By Patricia Woodbridge
As I made stir-fry dinner in my rental apartment on West End Avenue, my husband and I listened to the entire discussion of Community Board 7’s Parks & Environment Committee on the evening of March 20, 2023.
At that Zoom meeting, the New York City Parks Department (Parks) presented to the committee revised ideas for their Riverside Park 79th Street Boat Basin renovation. Parks was moving toward a design for a slightly smaller, two-story “dock house,” a euphemism for a large administrative building to house all the facilities and people they determined necessary to service the modern marine facility they envision in Riverside Park.
Some in the community of the Upper West Side of Manhattan have been horrified at the idea of a huge box supported by tall, fat columns placed between the Hudson River Greenway and its views of the sunset over the Palisades.
The Boat Basin is in a particularly beloved area of Riverside Park, where benches line the walkway under the canopy of crab apple branches that flower gloriously pink and white in the spring. Here views extend north towards the George Washington Bridge and south towards the Statue of Liberty. The benches gather elderly people, resting skateboarders, young lovers canoodling, loners reading or listening to music, and children with parents. Daily, a throng of walkers, skateboarders, bikers, and baby strollers surges along the path in both directions.
The Hudson River, once a commercial water highway, in the 20th century became New York’s sewer, filled with industrial contaminants and raw human waste. Local environmental activism inspired court action. Fifty-three years ago, Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act. Atlantic sturgeon and other fish have returned, the wild oyster population has recovered, and humpbacked whales have been seen. Once a year the river fills with splashing New York City Triathlon competitors. Like its great, civilized sister rivers, the Loire in France and the Rhine in Germany, the Hudson is now understood as a great natural public treasure to be protected.
Which brings us back to Parks’ Boat Basin Marina and Dock House project. The marina was for decades a motley collection of live-aboards who made their primary residence a motorized structure and paid a small slip fee. They were fun and funky boats with window boxes and dogs and neighbors having cocktails on the deck at sunset.
The current $90 million renovation project closed the marina in 2021, with the live-aboards forced out. The wood docks were rebuilt with more slips. With more transient boats, the Parks department wants a much larger administrative and service facility. But it’s not clear who will use this expensive new facility. They talk about ADA compliance and storm-surge design, septic hookups, and the necessity for offices and storage and meeting rooms, showers, and tool storage, but it’s looking a lot like a comfortable gas station on the Hudson River with docking for wealthy yacht and sailboat owners.
Parks says they considered a small building at the basin with administrative and storage functions inside the city-owned underground parking garage across the walkway. It’s part of Parks’ current renovation of the rotunda and the Boat Basin Café, and the two projects could be combined. They found this solution lacking. They have a vision of a splendid single structure servicing a state-of-the-art new marina.
But why put a modern marina on the edge of Riverside Park on the Hudson River? Why should the desires of a relatively small group of boaters be more important than the park experience of all the nearby apartment residents and all the visitors traveling the walkway? Why in this age when we are trying to mitigate climate change and continue our cleansing of the waters of the Hudson should we allow parking for gas-propelled boats?
Why not discard the idea of a fancy marina. Leave the existing docks for local groups to organize occasional kayaking or for people to enjoy walking on a dock farther into the Hudson with longer views.
Simply build nothing.
Patricia Woodbridge is a retired Movie Art Director who has lived on the Upper West Side for 50 years.