Issue of the Week

The History of Hudson River Park

For the first half of this century, the West Side waterfront was the site of a vibrant maritime commerce, with great ships loaded with freight and passengers frequenting the 50-odd piers that lined the Hudson River south of 59th Street. By 1970, however, this commerce had all but disappeared, and the waterfront edge was deteriorating rapidly. The question was what to do -- how to make this waterfront serve the City again.

Westway Battle

The State and the City initiated efforts to redevelop the waterfront in 1972, when the old West Side Highway collapsed and commercial shipping was dead. In 1975, the Westway Project, which would have tunneled an interstate highway through 200 acres of landfill in the Hudson, was proposed as a solution. Following vehement opposition, Westway was abandoned in 1985, due it part to its damaging impact on critical fisheries habitat. $1.3 billion of available highway funds was used instead for improving the City's public transit system, and the State and City began planning for an alternative roadway and park -- a process that dragged on for years. Eventually, construction began on the alternative roadway, but the park was left in doubt.

State/City Agreement Creates Hudson River Park Conservancy

In 1992, the State and City signed a memo of understanding pursuant to which they each agreed to contribute $100 million towards the construction costs of the Park. The MOU also created a new entity, the Hudson River Park Conservancy, to design and build the Park, but no legislation was passed to give HRPC these powers.

By 1995, HRPC finalized a Concept Plan for the Park, but the State did not authorize its release, nor did it commit its money. A few months later, the City, losing interest, withdrew four piers from the Park. It also began to draw plans for new sanitation facilities on piers that were to be park sites under the Concept Plan, while the State started leasing portions of the Park it controlled for restaurants and other commercial uses. The Park, lacking political backing, was in danger of being lost altogether.

Hudson River Park Alliance Gains Commitments of Governor and Mayor

The Alliance was formed by environmental and civic leaders in 1996 because the Park was disappearing due to the inaction of the State and City. Largely through its efforts, the Concept Plan was released in May 1996. The Alliance then began to meet with State officials, and in April 1997, Governor Pataki (with Alliance members at his side) publicly endorsed the Park and committed the State's $100 million. The Governor also agreed to end the lease of park areas for incompatible uses. In January 1998, in his inaugural address, Mayor Giuliani also pledged his support for the Park. A few months later, the Governor and the Mayor included preliminary construction funding for the Park in their proposed budgets. Still, the Park continued to lack definition. No legal protections were in place for parkland or the interpier habitat, and there was still no legally-empowered body with the specific mission of building and operating the Park.

Hudson River Park Act Establishes Park and Legal Protections

Believing that meaningful park and habitat protections could only be achieved through legislation, the Alliance began to formulate a Hudson River Park Act shortly after it was organized. In 1998, working with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and Senator Franz Leichter, the Alliance helped develop a draft bill that was circulated among the West Side communities and other elected officials. Comprehensive legislation was introduced in the State Legislature in April 1998. Over the next two months, the Alliance helped secure support for the bill from the Governor, the Mayor and the State Legislature. On June 19, 1998, the Hudson River Park Act was passed by the Legislature, and on September 8, 1998, the Governor signed it into law.

The Hudson River Park Act legislates essential park and habitat protections and ends the threat of expanding commercialization of the waterfront. Specifically, it (1) identifies 16 piers that can be used only for park purposes, and requires that at least half of Piers 40 and 76 be park open space; (2) requires the City to remove municipal uses from half the Gansevoort Peninsula and all of Pier 97 by 2003, after which these areas will become park open space; (3) prohibits residential, manufacturing, warehousing, office, hotel and gambling uses anywhere within the Park; (4) confines commercial uses to four discrete areas on the waterfront, foreclosing commercial operations at all other locations; (5) creates a Hudson River Park Estuarine Sanctuary within which further landfilling and platforming are prohibited; (6) captures all revenues generated in the Park for Park operations and maintenance, providing an assured source of funding for the Park; and (7) establishes an independent Hudson River Park Trust, with 13 directors, to plan, build and operate the Park.

Critical Challenges Remain

Important as it is, the Hudson River Park Act makes the Park real only on paper. Much remains to be done if the Park is to be made real on the ground. At this outset, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must be pressed to act promptly on the permit which is required to reconstruct the derelict piers -- a permit that has been pending for over 16 months without action due primarily to the opposition of a small group of vocal Village opponents. Second, the Trust must be pressed to move ahead promptly with design work and contracting; in the 13 months since the Park Act was signed, there has been little forward movement by the Trust. Over the longer term, and of critical importance, the funding for the Park must be buoyed up. To date, the State and City commitments are $220 million, while the total price tag for the Park is at least $350 million, so additional sources of funding must be found. Furthermore, even the committed funds need to be appropriated by the City and State in a timely fashion. We must be vigilant in making certain that this occurs. (Approximately $100 million has been appropriated so far, which is a good start.) Beyond the funding concerns, much needs to be done to ensure that the land use restrictions contained in the Act are carried out on the ground -- for example, removing the City sanitation uses from the Gansevoort Peninsula and relocating the Manhattan tow point of Pier 76 to make way for park open space.

History tells us that no great park in our City has ever been realized without strong and continuing citizen advocacy on its behalf. This is the challenge of the Alliance, which was formed both to reflect and to marshal broad public support for the Park. Our goal is to continue that effort and, finally, to make the Hudson River waterfront accessible and available to all New Yorkers.