Requiem for Ineffective Leadership, Part One

By Arthur Z. Schwartz Published September 2012

This is an extremely unusual election year for those of us who live south of 59th Street and above Canal Street on Manhattan’s West Side. We and our neighbors in the other City Council Districts that make up State Senate District 29 are actually getting to elect a new state senator. The last time any city, state or federal elected office representing our Council District came vacant and we voters were given any real choice to vote for someone other than an incumbent was in early 1999, after Tom Duane ran unopposed to fill the state senate seat he is now vacating and Christine Quinn was elected to replace him on the City Council. Thirteen years is a long time to go with no change: same City Council member (Quinn); same State Assembly members (Dick Gottfried and Deborah Glick); same State Senator (Duane); and same U.S. Congresspersons (Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney). One would think the lack of change is indicative of a healthy, vibrant corps of elected representatives who vigorously defend our communities, mobilize our citizens and have earned their multiple terms in office.

But recent events surrounding the St. Vincent’s closure and NYU’s expansion tell us something else about our city and state leaders, at least, and require us to take a hard look at what these elected leaders are saying about our latest crisis—the possible closure of Pier 40 to save Hudson River Park.

I. NYU—Was the Loss Avoidable?

From the perspective of community residents, the City Council vote to approve the slightly modified NYU 2031 Plan is a major loss. NYU has been given license to turn the south side of Washington Square Park into an even bigger urban landscape than it is, wholly out of character with the rest of Greenwich Village, which spawned NYU. The superblocks south of Washington Square Park were already out of character with the rest of Soho and the Village. I remember 33 years ago, looking out the window of my first office, which faced north 20 stories above Canal Street. Silver Towers and University Village were the bulk of the few tall structures (by NYC standards) between Canal Street and the Empire State Building. Now the blight of NYU’s high-rise buildings will get even worse.

How did the community lose to NYU when our State Senator, Tom Duane, and our Assembly member, Deborah Glick, stood steadfastly against the expansion plan, leading marches and meetings and letter-writing campaigns? Were they even at the table when the actual decisions were made? Did they have any plan other than to stand, hands on hips, saying “No Way”? I think not. Instead of recognizing NYU’s political clout and what it could do “as-of-right” and tapping the creative energy of our community early on to develop an alternative plan, these elected officials—especially Assembly member Glick—ran to the front of a growing popular movement and grabbed the banner. But NYU rolled right over them, and Council member Chin and Council Speaker Quinn largely ignored them. Their role was so inconsequential that the residents of 505 LaGuardia Place, desperately seeking to maintain an affordable rent oasis in the middle of our increasingly expensive community, barred politicians from their meetings with NYU.

The NYU conflict cried out for a community-led compromise. The beginnings of one were put forward by Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the NYU Faculty. But it came too late and was never endorsed by Glick or Duane. Our political leaders missed the boat. And that left Margaret Chin in the unenviable position of having to support almost all or nothing. Not a sparkling performance.

II. St. Vincent’s—Could We Have Gotten More?

I received a notice in the mail in late July that the North Shore-LIJ Urgent Care Center that opened two years ago on West 20th Street with $9 million in State funding to provide some relief from the St. Vincent’s closing was itself closing “due to a lack of use.” It was a reminder of the “hands on hips” failed leadership our elected officials provided on this issue as well. Deborah Glick, Tom Duane and Chris Quinn all stood before large crowds in early 2010 and promised that there was “no way” they would allow our community to lose a hospital. In Chris Quinn’s speeches, we heard vague mention of an “Urgent Care Center,” which, in the end, is all we wound up with. At no point did anyone have a real plan to preserve any hospital beds in the West or Central Village, so needed not just by our community but also by the residents of Fulton Houses, Chelsea-Elliot Houses, and the ILGWU Co-ops in Chelsea. Neither did our aspiring political leader Yetta Kurland, who had no compromise plan in mind and focused everyone’s energy on the Bankruptcy Court proceedings even after the judge told her that the Court wasn’t interested in anything except paying creditors. Kurland also made herself persona non grata with the ineffective Glick, Quinn, and Duane and built her own separate “No Way” movement. She created a lot of anger and hope but led people nowhere.

There always were alternatives to saving St. Vincent’s, like building a small hospital atop the O’Toole Building (a proposal raised by Deborah Glick late in the game and by Yetta Kurland even later) or offering space on Pier 40 to some hospital looking to expand (a proposal I first laid out in WestView in June 2010.) In the end, Council Speaker Quinn gave the community some school seats, a small park, an AIDS Memorial, a fund for affordable housing, and a somewhat scaled-down version of the Rudin condo plan—but we got very little replacement healthcare. I can’t help wonder whether the new Northshore-LIJ Urgent Care Center that will open in the O’Toole Building in two or three years will go the way of the first one (on which $9 million in public money was wasted) because it also won’t be able to deal with real emergencies.

III. Hudson River Park—Is “No Way” the Answer?

So now we face a crisis in Hudson River Park, which I explored at length in the June issue of WestView. In brief, the Park will have a negative cash flow this fiscal year, largely due to the repairs that have to be done to keep the roof of Pier 40 from falling in, and it will have a negative cash flow next year because of additional needed Pier 40 repairs. And then there is the long-term problem of needing to repair Pier 40’s pilings, which will cost $100 million.

We (the Village Community) have done a good job of knocking down several efforts to put out-of-context, inappropriate entertainment and commercial buildings on the Pier, and, having done so, developers who lost more than $1 million preparing these proposals just aren’t interested in submitting new ones. Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club commissioned a study of what uses would bring the most money to the Pier (and the Park) with the least traffic impact, and the study concluded that rental housing and hotel uses would be optimal. Such projects could preserve 65 to 75 percent of the Pier for recreational and park uses. The Hudson River Park Trust asked for changes in legislative restrictions on Park use to allow it to seek the broadest range of proposals for the Pier and drafted legislation that would mandate these changes. Assembly member Glick said “no way” to residential and hotel uses and to commercial office uses (though she seems to have backed off on the latter) and, once again, hands on hips, has announced that the State and City should just fund the Park and pay for the Pier 40 repairs out of the State and City Treasuries. Look, she says, the City just gave $260 million to Governor’s Island. But neither the Mayor nor the Governor seems interested in Glick’s moral stand, and the Trust has started shutting down parts of the Pier.

Assembly member Glick says that this is just a ploy to push for housing and considers opposition to residential use on part of the Pier a fundamental principle. Unless her position changes, or Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver moves a bill forward later this year to allow residential use over her objection, we will all soon find out whether the Trust is bluffing. Meanwhile, we know that larger and larger chunks of the roof of Pier 40 are falling down and that water damage is endangering large sections of the Pier below the roof. Some of us believe it is possible to legalize housing and impose restrictions that would prevent unacceptable projects from being built. It is time, again, for creativity and compromise. If we can find a middle ground, this could be a win-win, with the ugly structure on Pier 40 replaced by smaller and sleeker towers of some sort. This time, there are many in the community who will not rally behind Glick’s “No Way” banner and will push for alternatives on their own. It will be an interesting fall, even though Deborah will run unopposed on the Democratic ballot.

Arthur Z. Schwartz is the male Democratic State Committee member for Greenwich Village, Soho and Tribeca, the Co-Chair of the Parks and Waterfront Committee at Community Board 2, and the Principal Attorney in the new private public-interest law firm Advocates for Justice, Chartered Attorneys. He emphasizes that the views he expresses here are his own and do not reflect those of anybody on Community Board 2.

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