Tribeca’s boathouse on Hudson Park’s chopping block
By Josh Rogers
The governor has paddled his kayak down the Hudson to Pier 26’s Downtown Boathouse and has said a new boathouse will be his favorite part of the Tribeca section of the riverside park, but citizen George Pataki could have no place to park his vessel when the pier is rebuilt in three years.
Cost estimates for the Hudson River Park’s Tribeca section have soared by 36 percent and more money is needed to build the three structures planned for Pier 26 near N. Moore St. a boathouse, river study center and a restaurant.
The study center, known as an estuarium, got a boost last week when the Port Authority’s board granted the Hudson River Park Trust $10 million to build it, although that may not be enough to build the exterior and certainly will not be enough for the interior labs and public education facilities.
Connie Fishman, the Trust’s president, told Community Board 1 members Tuesday that the Trust has no money for the boathouse or the restaurant.
“This is the first I heard we didn’t have money to build it,” a surprised Jim Wetteroth, founder of the Downtown Boathouse, said at C.B. 1’s Waterfront Committee meeting.
Wetteroth was further alarmed because Fishman is proceeding with plans to select an organization to run the estuarium, but has put off the search for the boathouse operator for a year.
“It’s the last thing on your agenda, which means it’s the first to fall off,” Wetteroth told Fishman.
Fishman said park construction costs are rising about 13 percent a year and the Tribeca section price tag has gone from $70 million to $95 million. The Trust has $70 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. for the Tribeca section and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler secured an additional $5 million earmarked to the park segment. The $10 million from the Port would put the Trust within $10 million of its new goal, but cost estimates could continue to rise as more detailed plans emerge.
Plans for the Tribeca section have been on the drawing board for over a decade, but neither the Trust, Gov. Pataki, Mayor Giuliani or Mayor Bloomberg had figured out a way to pay for it. In 2002, the Trust asked the L.M.D.C., a newly-created agency flush with post-9/11 funds, for money to build the Downtown section of the park.
The park does have a connection to 9/11, although that is not a requirement to receive L.M.D.C. money. The tons of material collected at the World Trade Center site were trucked to Tribeca’s Pier 25, before it was shipped to Fresh Kills in Staten Island. The pier was closed to the public during the W.T.C. cleanup operation.
The Trust’s application for park money had the support of C.B. 1 and most local politicians, but the application took three years to approve because the mayor and governor were negotiating over how best to spend the L.M.D.C.’s last $800 million. The mayor and governor share control of both the development corporation and the Trust, which did not receive the money for the park until this year.
In July, Dep. Mayor Dan Doctoroff, joked about holding up funding for the park during a Pier 25 event celebrating the start of construction. “We all knew all along the money was in the bag we just didn’t want to tell you too soon,” Doctoroff told the crowd sitting on the pier.
At the same event, Pataki said the boathouse and beach volleyball courts are his favorite parts of the Tribeca plan.
Closed river center meetings
The Trust has been working with the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries and SUNY-Stony Brook on a plan to develop the estuarium, which will study river marine life and have a public education center, labs and a place for at least two boats to dock.
Pile-driving work rebuilding Pier 26 is to begin this spring and Fishman said there is an advantage to picking an operator soon because it will make it easier to build the pier if you already know the details of the estuarium plan. “The longer we go without knowing what it’ll be, the more disruptive it will be afterwards to get something built,” she said.
She said there is no deadline yet for picking an operator. The pier is expected to reopen by the end of 2009.
Julie Nadel, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Waterfront Committee and a Trust board member, said the Trust should put out a formal request for proposals to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to run the estuarium and the best operator is picked.
Mark Bain, director of Cornell’s Center for the Environment, said the Ivy League university would be interested in running the planned research labs, but he needs some document outlining what the Trust is looking for before he can begin to convince university officials to commit money to the venture. “We would very likely respond to a proposal if we had one,” Bain said in a telephone interview.
Fishman said at the C.B. 1 meeting that she would discuss the issue internally to determine whether the Trust wants to put out a document outlining its expectations for the estuarium.
She invited Nadel to a private meeting to view the Beacon Institute’s plans last week. Fishman suggested that the reason she invited only a few Trust board members to the meeting was to avoid opening it to the public.
“We can’t meet with a full board unless it’s a public meeting,” Fishman told C.B. 1 members.
Henry Stern, also a Trust board member, said Fishman has given him a few dates to see a similar presentation. He thinks it will take a minimum of four months for the Trust’s board and the community to review the plan before the Trust could be in a position to vote on an estuarium operator.
Nadel said Beacon is planning a two-story, 19,000-square-foot facility to operate with Stony-Brook. Beacon is three years old and in the process of setting up three river centers. Nadel said since the group does not yet have a track record, it is important to look at other groups too, and to let the public see the plans.
“I don’t know what the big secret is and why they hide from the Open Meeting Law,” Nadel said of the Trust’s staff.
Cathy Drew, founder of the River Project, which ran the estuary center on Pier 26 for 20 years before the pier closed for construction last fall, said her group wants a fair chance to return. She thinks Beacon has an unfair advantage because it has been meeting with the Trust for at least a year. Gov. Pataki, who leaves office this year, also steered state funds to help create Beacon. Trip Dorkey, whom Pataki appointed as chairperson of the Trust’s board, is on Beacon’s board of directors as well.
Drew said David Conover of Stony-Brook told her recently that it will be only a few weeks before a decision is made. “He said we are going to make the announcement before the election,” according to Drew.
Similarly, Conover told Downtown Express in September that an announcement was coming soon. He did not return a call for comment this week.
Officials at Beacon refused to answer questions. Amy Norquist, deputy director of Beacon, added credence to Drew’s political motivation theory. She e-mailed Downtown Express to say she was “pretty sure” she could set up an interview the first week of November. Election day is Nov. 7.
“We look forward to presenting the community with our plans for a world-class
research facility that brings top scientists and academics together on the Hudson River in Manhattan,” Norquist added in a prepared statement.
Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesperson, said the Port’s board authorized $10 million to the Trust for the estuarium last week, but his understanding is the Trust plans to turn the money over to Beacon.
Regardless of who winds up with the $10 million, the money should be enough to ensure that the estuarium project proceeds. The boathouse, which used to sit adjacent to the River Project, will not return unless more funds are found. Fishman said she will apply to the L.M.D.C. for the additional money.
Wetteroth, a contractor who lives in Tribeca, said he’s prepared to take the responsibility for rebuilding the boathouse.
“I know we can build something that’ll work,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think it would meet their qualifications of what they want for a world-class park.”
The 5,000-square-foot structure would be enough to hold about 100 kayaks, like the original Downtown Boathouse. Wetteroth said if the Trust cut out unnecessary frills like bathrooms and heat, it would make the project more affordable. There are likely to be rest rooms in the estuarium and restaurant if they are built, and the boathouse is closed for the winter and much of the fall. Wetteroth did not know how much a bare-bones boathouse would cost to build.
It may no longer be the best-kept secret on the Hudson, but it is probably still a little-known-fact that the Downtown Boathouse offers the public free use of its kayaks during the season. Some of the 100 or so members pay to store their personal boats, and annual memberships are $50, although Wetteroth’s not a high-pressure bill collector.
“Some years people buy it, some years they don’t,” he said of the memberships. “It’s like public television we ask people to pay.”
Usually members who store their boats must volunteer, but Wetteroth made an exception for the group’s most famous former member, the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. He said the paparazzi-magnet would have created a distraction for the pier’s grassroots nature had he volunteered.
Many of Tribeca’s less famous residents have also made use of the boathouse over the last two decades. Asked what he thinks the boathouse has meant for the community, Wetteroth, a man of few words, was stumped.
“God, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just been there.”