It’s the West Side’s largest park, a haven for dog owners, roller skaters and even acrobats. Hudson River Park — the sprawling, nearly five-mile public space now known as an invaluable Big Apple gem — celebrates 25 years on the waterfront this month. But despite a robust offering of amenities and programming, it took the unyielding will of irrepressible New Yorkers to reclaim the valuable real estate from abandoned luxury ocean liner terminals and superhighway and turn it into a beloved green space.
“I used to have these buttons that said, ‘Question authority’ and ‘If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow,’” said Tom Fox, a current member of the park’s Advisory Council and the author of the soon-to-be-published book, Creating the Hudson River Park: Environmental and Community Activism, Politics and Greed. Tom, a lifelong parks and public policy advocate, described the long road to reclaiming the West Side land as one fueled by the passionate push of community members to negotiate with city and state officials. “We had all these public meetings, which were not just about ‘what kind of programs do you want?’ They were about planning and finance and construction phasing and programming,” he added. “People brought their ideas to the table and they cross-pollinated one another.”
By the time New Yorkers gathered to plan their perfect park, the West Side land had already undergone several different lifetimes. It was originally the home of the Munsee Lenape people, but after the 17th century Dutch colonized the island, the waterfront was used as a fishing and docking site for oyster barges, a use maintained into the 18th century when many newly arrived immigrants relied on eating the cheaply-priced oysters available at the shore. Later, the docks would become a popular luxury liner terminal that served the likes of the White Star Line — even receiving 1912 survivors of the Titanic aboard the Carpathia at what is now Pier 54. By the early 19th century, the area also became home to the slaughterhouse district, a usage it maintained through the 1960s.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, an economically battered New York sought to rework the largely dilapidated piers and industrial wasteland — upon which the ill-fated Westway superhighway proposal emerged. The plan to connect the West Side Highway with Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel and Holland Tunnel would have demolished the piers to create a six-lane highway — much to the horror of New Yorkers living nearby.
“At the time, I lived on Bank Street in the Village,” said Tom, who was then the head of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition (NOSC). The group, which comprised approximately 65 organizations, “all agreed that they shared a mutual interest in increasing park funding and creating better park policy for the city,” he said — which meant fighting the Westway plan. “I didn’t know anything about fisheries, air pollution, traffic or mass transit,” Tom laughed, “but I did know about parks.”
Tom and NOSC analyzed the state’s current park plans around the Westway project — and found them financially unsustainable. “The park they were planning to build would cost basically 14 to 17 percent of the entire state’s budget to maintain every year, given normal maintenance — and the state was suffering terribly,” Tom told W42ST. “As a park group we testified, ‘How can you put a new park in Manhattan when you can’t afford to take care of the parks you already have?’”
The group’s persistence successfully fought the Westway plan, and they began to work with city officials on imagining a new kind of green space. “The head of Battery Park City came to a meeting to talk about the governor or the mayor setting up a new entity to figure out what to do after Westway — I asked if there were going to be any citizens on the entity and he said no, there would be a normal citizen review,” said Tom. “Long story short, I became the guy at the table.” Tom, along with several other citizens were appointed to a panel that recommended the park. A conservancy established to oversee the process was created in 1992. Noreen Doyle, a community liaison from Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) was hired by Tom in 1994 and would later take on the role of CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust. Over the course of six years, the groups managed to negotiate everything from reducing highway creep to creating the Hudson River Greenway (currently the busiest bike path in America) to advocating for recreational programming at Chelsea Piers and beyond into legislation presented to the governor. The legislation establishing the park of these amenities was defeated in 1997, said Tom, but “finally, in 1998, the governor acquiesced and they signed it on September 8, 1998.”
For New Yorkers, the creation of such a wide-ranging public space was thrilling. “Hudson River Park has played a transformative role on the West Side, no question,” said Jeffrey LeFrancois, a longtime Hell’s Kitchen resident, Executive Director for the Meatpacking District’s BID and the Chair of MCB4. “It has become the backyard for those of us who live, work and play on the far West Side of Manhattan from 59th Street all the way down to Chambers,” he added. “It’s really amazing when you see pictures from the waterfront from 25 years ago, and then look and see what you can do on the waterfront today because of the community’s commitment to figuring out how to make green space work, as well as legislative leaders like former assembly member Dick Gottfried — who was the author of the act that made this park happen — it’s remarkable.”
There have been huge strides over the years in creating additional park offerings, said Tom, highlighting the important ecological conservation and educational programming around The River Project, which integrated into the park’s programming in 2020. “Getting to the river, getting on the river, getting people to understand that the river is alive,” was a huge priority for citizens involved in the park’s progress, he added. “It wasn’t until the end of the negotiations for the legislation that the Alliance insisted the estuary be included as part of the park — it then went all the way to the tips of the piers and 400 acres of underwater property was preserved, which was important.”
There have also been challenges to keeping the park an accessible public entity. Changes in city and state leadership have often put citizen groups in the position of fighting back against real estate developers, Tom said, most notably during the Bloomberg administration’s reign in the early 2010s. “The Economic Development Corporation started putting their people in positions of power,” he told W42ST. “The Bloomberg Administration rezoned the entire inboard from Chambers to 59th Street, from manufacturing, transportation and warehousing to residential and commercial offices — the problem was they didn’t give a penny to the Hudson River Park.”
There were financial troubles in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Items like the much-maligned W30th Street helipad — which had been removed from the park in its 1998 legislation but later retained in an amendment in 2013, still plagues the park today. Long-term leases to real estate developer Vornado (now in the process of building a $350 million dollar film studio at Pier 94) made their way into the park — additions which Tom declared must continually be monitored to make sure the park remains designed for public, not corporate entities. He has also — as a board member of the City Club of New York — previously brought attention to the fact that Con Ed was dumping contaminated water into the Hudson River, which, while allowed in their lease agreement with the Trust, was not publicly known. “Sometimes,” he said of his battles to maintain the park, “you have to, so to speak, go to the mattresses.”
“Yes, there have been many challenges along the way — nothing in New York is ever easy,” said Jeffrey, “but I think that the return on investment for Hudson River Park is extraordinary and incredible.” Tom is optimistic, too. “In the fall of 2023, the future of the Hudson River Park looks hopeful,” he told W42ST. “The new Trust leadership has found its footing and is working more closely with the Advisory Council — there’s more transparency now and a greater ability to work with the community,” he added, noting that Trust initiatives like additional public space at Pier 76, Pier 40, and Pier 97 will significantly increase the park’s value to locals and visitors alike. “We’ve been working pretty much pier-by-pier as money has been available, as designs have been available, to transform spaces into public open park spaces,” HRPK CEO Noreen Doyle told New York 1.
“Much like the long-awaited Pier 97 transformation in Hell’s Kitchen, I’m also thrilled that the Meatpacking District will have another pier park as Gansevoort Peninsula opens later this fall with an entirely new green space offering for the community — it speaks to the Trust’s commitment to meet community needs and work with the best in all fields to bring these park piers to life,” added Jeffrey, who also cited the expanded esplanade from W30th Street to Pier 84 as something to look forward to.
For Tom, when it comes to park improvements and protections, looking ahead is perhaps even more important as looking back at the past 25 years. “Could we look at the next 10 years of the Hudson River, of the West Side, the same way we did 40 years ago and say, ‘We know there’s a need for resiliency’?” said Tom of the urgent need to protect the parkland and waterways in the face of climate change. “Let’s have the government and the Mayor put together a task force that includes all of the agencies responsible to look at how we could literally finish the redevelopment of the West Side that started a half a century ago and make it viable for the 21st century and beyond.” He encouraged other New Yorkers to get involved by volunteering and attending public meetings with the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and advocating for the park they love.
Doing so will guarantee that future generations of New Yorkers will maintain access to the park’s many charms, he said. “You’ve got sailboats, you got historic boats, you’ve got kayakers, you’ve got active recreation, playgrounds for children, environmental education, family fun and environmental preservation — that, in my mind, encapsulates the ideals of the park,” added Tom. For Jeffrey, everything from taking his dog out to roam to utilizing the convenient compost centers to visiting the park’s many eateries keeps him coming back. “And honestly,” said Jeffrey, “just sitting on the benches in Clinton Cove and watching the sunset is a really incredible thing.”