportation, and manufacturing to commercial office and residential use without providing any funding for the park that created the value, even though he was a master at creating public finance mechanisms. 

Adding insult to injury, Bloomberg directed more than $500 million in public funding to “his” projects, like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island and used innovative public financing techniques to create The High Line. While these are important public open spaces, the Hudson River Park consistently suffered from decreased public funding. The city and state then falsely claimed that the park was required to be self-sufficient and used that deception to begin to expand commercial development in the park. 

An independent nonprofit organization was established in 1999 to support the government efforts to build the park and protect the public’s interest. The Friends of Hudson River Park raised or leveraged more than $100 million in public and private funding for the park and built the park’s first playground in Chelsea. They sued to remove sanitation facilities in Hell’s Kitchen and Gansevoort Peninsula and ended tourist flights at the West Side heliport.

In 2008, Friends published a real estate study that reaffirmed the initial city/state recommendations for a special funding district. The first completed $75 million section of the park, in Greenwich Village, increased the value of the property within the three blocks of the park by $200 million. Friends recommended that a neighborhood (or park) improvement district be established to provide long-term maintenance and operating support for the park and took up the challenge of establishing one.

However, in 2011 the leadership of the Trust changed when Madelyn Wils of the NYC Economic Development Corp. (EDC) was appointed president and amplified the self-sufficiency myth. She and Trust Chairwoman Diana Taylor complained that Friends hadn’t raised enough money for the park and threatened to create a competing nonprofit with a more influential board to “do the bidding of the Trust.” Private interests were once again focusing on developing the West Side waterfront, which may have been their plan all along.

Community leaders, mariners, and park advocates who helped create the park were replaced by lawyers and investment bankers. The reconstituted Hudson River Park Friends abandoned efforts to establish an improvement district. The Trust hired Carl Weisbrod, a former city EDC president, to explore alternative funding options while the Trust claimed the 16-acre Pier 40 would fall into the Hudson without an immediate $100 million public investment.

Without public review, the Trust leadership and local elected officials amended the Hudson River Park Act in the closing hours of the 2013 legislative session. The amendments allowed new commercial uses, extended commercial leases, and miraculously “found” 3 million square feet of air rights from the public piers that could be transferred to enable higher density development inboard. 

While this provides one-shot capital funding it increases density in adjacent neighborhoods and creates more demands on the park. A park improvement district would provide long-term maintenance and operating funds without increasing density but wasn’t considered. 

A recent change in Trust leadership holds hope for the future. However, this year they again hired Weisbrod to analyze funding options to redevelop Pier 76 and recommended commercial development on half of the 5.5-acre pier. They continue to insist that the park must be self-sufficient. Securing funding from inboard properties was not considered yet the redeveloped Hudson Yards, Meatpacking District and Hudson Square contribute nothing to the park while they flood the park with employees and residents.

A unique partnership and power struggle between citizens, government, and private interests has created a magnificent waterfront park visited by 17 million people a year.

The last half century of cooperation and controversy has resulted in many successes; however, the government has starved the park for funding and encouraged private real estate development. The park is increasingly threatened by those who are determined to “save” it with development. 

The Hudson River Park Act has been amended five times in the last 25 years, but the city and state refuse to establish a secure long-term funding stream to protect it. Does it sound like a set up?

Parks make our city a more desirable place to live, work and visit, contribute to public health by providing free opportunities for exercise and relaxation, reducing municipal health care costs. Parks defer public infrastructure investments as they enhance air quality, reduce noise pollution and reduce street, property and highway flooding. Parks already pay for themselves.

Forty years ago, the park’s founders envisioned a unique public park that would celebrate and protect nature and provide public access to the majestic Hudson River.

As we celebrate Earth Day, it’s time to return to our original course. The city and state need to establish a park improvement district, focus on stewardship, increase public funding and return to meaningful community participation. Only an involved and informed citizenry, working with government agencies and elected officials, can make it happen.

Fox has been a park and open space activist and planner for 50 years. His first-person history “Creating the Hudson River Park: Environmental and Community Activism, Politics, and Greed” was published by Rutgers University Press on April 12.


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