By Daniel Katzive
Riverside Park looks glorious in May. The cherry blossoms peaked in April, but the park now bursts in green. As the temperatures climb, sunbathers, bikers, and walkers come out in force. Scores of soccer players and little leaguers troop onto the park’s playing fields, and on the Hudson River, pleasure boats pass by, heading from their winter boatyards to summer marinas.
But none of those boats are stopping here.
The 79th Street Boat Basin Marina, heading into its second summer out of service, sits both derelict and charming in its decay – like something from a movie set, said Joe Gallagher, a local resident and movie producer who was busy working his phone near the marina on a recent weekday afternoon. “One of the beautiful things about the Upper West Side is, you really do feel like you’re walking in the movies and it’s like this imaginary world,” said Gallagher.
But tension is brewing below the Boat Basin’s surface. The marina’s 85-year-old docks – deemed unsafe and vacated in 2021 after years of flooding, ice damage, and mud accumulation on the river bed – await the wrecking ball at some unknown date. “We really extended the life of that as long as anyone could or would in their right mind do so,” said Nate Grove, head of marinas for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department (NYC Parks), at a Community Board 7 meeting back in November of that year. “We did what we could to maintain it, but at a certain point, for safety reasons, you just can’t keep rolling the dice like that.”
NYC Parks and the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) want to rebuild the marina bigger and better than before, with room for more boats, access for larger vessels, and space for more public programming. The EDC’s web page boosting the endeavor promises: “When complete, the project will create new opportunities for boaters and the community of the Upper West Side.”
A marina has occupied this spot since the city created the park as we know it today in the 1930s under the leadership of urban planner Robert Moses. Damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 means the city can tap into about $30 million in federal funding to rebuild it ($30 million would cover roughly a third of the city’s projected cost). But there is a catch – a big one.
The Dock House Conundrum
A marina consists of a series of connected docks, but the docks have to be supervised, and a building is needed for that administrative work: for staff, security, a place to store Coast Guard-mandated records and customs documents for boats visiting from outside the US. And facilities are needed for the boaters who tie up at the docks. The current dock house, a ramshackle affair, has been cobbled together over the years and is hardly noticeable from the promenade which runs past. Heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy, it needs to be rebuilt. And that’s where things get complicated.
A new dock house will have to comply with a host of rules and regulations which did not exist when the old one was built. Among them: flood sustainability rules require elevating the building on pilings; the building must have an elevator and ramps to meet standards in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules require adequate facilities for the staff who work there. “When you touch it, you have to bring it up to code,” Nate Grove, the Parks Department official, explained at a meeting last month of Community Board 7’s Parks and Environment Committee. ”We were grandfathered in, as it were, until you need to rebuild, and [then] you have to comply with these things.”
As part of the rebuilding, the city’s dock house plan also includes improved laundry and shower facilities for boaters, bringing the marina up to modern marina standards. “Nothing pains me more than reading the reviews of 79th Street Boat Basin in the cruising guides,” Grove told the committee. “They love the location, of course. They love being on the Upper West Side, they love access to Zabars, they love the customer service they get, they like the pricing. But the amenities are never what they expected from a marina located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.” So rebuilding, Grove told the committee, would finally give the city “the opportunity to deliver amenities to the boating public who are using the facility.”
But all of those goals and requirements must be met in a building that also meets a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation mandate which restricts how much area the building can cover over the water. So in order to fit everything in, the city’s plans call for a two-story structure built on pilings and looming over the promenade below.
Stephen Frech, senior project manager from M&N Engineering, which is managing the project for the EDC, wrote to the CB 7 Parks and Environment Committee in early 2022 defending the large proposed structure. “The size of the Dockhouse [sic] balances the functional requirements for the marina staff to operate the marina safely and provide necessary space for marina users, while minimizing the overall footprint to the extent practical,” he said in the letter.
Community reaction has been, to put it, mildly, negative. In fact, “horrified” might not be too strong a word. Summarizing concerns in a letter to the EDC in November 2021, CB7 members wrote, “[Board] Members and community members expressed thoughts that the design was too large, bulky, clumsy, and opaque, and also inconsistent with the surrounding architectural and other features of Riverside Park.”
At a recent meeting where the EDC revealed revised plans for a taller but narrower building, board member Erana Stennett was even more blunt: “I don’t think this building is contextual, I don’t think it has any relationship to Riverside Park, to the water. It doesn’t fit.” Barbara Adler, also a CB7 board member, said “[I]n terms of the way it sits in our park, it’s an eyesore, and it will always be an eyesore as long as it’s any kind of giant structure like that.”
The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which is providing the federal portion of the funding for the project, has also taken notice. In consultation with the New York State Historic Preservation Office, FEMA determined that the proposed two-story structure would trigger additional review requirements under the National Historic Preservation Act in order to qualify for federal money. In an April 17 letter the agency said the dock house “would obstruct clear views to the Hudson River from the Riverside Park and Drive Historic District and, therefore, would be an Adverse Effect to Historic Properties.”
Beyond the aesthetic criticism, some in the neighborhood have raised a more fundamental question: why rebuild the marina at all? “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?” asked Patricia Woodbridge in a March opinion piece in the Rag. “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?”
But many New Yorkers see the Hudson River as more than something pretty to admire from the shore. The Parks Department points out that the Boat Basin is one of only three public marinas in New York City. Responding to questions from WSR, a Parks Department spokesman wrote: “The site has served as New York City’s primary site for boating and marine education for 85 years, and connects thousands of New Yorkers, including students, boaters, and members of the public, to the waterfront each year.”
The old marina had a long waiting list for slips, but the prices at this public facility were much lower than at privately operated marinas like Chelsea Piers, and seasonal moorings were also available without a wait list. “Prior to closing, that was the only affordable place on the Hudson River to get in,” Community Board 7 member Kristen Berger said at a board meeting in May 2023. “It made a big difference for all sorts of boaters in trying to access the river.” But while Berger supports Boat Basin redevelopment, she is no fan of the current dock house design. “I found it just, frankly, pretty ugly,” she told the board.
Educational groups like the non-profit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater are eager to see the marina reopen. The organization, whose mission is to promote environmental stewardship on the Hudson, docked their 106-foot sloop at the Boat Basin for decades. The vessel, originally sponsored by folk artist and social activist Pete Seeger, has relocated off the Hudson to a marina in Brooklyn Bridge Park, using it as its New York City base now that 79th Street is closed.
Amali Knobloch, Communications Coordinator for Clearwater, said “79th Street was so perfect because it was really out of the way of most of the ferry traffic that’s crisscrossing the river. And so when we have students on board, it’s in the interest of the river being as calm as possible.” On the land side, she adds “school groups who were on the west side of Manhattan could walk, or who lived a couple of blocks inward, they could walk to the dock from their school.”
A sailing school has also been displaced by the closure. Atlantic Yachting had been operating a sailing school and youth summer camp out of the Boat Basin for 14 years. It now operates out of its Tribeca location at Pier 25. The company offers escorted travel to Tribeca from the West Side for its summer campers but has lost some families who don’t want to make the trip. Like Clearwater, the school also preferred the northern location because of lighter ferry traffic, making it more comfortable for youth instruction.
Logan Rowell, who owns Atlantic Yachting with his wife Caroline, said his camp was not just for well-off families. The company was able to meet applications to fully or partially cover camp tuition for all families who applied for scholarships. The company’s weekend basic keelboat certification class for adults that was held at the Boat Basin was also affordable, coming in at under $500 for twelve hours of instruction.
“Obviously it has negatively impacted our business,” said Rowell. “But I think the sadder thing is it’s just totally affected the ability for Upper West Siders to go sailing and Upper East Siders, or anybody uptown.” Rowell is eager to see the facility reopen. “The bottom line is the sooner it gets done, the sooner people are interacting with and recreating on the river again on the Upper West Side.”
Neither Atlantic Yachting nor the Clearwater team have taken a view on the particular design of the dock house itself. Rowell said his organization does not rely on much in terms of shore-side facilities; the school stores equipment on its boats. Clearwater’s Knobloch said the organization would like to have better laundry and showers for staff, but it does not take a position on the external design and the building’s impact on views from the shore. “You know, we live on the river so we can’t really speak to that,” said Knobloch.
Boat owners who have been displaced are eager to return to an improved facility with better protection from wakes and improved services. They have relocated their boats to marinas in Jersey City and Westchester, but miss the close-knit boat basin community and the ease of access that the 79th Street facility provided. Jan van der Lande, who has kept a boat there since 1985 with his wife Kazumi Hayama, occasionally staying aboard, said: “We know everybody on the boat basin. It’s almost like a little community there. We really miss it.” Their boat is now in Jersey City. Now, to access the water, said van der Lande, “we have to travel about almost sometimes two hours. It used to be one half hour to get to our boat. Before it was much better located.”
But even boat owners looking forward to coming back to the Boat Basin are not particularly enamored with the dock house plan. “I don’t understand what programming is driving a two-story giant building, when previously it was a shack,” said Laura Friedman, who called the proposed structure “sort of an abomination.” Her views were echoed by Jan van der Lande, who said, “I don’t know why it has to be such a monster dock house.” Jim Haddad, another boat owner who administers a Facebook group of former and presumably future Boat Basin users, told WSR, “No one I’ve talked to likes the design. They want it to be smaller and architecturally consistent with the area.”
Local residents enjoying the river view on a recent Thursday afternoon generally agreed the facility needs to be rebuilt but were not willing to endorse a large structure. “As a resident who’s been here for more than a decade, has seen the neighborhood evolve and grow and change, for me personally, at one point you just have to let it go and say that’s just the evolution of the city, of the neighborhood,”said Frank Graves, who was resting on a bench across from the proposed future site of the new dock house following a run. But, he added: “As long as it’s not, like, obnoxious, right? If they can keep things nice and discreet.”
“When you dock a boat, you don’t need it. It’s bull,” said Mike Mann, a theater worker out for a walk. Jerry, an 80-year old sitting on a nearby bench, who didn’t want to share his last name, added: “It should be something quaint. It should make people smile.”
Can the Parks Department and EDC come up with something that supports more programming, meets current codes, and still makes people smile? The approval process continues with FEMA currently reviewing the largely negative comments received from CB7 and members of the public. At the conclusion of its review, FEMA will communicate what mitigation measures will be needed to reduce the impact on views from historically significant areas.
The project then goes for review by the city’s Public Design Commission, which will solicit feedback from the Community Board as well, ensuring at least one more round of local debate. The Parks Department and EDC did not answer an inquiry from WSR on whether the original 2025 completion estimate was still achievable.
In the meantime, the decaying marina sits unrestored, as water laps over the mossy docks, and ducks and other waterfowl paddle around. The basin, home to your usual mallard couples, also has some less common looking fowl in residence which have lived here for years, perhaps domestic species released in the wild. They seem not to mind having the place to themselves.
Correction: The federal portion of the project would be $30 million, not $30 billion as we originally stated.