- Real Estate
- Under Cover
- Special Editorial
- In Pictures
BY COLIN MIXSON
Locals worried last year, when the longtime operator of Battery Park City’s North Cove Marina was ousted in favor of two large, politically connected corporations, that the local sailboat docks would lose their community feel.
And judging by the experience of the owners of two historic sailboats long docked at the marina, it appears those fears have been realized.
The two nearly century-old vessels, the Shearwater and Ventura, and their owners have faced the swift and unforeseen consequences of the abrupt change in management soon after the Battery Park City Authority — whose board is controlled by Gov. Cuomo — handed control of the marina to Brookfield Properties and subcontractor Island Global Yachting — two companies with close ties to the governor.
Local leaders fear that the pricing and policy changes imposed by the new operators aim to drive out these cherished, floating landmarks and turn the publicly owned marina from a community amenity into an exclusive dock for the mega yachts of the very rich.
“Having those historic ships that offer access to the water and the harbor at affordable prices is absolutely within the mission and the spirit of the North Cove Marina,” said Anthony Notaro, chairman of Community Board 1’s Battery Park City Committee. “Locking it up and using it as an expensive dock for super yachts is
absolutely not what this community wants, nor was it the intent of that marina.”
The hardship set in for Tom Berton and Patrick “Captain Pat” Harris, who command the Shearwater and Ventura respectively, immediately after the contract to manage North Cove Marina changed hands from former operator Commodore Michael Fortenbaugh to Brookfield and IGY early last year.
The first effect was a steep increase in their docking fees. Docking at North Cove now costs them twice as much as before the handover, forcing both of them to shave two months off their sailing season, during which they offer locals and tourists cruises up and down the Hudson and out into the bay.
And since the boat owners can only broker leases in yearly increments, there’s nothing to prevent Brookfield and the BPCA from charging even higher fees in the coming years, according to Harris.
“This management company raised my rent 100 percent, just like that, and there are no controls that prevent them from doing the same thing next year,” he said.
Worse yet, the rent hike came with new restrictions on the boats’ operations.
Not long after the takeover, IGY employees suddenly demanded that Berton and Harris clear out their brochure stands and the signage directing patrons to the vessels, citing BPCA rules requiring boat owners to seek permission before putting up signage. But Fortenbaugh had always granted that permission with little fuss, Berton said, and IGY had initially said the signage was fine. Berton said they never got any explanation of why the permission was revoked without warning, why all of their subsequent applications to repost their signage have been denied, or what they could do to make their signage acceptable.
The sudden move left the captains scratching their head as to what benefit the lack of signage provides the new operators — but they know it certainly doesn’t do the boats’ patrons any good. Berton says he has accidently left customers stranded on the docks because they couldn’t find his classic schooner in time for cast off.
“People sailing with us because it’s a special occasion, and it’s so disheartening to leave someone on the dock who saved up their money for 10 years and this is the thing they were looking forward to most, to sail out to the Statue of Liberty on a beautiful old schooner, and they got lost,” said Berton. “The stories continue and they’re heartbreaking.”
Another new restriction scuttling their boat business is stricter enforcement of the marina’s hours of operation.
In previous years, the North Cove was host to several party boats, whose boisterous clientele would disembark in the wee hours, causing a racket and disturbing locals. Aiming to stem the rising tide of complaints from BPC residents, the BPCA imposed a policy years ago forbidding vessels from sailing in or out after midnight and before 8 a.m.
But under Fortenbaugh, that restriction wasn’t applied to the Shearwater or Venutra, according to Berton, because the commodore knew their boats’ late night and early morning cruises generally catered to hobbyist astronomers, weddings, and worshippers willing to book passage for sun-rise prayer services — a far cry from the liquor-fueled booze-cruises the regulation was intended to limit.
“We’re understandable. We don’t want party boats coming back with music banging, but we’re not that,” Berton said. “So there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.”
The hours of operation have since been relaxed, with arrivals or departures permitted before 1 a.m. and after 6 a.m., but the party boats have all fled, leaving only the Shearwater, the Venutra, and their decidedly non-rowdy patrons still subject to the rigid policy.
Harris, along with many others in the community who were outraged by Fortenbaugh’s ouster, see the new policies and rent hikes as part of a wider, more sinister agenda of evicting anything at the marina that’s not a mega yacht for the benefit of Cuomo’s campaign donors.
Brookfield and its various subsidiaries donated more than $170,000 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign in 2014, the year before the governor’s hand-picked board awarded the marina contract to the property developer. Andrew Farkas, founder of Island Global Yachting, was also a top fund-raiser for the governor, and his company has a reputation for favoring mega yachts at the marinas it manages.
“Brookfield is draconian and they don’t give a damn,” Harris said. “They would probably like to fill that marina up with mega yachts.”
Berton, however, sees no malice in the heavy-handed enforcement — only a new operator trying to tow the line, afraid to be seen as defying the authority.
“I don’t see anybody in the direct management of the marina that’s trying to harm me,” said the captain of the Shearwater. “They’re just unwilling to jeopardize their contract by doing something that angers the authority.”
Berton also pointed out that attempts to fill the marina with mega yachts is nothing new. Mega yachts are a lucrative source of revenue for the marina, and Fortenbaugh was just as eager to fill out a vacant dock space with one luxury cruiser or another.
But Butron said that difference was that Fortenbaugh recognized the difference between the sailing ships and the hated party boats, and understood the value of hosting historic sailboats at the marina, and so spared them the heavy-handed policing intended to fend off the booze-cruise menace.
“[Fortenbaugh] wasn’t going to kick the two of us out,” said Berton. “He wanted the super yachts, and we had to move out of his way when someone fancy was coming in — he’s a business man, and he’s driven — but at the same time, he new that we mattered to the community, and he didn’t want to do anything to us, because it wasn’t going to help him.”
Berton and Harris came to a recent meeting of Community Board 1’s Battery Park City Committee to plead their case, and requested a resolution, essentially reassuring the BPCA that locals won’t jump down the authority’s neck if it allows signage and late-night stargazing cruises.
“I’m trying to prove to the board and the BPCA that, in fact, we have community support,” said Berton. “The truth is, you need to catch the tide when you need to catch the tide, or you need to get a wedding at sunrise, and the community has no opposition to it, so what would the opposition be?”
The committee voted to support the vessels, and, in return, the BPCA has pledged to look into the concerns expressed by Berton, Harris, and the community, according to an authority spokesman.
“We value the Battery Park City Committee’s input, are mindful of specific issues regarding the Shearwater and Ventura, and are actively working with Brookfield and IGY to review these concerns in full,” the spokesman said.
The Shearwater and Ventura are steeped in New York City history and lore. The Ventura, the older of the pair, is a 70-foot wooden schooner commissioned in 1919 by George Fisher Baker, the founder of the country’s first national bank — we call it Citigroup these days — as his personal pleasure yacht. He frequently sailed out into Long Island Sound on duck-hunting expeditions with wealthy New York City industrialists, and at least one famed American author. F. Scott Fitzgerald is thought to have made mention of the craft — and Baker’s daughter, Daisy — in his chef d’oeuvre, “The Great Gatsby.”
The Shearwater is an 82-foot Newport-style schooner that first touched water in 1929. Originally the property of NYC magnate Charles E. Dunlap, the Shearwater has seen various uses over the past century, including as part of a US Coast Guard picket patrolling domestic shorelines during the Second World War, and as a floating test lab for the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Environmental Medicine.
The vessels themselves are precious and irreplaceable, and their origins are acutely intertwined. The Ventura was designed by famed naval architect Nathanael G. Herreshoff, and exists as one of the few remaining products of his flare for marine engineering that’s still fit to sail. Herreshoff’s partner Theodore Donald Wells designed the Shearwater.
More recently, both captains assisted with the evacuation of Downtown following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with Berton shuttling survivors off the island on a dingy, while Harris piloted the Ventura itself, ushering terrified community members and commuters onto his deck and whisking away from the carnage and debris.
The mega yachts docked at the marina, on the other hand, didn’t lift a finger — or a sail — according to Harris.
“On 9/11 and during the northeast blackout, I was taking people out, and not one of those mega yachts moved unless to beat feat out of there,” said Harris. “They never lifted a finger.”