11/07/2013 04:01 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2013

Advocates Urge New York Governor To Veto Hudson River Park Bill


NEW YORK -- Citing Hurricane Sandy, environmental advocates are urging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to veto a bill that could expand development along the New York City riverfront. But supporters say those criticisms are nothing more than reheated opposition to the original Hudson River Park.

At issue is the park and a series of piers along the west side of Manhattan. Plans to develop the piers jutting into the Hudson River into sports facilities or additional park space have stalled for lack of funds.

A bill that passed out of New York's legislature with scant opposition in either chamber promises to change things, by allowing the park to sell "air rights" -- the ability to build tall buildings taller -- to developers that own land across from the park. The money earned could then be used by the Hudson River Park Trust to repair and further develop the piers.

The bill, which is strongly supported by the Hudson River Park Trust, also includes provisions on new development for the waterfront -- allowing for a helicopter landing pad, "entertainment barges," and a few other new uses of the piers.

But there's a hitch: Hurricane Sandy, and the threat of rising tides from climate change. After Sandy, environmentalists pointed out that they had warned for years about the dangers of development along the waterfront, only to be ignored.

"We think it's a disastrous bill, and unless the governor vetoes it, it will put more people and property in harm's way in upcoming storms," said Marcy Benstock, the director of the New York Clean Air Campaign. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Benstock led a successful campaign to stop Westway, a plan to run the West Side Highway underground via tunnel.

Benstock and the Sierra Club are worried that any new building in coastal flooding areas along the Hudson will be in danger. They say they're most concerned about the expanded financing opportunities in the bill, like the sale of air rights and longer leases on the piers.

The law creating the park, which was passed in 1998, spurred the development opportunities on the Hudson River pier. Now, the new financing provisions, proposed as an amendment to the 1998 law, could help unlock the waterfront's potential.

"These are groups that never wanted the park," responded Madelyn Wills, president and CEO of the park, to environmentalists' concerns. "I respect their point of view, but clearly there are millions of people who disagree with them and are happy that there is a park."

"Their position has always been not to build on the waterfront," said Wills. But, she said, she believes "when you build after Sandy, you have to build smarter," taking into account climate change.

Benstock said she and other groups never opposed building a park -- just building into the water.

The new Hudson River Park bill was sent to Cuomo on Friday, and he has 10 days excluding Sundays to veto or sign it. If he does nothing, it will go into law.

This story has been updated with an additional quote from Benstock on her opinion on the Hudson River Park. It has also been changed to clarify the nature of the Westway proposal.