Under the Full Buck Moon of July, some of us are hoping for a change of luck that’ll come like a break in the weather. This past week saw some bad Airbnb guests sink Ben’s houseboat out in Marina 59 and our good buddy Dave Cole broke his leg playing what he claims was sports in McCarren Park. Hopefully Airbnb’s insurance is solid and Dave feels good enough so I can come over and bring some beer for the guy. We are in the dead of summer and the fluke and sea bass action is on, though there are still some pretty nice bluefish out there too. I have yet to make it east yet this summer, but with this upcoming string of 90+ degree days, I’m already yearning for an early fall, though with 14 straight months of the warmest global temperatures since 1880, those days might be over. At least in my lifetime.
Also this week there’s been some news about Barry Diller’s proposed “floating park,” called Pier 55, on the Hudson River. Located near 14th Street, the semi-private/semi-public park will comprise a green space and performance venue. In an artist rendering it resembles a lush oasis propped up by golf tees with a band shell carved into artificial rolling hills. Funding for the park comes from Barry Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, who have committed $113 million to the project, with the rest coming from New York State and NYC funding. Who is Barry Diller, you might ask? He is the man responsible for the Fox Broadcasting Company and the USA network. He is a member of the Television Hall of Fame, a billionaire (valued at 2.6b), and an apparent lover of the arts. This is not the new news: construction on Diller’s Pier 55 was halted earlier this month because of a lawsuit by the City Club of New York claiming, according to this article, the “Hudson River Park Trust [who partnered with Diller-von Furstenberg on the project] didn’t adequately invite public comment, rushed environmental reviews, and ‘violated the public trust doctrine by alienating public parkland to Pier55, Inc., a private entity.’” The City Club, an advocacy group backing responsible urban development, filed its lawsuit last summer and recently won a battle halting construction of the park until September. That is, until this week, when an appellate court ruled construction can continue—but only consist of driving the first nine support pilings into the river.
Now, one might also ask why would anyone who fishes in NYC, or fishes at all, care if a rich Hollywood guy wants to donate $100 million to a public park on the Hudson. If you’re like me and not from New York City, you may not remember the Westway Project in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Westway Project was a David Rockefeller creation: a proposed 4.2 mile, six-lane highway to replace the then-dilapidated West Side Highway. The Westway highway would be built underground by filling in the shore of the Hudson, making available the newly created street-level, river-front property open for real estate—242 acres for parkland and apartment and office buildings. The project was estimated at $2-$4 billion and qualified for 90 percent funding by the Department of Transportation—which was huge for the city and fervently championed by Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Hugh Carey.
From Dick Russell’s excellent history STRIPER WARS (2005): “[T]he Westway Project heads wanted to create a massive landfill on 181 acres along the shore—requiring a mountain of dirt big enough, by one estimate, to bury all of Central Park six feet deep. This was where the future real estate would be built, replacing a series of dilapidated piers along a two-mile strip of Hudson River waterfront.”
The project depended on a series of favorable Environmental Impact Studies, including one by the Army Corps of Engineers. Since 1899, the Army has had control of all US navigable waters, and in particular issued the dredge-and-fill permits needed to destroy the pilings and old piers the project required. Al Butzel, an attorney who worked on a lawsuit further upriver at Storm King concerning a striped bass spawning area, was representing the New York City Clean Air Campaign at the time. From Russell’s book: “Butzel knew that a study of the interpier area had been conducted by the New York State Department of Transportation and passed along to the Army Corps. ‘I had heard rumors they were pulling up fish left and right, but I never thought that would make any difference. But when I saw the comments that the [National Marine Fisheries Service] had sent in, basically saying the Westway Project had the potential to decimate the striped bass population of the Hudson, well, suddenly a lawsuit on this seemed like an awfully good idea.’”
The initial EIS dismissed the pier area as a wasteland and “biologically impoverished,” but a further study by a consulting firm found “‘an astonishing amount of fish life’ in the interpier area, fifty times more fish than were found in the river channel,” according to Russell. “Substantial numbers found calm waters among the broken piers and littered bulkheads of the New York City shoreline and—thanks ironically, to about 150 million gallons a day of raw sewage discharged by Manhattan into this sector of the river—also found warmer water temperatures and nutrient-rich sustenance in the form of micro-organisms.”
Still in 1981, the Army gave its approval to the Westway project, but was stifled by lawsuits brought by the Sierra Club, the Clean Air Campaign, and the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, led by Al Butzel. The judge in the case was Thomas Griesa, whose decision would be based on the Army’s EIS. Using “hundreds of pages of data on fish populations from thousands of spots in the Hudson River Harbor,” the Army Corps of Engineers concluded Westway “would harm the habitat for less than .04 percent of the Hudson River’s commercially valuable striped bass (p. 96).” But a scientist named Ian Fletcher reviewed the same documents and found the project would affect 64 percent of the overwintering nursery habitat for juvenile striped bass would be destroyed. While unraveling the discrepancy, Fletcher found the Army consultants distributed the fish population evenly across a wide spread of the lower Hudson River area in order to mask the concentration of fish directly in the path of Westway.
On March 31, 1982 Judge Griesa, citing the Army’s data manipulation and the “obvious purpose… to detract from the startling revelations about the presence of fish in the proposed landfill area,” invalidated the Army Corps’ permit. The New York Times’ headline read that day: “U.S. Judge Blocks Westway Landfill as Threat to Bass.”
In 1984, the Army resubmitted its EIS and again was sued by the Sierra Club. A year later, Judge Griesa, citing a history of deception and collusion by the Army Corps, the Westway Project, and the Federal Highway Administration while preparing its EIS reports, blocked all funding for Westway. Perhaps because of striped bass, but probably more so because of shady dealings with Federal agencies, the Westway project was dead.
From a NY Times opinion piece in 1984: “During the trial, two years ago, Judge Griesa became outraged at the behavior of the Westway witnesses and their lawyers and said: ‘I have sentenced people to prison for securities fraud where the conduct was less blatant. . . .’ And a year ago, a former Federal Prosecutor, Thomas Puccio, who had been asked by Governor Cuomo to examine the allegations of wrongdoing, declared them serious and called for an independent investigation. In an interview at the time, Mr. Puccio said: ‘This is a real-estate boondoggle. People commit perjury because big money is at stake. There are heavy interests involved here.’ Now the [State Investigation Commission], following up on the Puccio report, has confirmed virtually all of Judge Griesa’s findings of dishonest conduct.”
Now, Diller’s floating pier project is no where near the scale of the Westway. But if allowed to proceed without the proper environmental impact studies, as the lawsuit by the City Club alleges, it could set another bad precedent for overdevelopment in the area. A thread on Stripersonline.com started by Pete Silverstein, a longtime opponent of Westway and member and former director of the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association (that later became Riverkeeper, which now supports Diller’s project), stresses the importance of the EIS and the fact that, again, 30-some years later the Army Corps of Engineers apparently approved the project without one. Some posters support Diller, in a bizarre pro-capitalist trumpeting that what’s-good-for-this-rich-guy-is-good-for-me.
Not knowing anything about Barry Diller’s character and intentions, it’s still obvious who benefits most from privately-owned waterfront property, and it’s not the visitors, tourists, music and arts fans, and it’s not the common taxpayer. None of this discounts any inherent goodness in Diller/von Furstenberg’s project—but the fact is that this is an investment for them and when a media mogul, even a billionaire one, makes moves like this, even with the best of altruistic intentions, he expects a return on that investment. That’s all well and good, but circumventing the proper channels, much as those pushing for Westway and advocating all the financial and public benefits it would have afforded, arouses some suspicion. The people know when they’re being lied to and they know when they’re being screwed. All one has to do is look at the current political climate in America to see massive evidence of that being played out in various extremes.
Is there any good news out there? In the same thread, Charles Witek, whose blog One Anglers Voyage is usually full of depressing news regarding fish stocks and conservation, pointed out: “One of the most interesting things that came out of the Westway debate was the way the bass adapted to what was an entirely artificial habitat along the coast of Manhattan.
Historically–or, perhaps, I should say “prehistorically,” as European colonists began changing the shape of the island just about as soon as they landed–juvenile striped bass inhabited the marshes that bordered Manhattan, and sought food in the interface between the saltier water of the Hudson and the fresher water poured into the big river by a host of streams.
In late-twentieth century Manhattan, the coastal marshes were long gone, and the streams had been filled. However, the juvenile bass were still there, now living among the decaying pilings of old piers, and the new ecosystem that had sprung up around the man-made structures. Fresh water incursions still existed, too, but now they came in the form of discharges from wastewater treatment plants. And it turned out that the juvenile bass were thriving in the novel environment that surrounded them, and that destruction of the piers and old pilings to create Westway would have had a significant deleterious effect on the Hudson River stock. It’s not speculation: although this occurred before everyone had Internet access, there is still information out there for people who care to look.”
Lots of information out there still. One final epitaph on Westway can be found here in the Observer, Rocky’s Last Laugh: The Westway Project Comes Full Circle. It turns out maybe the landfill from building Westway may have mitigated the damage from Hurricane Sandy, though building lower Manhattan on landfill and trees from midtown didn’t seem to help them any when Sandy buried it under 14 feet of water.