Why the Parks Department “Back-Up Plan” to Barry Diller’s Pier 55 Island Should be the Actual Plan

Diller's Proposed Island
Diller’s Proposed Island

As outlined by DNAinfo today, the New York City Parks Department has a “back up plan” if the $151 million privately financed Pier 55 project proposed by “media mogul” Barry Diller and friends falls through. The Diller plan aims to transform a pier of Hudson River Park into a “floating paradise for fundraisers and theater shows.” The alternative plan would be somewhat more modest in nature. It would be similar to … the rest of the park. At this site, I have outlined before the problems when private influence takes hold at public parks – and this is no different.

City has Back Up Plan if Barry Diller pulls out of Island project:

via DNAinfo 

CHELSEA — Billionaire media mogul Barry Diller plans to build a $151 million island oasis in Hudson River Park — if the group that runs the park meets his demands to revitalize nearby dormant space along the waterfront.

Under a lease inked with the Hudson River Park Trust, Diller has the right to pull his money from the project at Pier 54 if overhauls at neighboring piers don’t meet his satisfaction.

The lease sets out expectations that two long-troubled points in the cash-strapped park — Pier 57, a dilapidated former garage, and Gansevoort Peninsula, a swath of unused land whose fate is tied to the construction of a waste transfer station — will be developed into parkland and a commercial space.

Diller’s donation is also predicated on the construction of a publicly funded $22.5 million esplanade that will serve as an entrance to the island.

The city has pledged $17 million toward Diller’s vision and the adjacent esplanade. But DNAinfo New York has learned that, to hedge against the possibility of Diller bowing out, the Parks Department and the trust created a backup plan, a more modest $30 million park at Pier 54.

DNAinfo reviewed a working draft of the contract between the city Parks Department and the trust, which reveals that if Diller pulls out, the city’s $17 million investment will go toward a park in the same spot — but it’ll come without the bells and whistles in the billionaire’s vision. The contract is still in the process of being approved.

The difference between the parks is dramatic. Where Diller imagines a floating paradise for fundraisers and theater shows, the alternative park would be similar to other pier parks along the Hudson.

Is that so bad?

A commenter at DNAinfo named punto said:

Though this is far from my neighborhood, Inwood, I have seen what happens when private interests get concessions for projects built on publicly owned land. What was supposed to be an enhancement to the area has turned into a magnet for huge crowds that overwhelm the neighboring streets all summer long.

Just build a park that maybe, just possibly, the nearby residents could enjoy rather than one more glitzy, overdone tourist attraction, encouraging expenditure and overindulgent behavior by weekenders and tourists. The city can supply its own “entertainment” without Mr. Diller’s help just by being itself. I have been to just about every waterside area the entire length of the west side people seem to be having a good time where the main amenities are benches, water fountains and maybe a bit of grass to sit on here and there.

Strings Attached

“Mr. Diller’s contemplated donation should be understood within context,”

said [Hudson River Park Trust spokesman James] Yolles. “It should not be a surprise that he would not commit to building just any project of any sort, regardless of what is ultimately approved or allowed both on and near the reconstructed Pier 54.” …

Diller’s nonprofit Pier55 would have the exclusive rights to determine all programming on the island, from theater shows to fundraisers. Pier55’s board also includes millionaire theater and movie producer Scott Rudin and English director Steven Daldry.

Full article can be read here.

High Stakes Games that Wealthy People Play at Public Parks

It is one thing to give money and then it is another to want something in return – which is pretty much always the case in “public-private partnership” scenarios, whether it is access, behind-the-scenes “discussions” that lead to back room deals, decision-making influence, social capital, money, etc.

Over the last 17 months, it was revealed at Washington Sq Park Blog that at Washington Square Park, information was both misrepresented and obscured from the public by the Bloomberg Admin Parks Department and four affluent women who went to great lengths to get their private conservancy in place (the larger community had voted against a conservancy for years, this was the only way they got it through, by not telling the full story). The grander plans of the Washington Square Park Conservancy are held back – for the moment. This is a situation which needs to be revisited as well. But these are high stake games that wealthy people play.

Why not make the plan at Pier 54 or Pier 55 modest to begin with? Why privatize the maintenance and operations further? The back up plan sounds more in keeping with something that could be maintained going forward. The space is already privatized – and we see the problems with this already. Barry Diller may have wanted to give something “back” but it would be a whole other scenario to hand over the money and say, “City of New York, do with this what you will for what you need.” This is something else entirely – it comes with implicit control.

I liked the walk along the Hudson River before it was a “park.” It was my main place to walk for years and it had a lot of low-key character and charm. I find it overdone now. Perhaps if modest goals had been part of the plans all along, the “Trust” would not be “cash strapped.” Perhaps that should be kept in mind and the “back up plan” considered as more than a “back up.”

Perhaps it is also time for New York City government to consider the implications of all this private money being given access to and control of our public parks.

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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

On Private Influence at Public Parks

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