NYC Harbor Park Update

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Eye from Albany
December 2006

NYC Harbor Park Update

by Paul M. Bray

The ongoing and painful saga of a great park coming into being continues in New York Harbor. At least I hope it is coming into being.

In an August 2000 Eye column I wrote about New York Harbor Park encompassing four hundred and fifty square miles of water or open space in the heart of a great and growing city, a valuable estuary system and historic and recreational upland areas like Battery Park and South Street Sea Port in Manhattan, Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn and Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island.

Harbor Park with its theme of maritime trade offers a living panorama of the European settlement of America beginning with Henry Hudson’s voyage in 1609.

This Park was established as part of the New York State Heritage Area System (formerly known as the urban cultural park system before a suburban Republican became Governor). In a letter written in February 1988, former State Park Commissioner Orin Lehman notified former Mayor Koch that the state was approving Harbor Park’s management plan and that Lehman was “confident that we are creating a unique park which will serve the citizens of the New York City UCP area, the Empire State and its visitors for many generations to come”.

As an urban cultural park or heritage area, Harbor Park is intended to be what has been called a “partnership park” where public and private interests are expected to collaborate and local governments like New York City to carry out state approved management plans for their particular park. As a unit in a statewide system, Harbor Park is eligible for special state funding and system marketing. It received $4 million in state funds for a visitor center at Pier A, but has apparently frittered away much of the money on the Pier without producing a visitor center.

I wrote about Harbor Park in relation to two great New York parks, Central Park and Adirondack Park, and concluded that “only time will tell if New York’s evolutionary line of park legacy will offer the inspiration and galvanize the vision and leadership to realize the world class potential of the New York Harbor Park”.

From what has happened and what is not happening in Harbor Park, the glass is at best half full and, therefore, half empty.

The good news comes from the civic energy of the Waterfront Alliance and other civic initiatives that stimulate interest and activity along the waterfronts and on the water and park making along the Hudson River and a portion of the Brooklyn waterfront. The good stuff is happening unrelated to Harbor Park as an institution.

Not so good news comes from the gorillas in the Harbor saga better known as the National Park Service and the City of New York as they thrash about doing their own thing with the State hiding on the sideline.

The National Park Service stumbles along with its obsession to create its own harbor park consisting of the ten national parks in the New York-New Jersey area (with their 23 historic sites) united in the cause of “harbor tourism”. ( Towards that end it recently unveiled an exhibit titled “The Gateway to America: Discover New York Harbor” at the Federal Hall Visitor Center in lower Manhattan. Its intent of revealing “more about the historic and natural legacy, as well as the future, of New York Harbor” is laudable. Yet, as a “visitor center review” in the New York Times points out, “The spirit of the harbor and the city only peeks through glancingly in the discussions of commerce and immigration”. The critic found the Service’s “self-celebration” disruptive. It doesn’t advance the partnership or seamless web or even the identity of parks and sites of Harbor Park.

While the National Park Service has difficulty getting beyond being self celebratory, the City of New York continues to take the cake in being myopic and challenged in playing with others. Ignoring the state designated Harbor Park and the federal harbor park constructs, City officials formed a Harbor District Advisory Board and is seeking consultants “to study how to better exploit it” for recreation and tourism.

Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development, points to Boston, San Francisco and Sidney, as exemplars for harbor development. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying “What we’re doing is creating this unique mix of culture, recreation and history all tied together by the water, and that you don’t have anywhere else in the world.”

Apparently, Mr. Doctoroff doesn’t know about the state approved management plan for Harbor Park prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Doughlass, Inc that blueprinted for the City exactly what he is now talking about.

Meanwhile the State that is supposed to be overseeing the City’s implementation of the Harbor Park heritage area plan that Lehman approved in the 80s sits quietly by doing nothing about the City doing nothing to implement the plan.

Come on guys (City, State, Federal and civic) with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York Harbor in 2009 (“where America began”), get your acts together for a world class Harbor Park celebration that combines spectacle with a vast array of cultural, recreational and historic legacy projects that can result in Harbor Park realizing its potential as the great park it should be. New York City successfully took advantage of the Hudson Tricentennial in 1909. Let us see it be done again.

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Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is