Volume 16, Number 26 | Nov. 25 - Dec. 1, 2003

CHELSEA WATERSIDE PARK


Trust head leaves agency

By Lincoln Anderson

He tossed a football to open Chelsea Waterside Park, rode a horse to dedicate a renovated railroad float bridge, emceed rock and reggae concerts on Pier 54.
And just six months ago in June with Governor George Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg he cut the ribbon to open the $59 million Greenwich Village segment of the Hudson River Park, including three rebuilt public piers.
For four and a half years, Robert Balachandran was the outgoing and enthusiastic public face of the Hudson River Park. But last Thursday, Balachandran, 37, stepped down as president and C.E.O. of the Hudson River Park Trust to take a job in the private sector with Bear Stearns.
Balachandran made the announcement at the Trust’s board of directors meeting last Thursday afternoon, after which board members took turns praising his energy and dedication and gave him a standing ovation, joined by about 50 park activists and local politicians’ representatives in the audience.
Trip Dorkey, chairperson of the Trust’s board of directors, praised Balachandran’s “roll up your sleeves style that extended to every level of Hudson River Park.”
Madelyn Wils, another board member, said Balachandran’s good spirit had been “infectious.”
However, board members also made several conspicuous cracks about the ice-skating rink planned at Spring St. that Balachandran had tried to get built, over strong opposition from the community and local elected officials. Governor Pataki, who appointed Balachandran president of the Trust, wanted to give the rink to Lower Manhattan as a post-9/11 “quality of life” amenity.
When the board presented Balachandran with an engraved box as a farewell gift and he asked what was inside while unwrapping it, one board member quipped, “A pair of ice skates!”
Other board members noted Balachandran could come back to the park as “Commissioner of Ice Skating” and was invited anytime — “with skates or without skates.”
Following Balachandran’s announcement, the board unanimously appointed Connie Fishman, the Trust’s vice president, as the Trust’s new president and C.E.O.
“I will do everything I can to keep the park going at this speed,” said Fishman. “I don’t want this move to make things slow down.”
It wasn’t clear exactly when Balachandran will depart, but Fishman’s succinct remark afterwards, “January,” delivered with a smile, seemed to indicate that would be when she would be taking over the helm and ready to deal with the media.
In likely his final report to the Trust’s board — which meets bimonthly — Balachandran noted he and his wife, Michelle, are expecting a baby. His salary at the Trust was $153,000, and a job in the financial sector undoubtedly will better support a growing family.
Balachandran was previously a legal counsel to Pataki and helped craft the Hudson River Park Act. Balachandran recalled the day the governor tapped him to head the Trust, which the legislation created: Pataki had called him into his office, Balachandran said, and stopping in mid-backswing while practicing putting, looked him in the eye and said, “I want you to head up the Hudson River Park. It’s really important to me.” Balachandran said the governor told him that as an environmentalist, the park was close to his heart.
Fishman was a former assistant to Deputy Mayors Fran Reiter and Randy Levine and also worked on the park legislation, though on the city’s side.
Asked why he was leaving, Balachandran seemed to say he always knew all good things must come to an end.
“The first day I started this job four years ago, I was preparing to leave…,” he said. “Here you get to be a part of history, everyone believes in building the park.”
There was speculation as to whether reasons other than a salary increase led to Balachandran’s departure. In June, the Trust received criticism over its failure to pick a private developer for Pier 40. More recently the plan for the $2.3 million ice-skating rink near Pier 40 drew the opposition of Community Boards 1 and 2 and local politicians.
Despite the rink meltdown, a Trust board member said that the day before the board meeting, Balachandran had called, wanting to discuss the rink, still hoping it would be approved by the board.
Simultaneously, others were lobbying the Trust’s board members to oppose the rink. Assemblymember Deborah Glick wrote Dorkey on Nov. 14, expressing her strong opposition to the rink on the grounds it had not gone through the community review mandated in the Park Act as a “significant” change to the park’s original design.
“The Trust is operating in a fashion that is high-handed at best, contrary to the public good and potentially illegal, at worst,” Glick wrote. “The opposition [to the rink] was not to the use, but to the location and the growing extravaganza that materialized.”
On Nov. 19, the day before the scheduled vote, five other local elected officials wrote Dorkey — Rep. Jerrold Nadler, State Senator Tom Duane, Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Scott Stringer and Councilmember Christine Quinn — similarly stating their opposition to the rink and blasting the Trust for its “secretive process.”
Additionally, the Friends of Hudson River Park’s board, the morning of the Trust’s board meeting voted unanimously to authorize the Friends — the park’s leading advocacy group — to sue over the lack of process on the ice-skating rink. However, Al Butzel, the Friends’ executive director, said the Friends were not necessarily committed to filing a lawsuit. Butzel, too, had been phoning the Trust board members, urging them to vote against the rink.
At last Thursday’s meeting, just before Balachandran’s farewell speech, Dorkey announced the board would not be voting on the rink. He made the decision, along with the governor and mayor, he said, “as a result of listening to the community and taking very seriously their concerns about the placement of the rink.” In the end, Dorkey said, the goal in building the park is “to do what’s best for the people of this city and state.”
Referring to the anti-rink lobbying blitz, Dorkey, a senior partner at Torys international lawfirm, noted, “It was one of the few times in my life I got calls from elected officials not asking for money.”
He said the board will take time to reconsider the rink and even look at the possibility of putting it on Pier 40, but in the end could well decide to locate it at the same spot as had been planned.
Without being more specific, Dorkey said that the Trust will “do something very shortly” in the park for the governor.
During his speech, Balachandran said he’d learned to respect the community more and the role of community input in the park.
“That’s a lesson I had to learn,” he said.
However, some said Balachandran never grasped how invested the community is in the park, the very design of which was driven by a community process over a period of years. On the other hand, Balachandran was stuck in the difficult position of pushing through projects that the governor wanted — such as the rink — even if the community was against them.
Adrian Benepe, city Parks commissioner and Trust board member said he felt the rink got a bad rap.
“I’m not sure why some people thought the skating rink was a slaughter house or a nuclear waste dump,” he said during the meeting. Later, he said, “I think [the rink’s] a little shoehorned in that location…. If we can see if we could put it in a pier, it’d be good,” Benepe said, noting that way it could operate year round.
As for the larger issue of Pier 40, Balachandran gave an update on the process at the meeting. He noted that the Trust received six responses to its request for proposals for operators for the Pier 40 parking lot, currently operated by C&K Properties. Under the Trust’s interim plan for Pier 40, there will be 900 parking spaces added on the pier, which currently accommodates 2,000 cars. The lease for the pier will be four years, with three one-year renewals, subject to termination on 60-day notice. Balachandran said the estimated revenue to the Trust from the parking revenue will be $4 million a year.
As for interim recreation space, Balachandran said the Trust plans to construct a $5 million sports field in the pier’s courtyard, as opposed to on the roof, since this would be “most feasible.” The field, to be covered with FieldTurf artificial surface, should be ready by summer, he said.
Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, later said the field will be 3.2 acres in size, and can accommodate two baseball diamonds at once, or one soccer field or football field.
“It will be one of the largest fields and most unique fields in America,” Martin said.
As for the redevelopment of Pier 40 into a full-fledged park along with commercial activity, Balachandran said the Trust plans to “immediately” undertake a marketing study to determine workable ideas for the pier. Part of this process will be to “talk with the community,” he said. The marketing study could be the basis for issuing a new request for proposals for the pier, he said.
The last attempt to find a private developer for the pier resulted in only a handful of responses that included features like big-box stores and the world’s second-largest aquarium, uses not popular with the community or, ultimately, with the Trust, which decided to delay the process and reissue an R.F.P. at a later date.
Balachandran said that the marketing study for Pier 40 could be done in five or six months, after which an R.F.P. could be issued. However, Dorkey expressed reservations, noting, “There are competing concerns.” It makes sense to pick a developer wisely, Dorkey said, noting, “Don’t rush it if it’s a 100-year project.”
Similarly, Wils said the Trust should make certain to issue a quality R.F.P., so that, “this time we get it right, and we get it done.”
Under Balachandran, the number of staff employees at the Trust ballooned from 12 to 40, and the Trust issued $125 million in contracts for work on the park.
However, in addition to Pier 40, larger issues remain, including moving municipal uses off of the waterfront, such as the Department of Sanitation garage and salt pile at Gansevoort Peninsula, and raising at least $200 million more to complete the five-mile-long park.
When asked if they felt Balachandran’s departure was due to his not doing a good enough job, several Trust board members said if that was the reason they hadn’t heard.
“If that’s the case, no one told me about it,” said former State Senator Franz Leichter.
Stern said the move was just a case of “a young man looking for a career,” noting that not all are park administrators are “lifers.”
Comparing Balachandran and Fishman, who has been more low profile up to now, Stern said, “He was Mr. Outside and she was Mrs. Inside. Now she’s got to go outside. Not everyone can do both.”
Tom Fox, president of the Trust’s predecessor agency, the Hudson River Park Conservancy, put a positive spin on things. “We’re very happy at the recent turn of events,” Fox said. “The rink being taken off the table and this change of leadership bode well for the public participation process.
“I think Connie will make a great president,” he said. “I respect her understanding of the importance of public participation. Public participation is a pain in the [butt]— but it works.”

Lincoln@DowntownExpress.com


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