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Critics Question $5M City Donation to High Line Expansion

By Mathew Katz | July 19, 2012 8:25am

CHELSEA — The High Line is set to get a whopping $5 million in extra cash from the city — more than almost any other park —  even as it reported pulling in $85 million in private funds and established a lucrative concessions deal, city records show.

The High Line cash, appropriated by the City Council as part of the 2013 budget's capital expenditures, will be paid to the Friends of the High Line for use building the estimated $90 million construction on its third section.

By comparison, the nearby Hudson River Park, which has projected an $80 million deficit over the next 10 years and desperately needs some $100 million to rehabilitate a crumbling Pier 40, is only set to get $618,000 for capital projects from those appropriations, according to City Council budget documents.

The move has some park advocates questioning why the city is set to spend on the High Line such a large part of its $105 million, 2013 appropriations for 142 park projects — when the taxpayer money could go to other city parks that have greater infrastructure needs and fewer wealthy donors.

Matt Weiss, who's spent years leading the charge to build a park on a 10,000 square foot Department of Sanitation lot at 136 W. 20th St. said that the High Line is a treasure for the city, but questioned the $5 million allocation — particularly because he said the elevated park is not a children's playground and was hard to access for families living on the eastern portions of the neighborhood.

"In reality, less than half of that amount could bring the first new playground to Chelsea in 44 years," Weiss said. "It ... makes you ask where our elected officials' priorties are."

A spokeswoman for the City Council was unable to respond to requests for comment for this story.

Bob Trentlyon, a longtime watefront activist who helped develop Chelsea Waterside Park, said he was also surprised that the city alloted $5 million to the High Line.

"I was under the impression the High Line got its capital funds from contributions or from air rights of buildings being built next to the High Line," Trentlyon said.

While Trentlyon did not have any problems with cash being spent on the the High Line, he did see other areas where it could have been spent.

"One place it could have been spent was the repair of the bulkhead for Pier 84, which was damaged in Hurricane Irene," he said.

Outgoing Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe previously called the High Line a "great deal for the city" because he said most of its expenses would be covered by Friends of the High Line. The organization covers about 90 percent of the park's operating costs, roughly $3 million a year.

Friends of the High Line co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond told the New York Times in 2011 that they had raised $85 million of its $150 million fundraising goal for both construction and operating costs, and added that they expected to have to cover most of the costs of construction of the park's half-mile final section through private donors because of constraints on the city's budget.

Among the private donors who have filled the High Line's coffers are the Tiffany and Company Foundation — which gave the Friends a $5 million challenge grant in 2011, and The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation which gave a record $20 million gift to pay for construction on the third section last year.

Future sources of High Line cash include the windfall it stands to gain if the City Council approves a massive expansion to Chelsea Market. Under the plan, developer Jamestown Properties would have to contribute anywhere from $17 million to $19 million to the city-managed High Line Improvement Fund.

Friends of the High Line is also slated to get funding through its lucrative concessions, including a 1,600 square-foot restaurant under the park set to open in October 2013. Unlike some other parks in the city, the High Line keeps the bulk of the revenue it generates from foodsellers on or under it, without having to share profits with the city's Parks Department.

“We are fortunate that private donors have stepped forward to support the High Line, and we are very grateful for this City funding, which is vitally needed," said Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, in a statement.

"We have a long way to go to raise the estimated $90 million cost of completing the third and final section of High Line.”

Other city parks set to recieve city cash include Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is set to get $5.5 million from the Council to build the Pier 4 Beach and Habitat Island and a pedestrian entrance to the park on its north side, at Jay Street.

However, unlike the High Line — which pulls in massive cash from fundraising and private donations — Brooklyn Bridge Park relies almost entirely on the city for its capital costs.

The Brooklyn park is also 85 acres, compared to the High Line's 6.73.

Its own fundraising organization, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, puts most of its funds toward programming at the park. The park itself has received only two donations for capital projects so far — a carousel donated in 2011, and a $40 million gift from New York City Fieldhouse Chairman Joshua Rechnitz to build a recreation facility near pier Five.

The Hudson River Park Trust sought changes to the state legislation that governs it that would allow it to bring in more private funding through residential development, but that process stalled in Albany.

Lee Alman, a spokesman for the Hudson River Park Trust, said that the organization hopes to get the operations funding it needs without having to rely exclusively on city and state budgets — not unlike the High Line.

"The idea is to allow the park to be as self-sustaining as possible," he said. "This is all part of a larger discussion taking place over the course of the year."

Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, called the difference in city allotments to park space discouraging — pointing to several other parks that could use city cash for improvements, including Ferry Point Park in the Bronx and Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.

"When you consider the dramatic needs of other parks that need a tremendous amount of help, the disparity is unbelievable," he said.

"The High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, they’re exciting new additions to the parks system," Croft said. "But clearly that money could be used to take care of longstanding needs in other, poorer communities. But it’s not a priority."