We got the ball rolling; How Pr. 40 fight brought us Hudson River Park

Arthur Schwartz.

BY ARTHUR Z. SCHWARTZ | It may not be apparent now with Hudson River Park Friends holding its 20th anniversary fundraiser with a minimum price of $2,000 per ticket, and a Friends board made up almost entirely of very wealthy people — bankers, developers, commercial lawyers — that Hudson River Park had a very humble birth. It was born of volunteer parent activists, who brought nothing to the park but vision and determination, and a “we shall overcome” attitude.

Seems hard to imagine now, but the concept of building a Hudson River Park had far more opponents than proponents in the early 1990s. The park was an idea that grew out of the failed Westway plan, a $2 billion federally funded project that would have buried a highway under what is now West St., and built a park on top.

Having a new highway built on the west side of the Village and Chelsea was highly unpopular. An environmental lawyer named Al Butzel brought a lawsuit under the federal National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which succeeded in blocking the project because its environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., had some fudged numbers about striped bass.

Various plans were proposed that involved renovating the collapsing wooden piers and building a waterfront park. But these were opposed by Village activists who claimed that if built, the park would look like Battery Park City, with high-rise condos blocking the community from the waterfront. Most of the same environmental groups that had defeated Westway wanted a park, because they saw that the benefits are public interaction with the river, and because a park could be a vehicle to provide estuarial protection.

Butzel organized the Hudson River Park Alliance to push for legislation to create a park. He found support from Richard Gottfried, the Chelsea-Hells Kitchen assemblymember, and Franz Leichter, the Upper West Side state senator. Together they worked with Butzel to draft the Hudson River Park Act.

But Deborah Glick, the Greenwich Village-Soho assemblymember, was a steadfast opponent and leading naysayer. So, when the bill was introduced in 1997, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wouldn’t allow it onto the floor. Glick was a key ally of the now-convicted Assembly speaker right up to his demise. Community Board 2 wasn’t much better. C.B. 2 was staunchly anti-park, so much so that when the Hudson River bike path was proposed in 1995, the board voted “No” by a margin of 42 to 1. I was the only vote in favor.

Kids playing Little League baseball and youth soccer in the Village-Soho area had very little playing space. The only non-blacktop field was at J.J. Walker Park, and that was solid clay, with hills and holes, and susceptible to being a mud bath when it rained. I was on C.B. 2 and the Greenwich Village Little League board when I was elected Democratic district leader in 1995. Tobi Bergman, president of G.V.L.L., and Jeff Lydon, president of the Downtown United Soccer Club, and Mike Mirisola, a Bleecker St. merchant and Little League father, came to me shortly afterward in the spring of 1996 with a proposal to use the Pier 40 courtyard as a field. Both leagues pledged to raise $250,000 to build a field. They asked if we could set up a meeting with  Governor Pataki (the pier was under state control). So, on a day in late spring, we went to the governor’s office in Albany, and met with a staff lawyer named Rob Balachandran (who would later become president of the Hudson River Park Trust).

Rob loved our proposal, and without even checking said, “O.K., it’s yours if you can raise the funds.” The Pier Park and Playground Association a.k.a. P3 was created to help raise the funds. We did not dare tell C.B. 2, or else they and Deborah Glick would try to undercut us. But in the fall of 1996 we got word that the state, through a new entity called the Hudson River Park Conservancy, had leased Pier 40 out to a parking lot operator — the entire pier — for $4 million per year for four years. The whole pier. The lease was to take effect on a Wednesday.

That Monday a group of parents and kids went to the governor’s office at Third Ave. and 41st St., and kicked a soccer ball around the lobby, while we demanded to meet with Governor Pataki. Didn’t work. So the parent leaders looked at me and said, “You are a lawyer. Don’t we have a contract? Can’t you get an injunction?” I agreed to try. We had 36 hours.

I filed suit the next evening, at around 5 p.m., called the attorney general’s office, sent over a set of papers, and proceeded to set up a night session with the judge on duty, Alice Schlesinger. She saw us at 8 p.m. in her kitchen in the Gramercy Park area. We argued our “breach of contract” case for two hours. We said that once the lease commenced, we would never get a chance to effectuate our plan. The judge agreed and issued a T.R.O. (temporary restraining order).

The next day, I got a call from Al Butzel, asking about the case, and then asking if I had considered a claim under SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act. I said I didn’t even know what SEQRA was. So, Al came down to my office, and did a quick tutorial, and together we amended the lawsuit. An amazing litigator had joined our team, which now also included Tribeca civil-rights lawyer Dan Alterman.

Months of litigation followed, now in front of Justice Jane Solomon. Turned out (as Al had guessed) the Hudson River Park Conservancy had never even done an environmental assessment (E.A.), a key requirement of SEQRA. In the summer of 1997, Judge Solomon warned the Park Conservancy that she was likely to throw out altogether the $14 million contract for the pier’s master lease. Soon afterward, we got a call. It was from James Ortenzio, the Conservancy’s president and chairperson of the New York Republican Party. The governor wanted to make a deal.

Through the fall we met numerous times at the governor’s office, and hammered out a deal, which included the leaseholders — Meir Cohen and Ben Korman. We would get a field on the roof, and an indoor field. P3 would get an indoor batting and practice area, and funding to run programs, and, the biggest part — the state would foot the bill, a cost of more than $2 million. The governor and I announced the plan to a huge press event on Pier 40 on a cold day on Dec., 23, 1997. He remarked that I was the most cooperative Democrat he had worked with all year. The Times reported it like this:

“Proponents of the athletic sites, to be used mainly by children on Manhattan’s West Side, had long envisioned the Pier 40 venture to be an important first step in the revitalization of the riverfront. But they had been at odds with the state, which owns the pier and had planned to continue using it entirely as a parking garage for the next four years.

“ ‘This is a small step, but it sets an important precedent,’ said Arthur Schwartz, a Manhattan lawyer who represented a coalition of parents’ groups, environmentalists and Greenwich Village advocates who had sued to block the state’s plan for parking, and to secure part of the pier for recreation.

“ ‘This is the first time that a commercial space on the waterfront is being converted to parkland,’ Mr. Schwartz said, ‘and once it begins drawing people out there, they are not going to be inclined to give it up.’ ”

Pier 40, the 14-acre former shipping pier at W. Houston St., has become a sacred cow for Downtown families ever since its gigantic courtyard was transformed into playing-field space about 15 years ago. But getting to that point required a small group of activists and attorneys to play hardball with the state in order to keep the courtyard from continuing to be used for bus and truck parking. Photo by Sydney Pereira

Parents were ecstatic. We were going to get a new waterfront field, in time for the 1998 youth soccer season. Tobi and I became active participants in Al Butzel’s Hudson River Park Alliance, actually incorporating a group called Friends of Hudson River Park.

In June 1998, the Gottfried-Leichter Bill once again made it through committee in Albany. We had a new C.B. 2 chairperson, who was not anti-park, Alan Gerson (later to be elected to the City Council). Alan knew that there was a growing constituency for a park, and he asked Speaker Silver to allow the bill to go for a vote if it was approved by C.B. 2. Silver agreed.

There followed one of the wildest C.B. 2 meetings ever: 500 people in the old St. Vincent’s 11th-floor auditorium, hundreds of them kids in their baseball and soccer uniforms. Speaker after speaker implored C.B. 2 to support the bill. An anti-park person called the Fire Department, which made some people leave the room. But we got to vote. By a 10-vote margin the resolution to support the legislation passed. Gerson called up Silver on my cell phone, and told him the C.B. 2 vote.

It was the last night of the legislative session, and somewhere around midnight, the bill passed the Assembly and then the Senate. Deborah Glick voted “No.” In September, Governor Pataki signed the bill, and made a funding deal with Mayor Rudy Giuliani (whose representatives on the Conservancy board had voted against the Little League Pier 40 deal.)

The next day, Governor Pataki kicked out the first soccer ball at the ribbon-cutting on the rooftop field. Hundreds of kids and parents trekked up to the roof of Pier 40 for soccer games and then Little League games. A park constituency was born.

The Hudson River Park Alliance folded its tent. We in the Village handed over our organizational incorporation to Butzel, and Friends of Hudson River Park was born.

Nothing thereafter was linear. Because federal money was involved, at Glick’s urging, Congressmember Jerry Nadler demanded that a federal E.I.S. be done for the park. That slowed the park down two years. Construction of the Village segment, the park’s first section to be built, began in early 2001. By spring 2003, it had opened. Under the act, parking uses in the Pier 40 courtyard had to end by 2003. When no new plan for Pier 40 was agreed on, we filed suit again. This time, the Trust folded without litigation. Artificial-turf fields were built in the Pier 40 courtyard, making it one of the largest athletic facilities in New York City outside of a major park, like Central Park.

Activist participation in the Friends board peaked around 2006, when Governor Eliot Spitzer appointed Emperor Michael Bloomberg’s multimillionaire consort, Diana Taylor, as president of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board. Friends had sued to get the Department of Sanitation off the Gansevoort Peninsula, to get a restaurant off the 23rd St. park space, and to stop helicopter tours. But Taylor wanted the activists off the Friends board; if that plan was refused, she threatened  to start her own 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The purge began, and Friends became a place for wealthy people to act like they are helping grow a park.

The park remains an amazing place, even though it is not completed. Pier 40 is a mecca. But in the 20th anniversary celebration, one would think that Friends, and the Park Trust, were conceived by some wealthy benefactors, and that what exists at Pier 40 today was part of the park plan.

Just ain’t so.

Schwartz is male Democratic district leader for Greenwich Village; president, Advocates for Justice, a public-interest legal foundation; former chairperson, C.B. 2 Waterfront and Parks Committee, for most of the period between 1998 and 2014; and former board member, Friends of Hudson River Park, from 1999 to 2009.

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