Community Development Corp. Created For East River Waterfront

East River Waterfront. File photo.

East River Waterfront. File photo.

As you probably know, a lot is happening on the East River Waterfront. The federal and city governments have committed more than $600 million to build a flood protection system and new recreational areas from East 23rd Street to the Battery. A new park at Pier 42 (Montgomery Street) is long-delayed but still in the works. At Pier 35, a new public space has been under construction for many years. Given all of the activity, is there a need for a new organization to coordinate and oversee the projects? Several groups interested in the future of the waterfront say, yes, and they’ve just taken a significant step.

As of January 7, the “South Street East River Development Corp.” is registered as a not-for-profit corporation with New York State.  According to the organization’s’ bylaws, its purpose is the:

…transformation of the Lower Manhattan East River Waterfront area into a vibrant space that bridges diverse neighboring communities and offers opportunities for recreational, social, educational and cultural engagement for New Yorkers and visitors alike…

Among the corporation’s priorities is the creation of:

…an autonomous stewardship entity that will sponsor a comprehensive and feasible  master plan for equitable infrastructural and economic development of the Lower Manhattan East River Waterfront area…

The boundaries are roughly Montgomery Street on the north and the Battery on the South, covering two community boards (an area near the Brooklyn Bridge is the dividing line between CB1 and CB3). The community development corporation (CDC) last week elected an interim board of directors. Board members include: Gina Pollara, a consultant initially hired to advise the group and former executive director of FDR Four Freedoms Park (president); Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council (treasurer); and Joanne Coyle from Friends of South Street Seaport (secretary). Permanent directors will be elected in the spring.

While the organization has now been officially established, it faces an uphill struggle for support from the community boards. In early presentations before CB1 and CB3, members expressed strong reservations about creating a new entity/authority on the waterfront.

east river overhead

The driving force behind the creation this community development corporation is the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a long-established affordable housing developer and advocacy organization. Two Bridges President Victor Papa said last week he’s convinced the corporation provides the only viable platform for a neighborhood-wide waterfront vision. “There is no common entity that I have seen CB1 or CB3 organize,” said Papa, “that is dealing with all of the (various waterfront) plans. The CDC promises to do that.”

The organization is moving forward with fundraising, which would allow it to hire a planner to help create a waterfront master plan. The CDC will likely be seeking funds from the $176 million recently awarded to the city by the federal government for flood protection below Montgomery Street. Papa also suggested it could tap into some or all of the $150,000 in annual rent paid by Basketball City for its lease on Pier 36. Finally, Papa said, he’d like to see Extell Development help fund the CDC. Extell is, of course, building an 80-story luxury tower on the old South Street Pathmark site.

A number of prominent groups have signed on in support of the CDC.  Board members include representatives from Hamilton Madison House, the Waterfront Alliance, Edison Properties and the Historic Districts Council. Tenant association leaders at the Vladeck Houses (NYCHA), Alfred E. Smith Houses (NYCHA), Southbridge Towers and Lands End II are also on the board.

But opinions are mixed among the mostly low- and middle-income residents who live on the waterfront. At Two Bridges Tower, a building located near the Manhattan Bridge, the tenant association does not support the CDC in its current form. “This initiative,” the tenant association noted in a statement, “does not necessarily represent the views of the residents who actually live along the waterfront between Montgomery Street and the Brooklyn Bridge.” TUFF-LES, a coalition representing several tenant associations, has not officially weighed in on the CDC. It is not represented on the corporation’s board.

In the past, CB1 Chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes has expressed serious doubts about supporting the organization. She declined an interview request, saying only that her board has “not taken an official position” on the community development corporation.

Some members of CB3 have argued that the new entity is unnecessary and would only create another layer of bureaucracy.  Others object to the involvement of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a past and future waterfront housing developer.  In the past year, CB3 and CB6 created a joint task force to help shape a resiliency plan for the area between Montgomery Street and East 23rd Street. Gigi Li, CB3’s chairperson, said this collaboration had worked well and could be a model for the future. She said talks are ongoing to form a similar partnership with Community Board 1 for waterfront planning below Montgomery Street.

Papa said Two Bridges intends to withdraw its active involvement from the CDC in the months ahead. Noting the ongoing resistance, he countered, “There needs to be an organization that transcends both community boards… We can’t be territorial.” He added that the campaign for support is extending beyond Community Boards 1 and 2. Meetings are taking place with local elected officials, including City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.