Park Trust must do much better on transparency

A slide from a presentation that the Hudson River Park Trust and RXR Realty gave to Community Board 4 this March about the new “modified plan” for Pier 57, showing an area of the W. 17th St. pier to be dubbed the “Grand Public Promenade.” RXR subsequently made this image and another one available to The Villager, though, at this point, the entire modified Pier 57 plan is still not publicly viewable anywhere. At some point, the Trust plans to hold a so-called “Significant Action Hearing” for the project, at which the public will be able to view and react to the plan. Courtesy RXR Realty

BY TOM FOX | I stand corrected by a recent letter to the editor in The Villager from officials representing Community Board 4 (“C.B. 4 on Pr. 57: ‘Google it!’” by Burt Lazarin and Lowell Kern, April 5).

I appreciate and respect that C.B. 4 “takes its responsibility to hold public and transparent meetings seriously and welcomes all community stakeholders to attend and advocate their concerns.” However, it wasn’t the community board’s actions that I was questioning. My concern was how the Hudson River Park Trust is exercising its responsibility to ensure meaningful public participation in the development and programming of the park.

Apparently, the Trust and RXR Realty did present a PowerPoint of the plans for Google’s newest expansion at Pier 57 to C.B. 4 at a regularly scheduled meeting of their Waterfront, Park and Environmental Committee. But unless you were on the C.B. 4 mailing list, you would have no idea that the meeting was taking place. The Trust didn’t announce the meeting to the general public and is not making the plans presented at the meeting available for the broader public to review. Why would that be?

It appears that the Trust is limiting participation in park planning to the immediately effected community boards. Earlier this month, the Trust failed to broadly advertise a meeting regarding the design of another pier — Pier 97 — at the C.B. 4 Waterfront, Park and Environmental Committee. Shouldn’t someone living at the southern end of Community Board 7 — say, at W. 60th St. and 11th Ave. — be given the opportunity to participate in the planning for Pier 97, just three blocks from their home on W. 57th St.? Why would an opportunity to review plans for Pier 97 and participate in planning be limited to members of the adjacent community board, some of whom live up to 3 miles away on Sixth Ave. and W. 15th St.?

The selective distribution of information Balkanizes decision-making, allows the Trust to play one organization or interest group off against another and gives the Trust greater control of public participation.

Pier 97 is one of the three piers in the park designated for the docking of historic vessels and interpretation of the West Side’s rich maritime history. However, the maritime and historic preservation community was not invited to view the Trust’s presentation at C.B. 4 to ensure the pier’s design accommodates one of its primary purposes. Pier 97’s structure was built to support the berthing of historic ships — but how about fendering systems, chocks, cleats, bollards, dolphins and other support systems that historic vessels will need? How will the new design support not only the ships but historic interpretation while maximizing public access to the moored vessels?

Limiting the distribution of information about Trust meetings and / or agendas prior to the meetings doesn’t help, either. The Trust’s board of directors meetings are generally not well attended by the public. One reason may be that the Trust doesn’t announce board meetings well in advance or provide an agenda for public review prior to the meetings. Citizens rarely take the time to attend meetings when they have no idea what will, or won’t, be discussed. After the fact, Trust board agendas and minutes are provided on the Trust’s Web site.

The Trust should send information about the schedule and content of public hearings, board meetings, Advisory Council meetings and changes that the Trust proposes making to development projects and / or legislation to their public mailing list. Currently, the public is forced to search for that information or get on multiple mailing lists. Yet, information is widely broadcast about educational, recreational and cultural programs and fundraising events in the park.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to the Hudson River Park’s 20th Anniversary Gala from the Hudson River Park Friends in both electronic and snail-mail format. That event is five months from now, on Oct. 11.  While I am not expecting that type of advanced notice, I can’t understand why the Trust can’t notify the public about all of the meetings that affect the future of the park in a timely fashion, whether they are at the Trust, community boards, City Planning Department or any other agency?

The C.B. 4 letter I referred to above mentioned that a similar PowerPoint presentation was given to the park’s Advisory Council. Yet, I’ve spoken to Advisory Council members who say that they only occasionally receive information about topics that will be discussed prior to their meetings. For example, at the recent Advisory Council meeting, members had no idea that the majority of the meeting would be dedicated to Trust and Google staff members describing their planned changes at Pier 57. After the presentation, no copies of the plan were provided for Advisory Council members to reference or review.

Advisory Council members are appointed to “advise” the Trust. That’s much more difficult if you have no idea what will be discussed at a meeting unless, and until, you arrive. Meeting notes, not minutes, are occasionally distributed after the Advisory Council meetings — but not always. Therefore, Advisory Council members who cannot attend meetings may have no idea what was discussed — and neither does the public.

What are the Advisory Council’s recommendations to the Trust on major issues affecting the park, and who sits on the Advisory Council? Well, there is no information on the Trust’s Web site about Advisory Council recommendations or membership and what organizations, or interests, existing members may represent. It simply states states, “Members must reside in New York State and represent local community, park, environmental, civic, labor and business organizations, as well as elected officials representing communities neighboring the park.”

Besides omitting information from its Web site, another technique that thwarts public participation is that the Trust seems to be failing even to keep the Web site up to date. More than two months ago, I wrote in this newspaper that the Trust had a five-year-old description of the planned redevelopment of Pier 57 posted on its Web site: It stated that Pier 57 was being developed by Young Woo & Associates with 300,000 square feet of “creative commercial space,” including a large public market. Yet, as we know, Pier 57 will now be developed as a 300,000-square-foot commercial office building for Google, and Google will control 50,000 square feet of so-called “public facing” space. I’m glad to report that the Trust finally recently updated its Web site to more accurately reflect its current plans at Pier 57. Yet, the new description still fails to mention that the Trust amended the Hudson River Park Act in 2013 to allow commercial offices in the park.

Earlier this month, though, I followed a link in an article in Chelsea Now (The Villager’s sister paper) about Pier 97. It brought me to the section of the Trust’s Web site regarding “Education and Environment,” where the page dedicated to historic vessels lists two of them being docked at Pier 25, one of which was Tug Pegasus. However, Tug Pegasus has not been at Pier 25, nor anywhere in the park, for three years.

Yet, another section of the authority’s Web site entitled “Explore the Park” states that four historic vessels are docked at various locations in the park but Tug Pegasus is not mentioned as being one of them. Consistency is important, especially since the Web site is a major portal for public access to information and activities in the park.

The Hudson River Park is a public park.  It’s a park for all interested New Yorkers to enjoy and participate in planning and protecting, not just individuals and organizations deemed acceptable to the Trust. Meaningful public participation will be critical in garnering broad-based support for important decisions regarding the completion of this magnificent public asset.

The Trust could do a better job encouraging public participation and ensuring the transparency that the agency was initially established to provide. Public participation created the Hudson River Park, and that process should be respected and embraced to support the park’s completion. The Trust has a long tradition of public participation in the planning and design of the park. Returning to those roots would benefit the Trust, the park and the public.

While I respect that C.B. 4 takes its responsibility to hold public and transparent meetings seriously and welcomes all community stakeholders to attend and advocate their concerns, it would be great if the Trust would follow the community board’s example. The Trust has a greater responsibility to ensure that all stakeholders, no matter where they reside, have an opportunity to contribute their time, energy and talent to the completion of the park.

Fox was a citizen appointee to the West Side Task Force in 1986, and the West Side Waterfront Panel from 1988-90; the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy (which completed the park’s General Project Plan) from 1992-95; a member of the Hudson River Park Alliance (which supported the park’s founding legislation) from 1996-98; a founding board member of Friends of Hudson River Park from 1999-2011, and, more recently, a plaintiff in The City Club of New York’s lawsuit against the park’s Pier55 project.

One Response to Park Trust must do much better on transparency

  1. Who is, or will, be monitoring the new security cameras and what will they do with that data? How do they secure that surveillance data?

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