After all the hurdles, the finish line is in sight

Madelyn Wils is the head of the staff at the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that is building and operates the 4-mile-long waterfront park. Photo courtesy H.R.P.T.

BY MADELYN WILS | Since its founding 20 years ago, Hudson River Park’s positive impact on the lives of New Yorkers has been significant and wide-ranging: from a child examining plankton during one of our free estuary lab classes to the more than $10 billion invested along Manhattan’s far West Side.

Sunbathers, soccer players, joggers, diners, nature enthusiasts, boaters and those fledgling scientists now consider the 4-mile park an integral part of their life. Last year alone, we had 17 million visits. It’s hard to imagine that just two decades ago, our waterfront was closed off to New Yorkers.

Getting to this point required — and still requires — the vision of many, including local politicians, the state and city, our board of directors at the Hudson River Park Trust, and perhaps most critically, our community partners — from Community Boards 1, 2 and 4, our Hudson River Park Advisory Council and Hudson River Park Friends, to groups representing dog owners, playgrounds, ballplayers, gardeners and kayakers and many more along the park. It is thanks to those partners that we’ve gotten so much done on the park while overcoming a number of hurdles along the way.

I remember first-hand the importance of bringing the community together from my three years as co-chairperson on the Hudson River Park Conservancy’s Advisory Board from 1995 to 1998. (The Conservancy was the predecessor to the Trust.) At that time, many parties had to come together to realize that a waterfront park could really be achieved and provide an amenity for all.

Looking back, the park’s funding blueprint did not anticipate the financial challenges of maintaining a park that was mostly built in the water with aging infrastructure. In order to make that model work, we’ve needed to be innovative about how we raise the money needed to keep the park running smoothly and looking beautiful.

Aside from leases and permits with tenants ranging from Chelsea Piers and the Intrepid to Classic Car Club and Grand Banks — an oyster bar on a historic wooden schooner — we’ve worked side by side with the community to advocate for other creative ways of funding our build-out and operations. One of those is through the sale of unused development rights from the park’s commercial piers; leadership from our community partners, together with our local politicians, helped us successfully advocate for and secure the 2013 amendment to the Hudson River Park Act that now allows us to tap that potential funding source.

Without that innovation and the community’s willingness to make hard choices in support of a broader goal, we would not be able to say that we have begun work on $100 million in critical repairs to Pier 40’s decaying steel piles. We are currently moving through the public review process of a second potential air-rights sale that that will result in nearly $50 million more to advance construction of new park areas in Chelsea and Clinton, as well as funds to maintain infrastructure. These upgrades wouldn’t be possible without the broad community support for the air-rights sales that will make them possible.

This innovative mix of funding has made a tangible difference for everyone using the park. Over the past six years we’ve been able to increase revenue from a wider range of sources. For parkgoers, that increased revenue has meant cleaner bathrooms and park grounds, lusher landscaping and many more flowers, as well as repairs on important park features, like playgrounds and docks when needed. We have also been able to expand our programs and become leaders in environmental education and research focusing on the Hudson River.

As for capital funding — the money that helps us finish building the park — the state and city recently announced a combined $100 million, and we’ve identified potential sources for all but about $40 million needed to finish the park. That means in the coming years, the park’s northern section will see significant progress on projects like completing Pier 97, Gansevoort Peninsula and the “upland” park area near the current W. 30th St. Heliport.

At the same time, we are already moving full-steam ahead on some of our other signature projects, all slated to open in 2020: Piers 26, 55 and 57. With its lawn and forest area, a sturgeon-themed playground, an “ecological get-down” to be used for educational purposes during low tide (the only space of its kind in the city) and, finally, sports areas, Pier 26, in Tribeca, will meet a number of community needs. To the north, Pier55, a spectacular landscaped public park pier in the Village that will also include intimate performing-arts spaces, is now under construction. Finally, a redeveloped Pier 57 is expected to open. Aside from office and retail space, that Chelsea project will feature significant additions of public park space: a large park on its rooftop with spectacular views, and a public esplanade along its perimeter. These three projects are significant Trust undertakings and had broad support from our community partners, including all three local community boards. Clearly, 2020 will be a banner year for the park.

In short, for the first time in 20 years, after all the hurdles, we can see the finish line. Through all the challenges, really just one major hurdle remains: making sure Pier 40 remains a significant source of operating revenue for the entire park while providing ball fields and park amenities. We expect to continue working with the community and the local politicians who serve it on a long-term plan for Pier 40 that balances financial self-sufficiency with equally important community goals.

Getting the future of Pier 40 right is critical for the entire park’s long-term sustainability, and for our neighbors who depend on this W. Houston St. pier as a resource.

After 20 years of momentum and progress, the park is more beloved than ever. Now, over the next several years, we’ll take the final steps to deliver the completed park that our millions of users deserve — and that so many of our friends in the community helped make possible.

Wils is president and C.E.O., Hudson River Park Trust

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