Issue of the Week

Hudson River Park Held Hostage

By Albert K. Butzel

Go to Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, Savannah, Knoxville. These city waterfronts have already been recaptured or are in process of being renewed. Here are public spaces -- parks, such as those in Chicago, that take the breath away and make one say, "This is a fabulous city. This is a place I want to be and see."

Now walk around the edges of Manhattan. South Street Seaport, in its isolation, has little to do with sea or port. Battery Park City has fabulous vistas, but is oddly removed from the water. And Riverside Park, lovely in itself, is turned inwards -- you see the Hudson but are kept at bay by the highway. Otherwise, there are narrow strips here and there, mainly used for running or occasional muggings -- not places we like to go much.

It need not be so. After 100 years of commerce that walled us off from the water, we have the chance to create a great waterfront on the West Side south of 59th Street. On the maps the State and City have published -- and in legislation they have passed -- it is called Hudson River Park. Running for four and half miles, it seems a thin strip on paper. But walk down to the Hudson and you will understand how much more there is, and could be.

The old piers, some a thousand feet long, stretch far into the River, offering access that can only be understood by strolling to the end. To the south, the Statue of Liberty; up north, the George Washington Bridge. And those ships you can almost touch -- that tug moving the barge towards Albany, that sloop coming about as it struggles against the wind -- remind us of our history as a great city of water.

It is all within our grasp: an esplanade running along the water and a parallel bikepath; larger park areas in the Village, Chelsea and Clinton; and 13 piers for the public to use: to walk or lounge or picnic on, listen to a concert, swim, visit an environmental center, take a ride on a sailboat, or simply come together.

It is within our grasp -- and yet still so far away.

The Hudson River Park Alliance, a coalition of 30 major environmental, civic and community organizations, has worked for almost three years to make the Park real. We have gained the support of the Governor and the Mayor. In 1998, the New York State Legislature voiced its support by passing the Hudson River Park Act establishing the Park legally and safeguarding the water habitat as the Hudson River Park Estuarine Sanctuary, within which all filling and platforming are prohibited. We have also gained the support of the City Council, which adjusted the zoning law to allow the Park. We have helped secure funding -- $100 million has been appropriated, although little has yet been spent.

Why not? What are we waiting for?

To begin with, a small but vocal opposition -- people who do not want a public park in their backyards -- have slowed the project and want to kill it. They say they want a simpler park, but they want no Park at all. They opposed the Park before Governor, Mayor and Legislature, trying to defeat the Hudson River Park Act -- despite the fact that it safeguards the park areas they claim are threatened by commercialization and protects the water habitat they claim is threatened by development.

Now, these same opponents also object to the last required permit for the park, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would allow conversion of some of the old piers to park areas open to all. These are the centerpieces of the new Park -- open spaces that would allow adults and children alike to play, to gain access to the Hudson, to put in kayaks, to board historic ships, to take boat rides on the River, to fish, maybe even to swim. And all that is being proposed is to rebuild the old piers where they have been for the last 100 years. The proposal is not to fill nor to dredge, nor to build more piers or expand the coverage of those that exist. On the contrary, under the Park plan, the areas of open water habitat will be increased, responding to concerns previously expressed by Federal agencies.

Yet the opposition continues. The inaccurate claims, the parade of fabricated horrors, the desire to preserve the status quo and continue to deny New Yorkers the great waterfront so many other cities realized long ago. And the Corps of Engineers goes slowly and treads carefully. But as we are forced to wait, the infrastructure that might be saved deteriorates further, costs increase and uncertainty breeds doubt. This Park, which has advanced so far, can still be lost on the ground.

The Alliance, joined now by the new Friends of Hudson River Park, will continue to work to see that this does not happen. We will work to see that the Park gets built. We invite New Yorkers to join us in this endeavor. We invite New Yorkers to help us grasp this chance.

Al Butzel is the Chair of the Hudson River Park Alliance. If you wish to help, please contact: Albert K. Butzel, Chair, 1125 Park Ave, New York, NY 10128 Tel: (212) 831-9146 Fax: (212) 831-4870 E-mail: abutzel@banet.net.