Volume 19 Issue 51 | May 4 -10, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Milo Hess

The Tribeca section of the park.

Trust reveals more park cuts

By Skye H. McFarlane

As more details about the Hudson River Park’s Tribeca funding shortfalls become clear, local waterfront advocates are vowing to help the park Trust raise money and resolve lingering design questions — whether the Trust likes it or not.

The Community Board 1 Waterfront Committee hosted a meeting Monday night with board members, boaters, Trust staffers and the design team for the park’s Tribeca segment. The meeting began with a detailed look into the park’s finances and ended with the parties agreeing to meet next Wednesday to review design plans for “Segment 3,” the portion of the park that runs from Pier 40 down to Chambers St.

“Let’s fix the boathouse and let’s get a plan for the estuarium and let’s get rolling. Let’s do it right now,” said committee chairperson Julie Nadel, who is also a member of the Trust’s board of trustees.

Before it was closed off for demolition in stages starting in 2005, Segment 3 offered a temporary pedestrian walkway and several much-beloved community activities atop the aging Piers 25 and 26. The completed park is supposed to offer new and improved versions of those amenities, including a landscaped, granite esplanade; volleyball, miniature golf and a small turf field on Pier 25; and a boathouse, food concession and river study center (also called an estuarium) on Pier 26.

However, due to rising construction costs and government delays, the segment is currently out of funds. Even if new money is allocated, the Trust will be at least a year behind its previous project schedule. In 2005, the Trust secured $70 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation — enough cash, the Trust thought, to complete all of Segment 3. Two years later, the $70 million has all gone out to contract. The money is enough to cover the project’s unglamorous and expensive base construction, but none of the useable “park” elements can be built until the Trust secures more funding.

Workers boarded a dinghy Wednesday for some prep work. The Trust hopes to begin driving piles to rebuild the Tribeca piers late next week. The Trust has no money to build park amenities on the piers or on land in Tribeca.

Connie Fishman, president of the Trust, said in an interview last week that the money would cover the construction of the esplanade from Laight St. up to Pier 40. She modified that statement on Monday. While the current contract includes utilities, concrete and other heavy-duty work on the esplanade, it does not include park details like landscaping, railings, lighting or the paved granite walkway. Nevertheless, Fishman said that the Trust was determined to find the money to complete these elements.

Provided that money can be located for landscaping, the esplanade could reopen in fall 2008. The new piers, however, will have to wait until at least 2010. The $70 million covers the construction of the piers themselves, but not the installation of any of the buildings, utilities or amenities on top of the piers.

Based on a Trust budget distributed at Monday’s meeting, the Trust would need nearly 16 million more dollars just to finish the jobs that it had originally planned to bid out this year. Adjusted using the same rate of construction inflation that has plagued the rest of the project (19 percent) that figure balloons to nearly $19 million and does not include future inflation or the additional millions that will be needed to construct the boathouse, restaurant and estuarium on Pier 26.

The primary source of the price spike is the skyrocketing cost of steel and concrete. Because these costs have been rising one to two percent each month, the park’s bottom line was badly damaged when a series of bureaucratic snags held up the distribution of the $70 million, causing the Trust to lose almost a full season of in-water construction time. The Trust also made a costly but necessary design change to improve the boat docking at Pier 26.

In order to meet its current schedule, the Trust must finish driving piles for the new piers by Nov. 1, the end of the in-water construction season. If construction crews do not meet the deadline, the Trust will not be able to work on the pier decks over the winter, causing the project to fall behind another six months.

However, crews did not begin in-water prep work until May 2, the second day of the marine construction season. According to Trust spokesperson Chris Martin, the crews will begin installing piles late next week after the site is prepared and Con Edison determines that its utility lines, which run under the piers, are properly protected. Martin added that it is up to the contractors to determine the best construction schedule for meeting their deadlines.

Con Ed objections last year led to a delay in the major water work.

On Monday, Fishman assured the committee that every segment of the park has been built under the strain of funding gaps, but she became agitated when asked about this year’s budget from the state and city governments. Fishman answered the question by praising former governor George Pataki at length for his devotion to the park. There was no such praise for the current governor.

“This is the first year that we’ve gotten less than $15 million from the state,” Fishman said, adding that the new administration must not have had enough time during the frenzied state budget talks to fully consider the park’s funding request. “A little bit of this is just educating the new administration to love the project. I think it will make them feel more generous.”

In an e-mail statement to Downtown Express, Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s office did not deny that the current budget marks a drop in funding for the park. However, the administration said it “recognizes the essential open space role played by the Hudson River Park.”

“We believed $5 million was a responsible contribution by the state this year given other demands on the Environmental Protection Fund and the limited amount of funds available,” the statement said.

Since the city and state share joint responsibility for the park, Fishman expects the city to match the state’s $5 million in its current budget, which is still being finalized. The combined $10 million will likely be spent on projects outside the Tribeca segment since the money will be worth more if it is allocated immediately. Fishman said the Trust would be “pounding the pavement” trying to drum up more cash from other sources like the State Department of Transportation and the federal government.

Fishman first came to the Trust from the Giuliani administration and worked as vice president under Robert Balachandran, a former Pataki aide. By the time Balachandran left the Trust in 2004, Fishman had gained enough support in Albany to be promoted to the presidency of the state-city authority. Lately her supporters and critics have been lobbying behind the scenes over her future at the Trust.

C.B. 1 members told Fishman that they would press city officials for more park funds, in the hope that the state would then increase its contribution. In an interview Monday on the Downtown Express Internet radio show, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff said the city is prepared to do its budgetary part for the park, provided that the state also chips in its fair share.

“We all know we will come up with the money,” Doctoroff said. “We agree it has to be done quickly, so as not to prolong this and make the costs go up even more.”

Since the Trust has now decided to construct the park through a series of small, independent contracts (rather than one or two large bids), board members also offered to organize fundraising campaigns for specific projects, such as the estuarium or the boathouse.

Tammy To, an aide to City Councilmember Alan Gerson, said that the Councilmember was shocked to learn that the $70 million would no longer cover the Tribeca construction. She urged Fishman and Trust Vice President Noreen Doyle to give Gerson an updated cost estimate for the park before the city’s budget is finalized. Julie Menin, C.B. 1 chairperson, also stressed that the Trust needs to keep the community informed about park funding.

“We need all the specifics possible so that we can make our case and lobby hard for this,” Menin said.

In addition to specifics about the budget, waterfront advocates came to the meeting looking for more details about the design of the segment, specifically the structures on Pier 26. Over the winter, a group of board members and boaters took a close look at some of those plans — and didn’t like what they saw. The boathouse is currently designed to hold 14-foot kayaks, but almost half of the kayaks used by the Downtown Boathouse, which will occupy the space, are between 16 and 18 feet in length.

In addition, several board members said that the eatery on the pier had become much larger than they remembered from earlier plans. The current drawings, they said, include many more outdoor tables, as well as public tables on the roof that might not appear public due to a satellite restaurant counter on the upper level. Even more alarming to the group was the disappearance of the estuarium from the construction drawings altogether.

Fishman assured the committee that the community board had approved the restaurant plans during earlier parts of the public review process. The estuarium, she said, would be designed and then retrofit to the pier later, after an operator is chosen. The Trust’s architects said that they could redesign the interior of the boathouse to hold as many as 28 18-foot kayaks, eliminating the need to change the size of the structure.

But the more the discussion turned to the design details of Pier 26, the tenser the talks became. Jim Wetteroth, the head of the Downtown Boathouse, said that architects had made him similar storage promises at the boathouses farther upriver, but they designed racks that faced one another — meaning that kayakers had enough room to store the boats, but not enough space to maneuver them in or out of the racks.

The Trust’s architects grumbled under their breaths that any change to the current design plans would cost more money and delay the project.

“If you want to save money, how about getting rid of the damn restaurant,” shouted one frustrated kayaker from the back of the room.

Board member Marc Ameruso argued that the restaurant would violate both the informal vibe of the old Pier 26 and the spirit of the Hudson River Park Act, which only permits “concession stands” on the Tribeca piers. Cathy Drew of the River Project, the river study center that occupied the old Pier 26, accused the Trust of dropping its estuarium designs after private talks with the Beacon Institute — a river study center created by Pataki — fell through.

Eventually, Nadel and Bob Townley, who used to run Pier 25 with his Manhattan Youth organization, tried to rein the discussion in. What the Trust or the board did or didn’t do in the past, they said, is not nearly as important as making things right in the future.

“On some level, it’s immaterial what was said. Even if it’s our mistake — fine, our bad,” Townley said, referring to previous C.B. 1 resolutions that approved the Segment 3 design. “We’re asking you now, please rectify it.”

Fishman said that the committee was welcome to come to the Trust offices to inspect the Segment 3 design plans, but she resisted the idea of making changes to the plans, saying that a redesign would cost more money and time. The committee rejected her reasoning, pointing out that the project is already delayed and out of money. The committee promised it would work with the Trust to make adjustments “within the context of the ongoing construction.” In the end, they said, it would be better to risk a delay than to rush into a large investment that might not work in the long run.

However, in the interest of preventing any further delays, Nadel scheduled an immediate follow-up meeting, next Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the Trust’s offices at Pier 40. At the meeting, waterfront advocates will be able to examine plans for Segment 3 with the Trust’s design team. Nadel hopes that with detailed plans and experts in front of them, the community can get a clearer sense of what is going on in the park, find solutions to the kayak storage problem and potentially get the design ball rolling again on the estuarium.

The committee also passed a resolution creating a Segment 3 working group. The working group will be responsible for working with the Trust to create a comprehensive design, fundraising and interim use plan to give the community back its Tribeca park as soon as possible.

“At the next meeting we’re really going to have to focus and get down to business,” Nadel said, remarking that Monday’s long-winded discussions were partially the result of misunderstandings and miscommunications over the years between the Trust and the public. “This is why it’s important to have a public process. No asides. No one on one discussions.”

Wednesday’s meeting is open to the public, but those who wish to attend should R.S.V.P. with the community board at 212-442-5050.

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