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Hudson River Park Trust President Looks to the Future

By Julie Shapiro | December 2, 2011 12:05pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — Hudson River Park is caught between its past and its future.

On the one hand, there are the lushly landscaped paths, the brand-new skate parks packed to capacity, the quiet benches on the tips of newly built piers, the whimsical carousel in Chelsea and the mini-golf course in TriBeCa.

On the other hand, there are unfinished sections bordered by barbed wire and industrial garages. There is Pier 40, with its caving roof and disintegrating underwater supports, and Pier 81, where a section of the bulkhead collapsed during Hurricane Irene.

That contrast — and a sense of unfinished business — is what convinced Madelyn Wils to accept the job of Hudson River Park Trust president six months ago.

"The park is at…a critical juncture," Wils said on a recent morning, as she piloted a golf cart along the esplanade.

"We can really complete the promise of what it was supposed to be, what it will be."

Wils, a longtime TriBeCa resident who most recently served as executive vice president at the city Economic Development Corp., was one of the Downtown community leaders who advocated for the building of Hudson River Park in the 1990s.

Since then, she watched as the park in her backyard grew from a fenced-off wasteland to a citywide attraction that draws 17 million people a year and is now more than 60 percent complete.

While the progress is encouraging, the park still faces several major challenges, not least of which is that the bigger it gets, the more expensive it is to maintain — even as the revenues that fund the maintenance have stayed flat as the park has grown.  

Most of Hudson River Park's $15 million operating budget comes from the parking garage on Pier 40, but the Trust had to close down 300 spaces because of the pier's collapsing roof, and more sections may be shut down soon, Wils said.

"We are stretching it versus adding to it," Wils said of the Trust's operating budget. ''You can only stretch a rubber band so far."

To help Hudson River Park with day-to-day expenses, and to turn future redevelopment projects from dreams into reality, Wils is focusing on private, rather than government, funding.

Along that vein, the Friends of Hudson River Park group is working on a proposal to create a business improvement district that would tax property owners near the park, as a way of securing a steady stream of money for its maintenance and completion.

While the Trust has not taken a position on the BID, Wils called it a "good idea" and said it's time for the property owners who have benefited from Hudson River Park to give back.

"The intention of Hudson River Park was to be a public-private partnership," Wils said.

"The public part we've seen. Now we have to make sure the private part gets revved up."

The Friends of Hudson River Park are also planning a more aggressive fundraising campaign and, on Thursday, announced the hiring of Blake Beatty as the new director of development. Beatty spent the past five years raising money for the 9/11 Memorial.

The Trust is also already working closely with private developers to complete unfinished sections of the park, rather than just relying on city, state and federal money.

On Pier 57, at West 15th Street, Youngwoo & Associates will begin construction as soon as 2013 to convert a massive 400,000-square-foot building into a creative marketplace with a theater for the Tribeca Film Festival and a sprawling open space on the roof.

At Pier 40, at West Houston Street, a vision for the future has been slower to emerge, partly because the pier needs so much work.

For now, the Trust has rented out some space for luxury yacht tours to bring in a little extra money for one year, but Wils does not expect to sign many more short-term leases.

"We need to figure out a longer-term, more permanent solution," she said.

Other future projects include a beach and sculpture garden at Gansevoort Street's Pier 52, which could begin construction after the Sanitation Department moves out in 2014; a maritime education center on Pier 26 in TriBeCa; an overhaul of Pier 54, which is used for concerts and large events; and new open space in the area currently dominated by the West 30th Street Heliport, which is supposed to shut down by the end of next year.

Even further in the future, Wils dreams of relocating the NYPD tow pound from Pier 76 at West 38th Street, clearing sightlines to the water and opening up another large public space.

Just as important as creating all the new recreational spaces, Wils said, is repairing and maintaining the bulkhead to ensure that the park continues serving its most basic function — keeping the Hudson River at bay.

"As the infrastructure of Hudson River Park goes, so goes the West Side of Manhattan," she said.