The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

The West Side Rethinks Donald Trump’s Riverside South

Julia Vitullo-Martin, January 2004

New York City has been a transportation colossus for most of its history, and tends to retain a romantic but resolute attachment to the real estate associated with its glorious past. Thus the most savage development wars of the last few decades have centered on the waterfront and its lost heritage of shipping and railroads. And none was more brutal than the 40-year war fought over the 75-acre Penn Yards site, stretching from 59th Street to 72nd Street on Manhattan’s West Side. Amazingly enough, the Penn Yards war is coming to a productive, fairly peaceful end with the construction of Riverside South, a development of 16 residential buildings holding 5,700 apartments, 1.8 million square feet of commercial space, and a 21.5-acre waterfront public park.

Financed by investors from Hong Kong, built by the Trump Organization, owned by the Hudson Waterfront Company, and overseen by a coalition of civic groups called the Riverside South Planning Corporation (RSPC), Riverside South is a triumph of harmony out of acrimony. Not all issues are settled--transportation problems in particular remain--but basically the development is rapidly becoming a part of the West Side neighborhood that had once fought it to a draw.

The Riverside South saga of travail and triumph is worth pondering. After all, the huge, derelict site was long top-grade, prime waterfront real estate that had the most prized trait of all in New York: it was vacant. No residents had to be moved, no businesses displaced. So why did development prove to be so difficult, and what can be learned from the struggle?

Trump was far from the first suitor for the site. The first development proposal was made by Penn Central itself in 1962, during the development- and union-friendly Wagner administration. Penn Central wanted to partner with the Amalgamated Lithographers Union to build a mixed-use development, Litho City, on platforms over the trains. In 1969, the New York City Educational Construction Fund proposed a 12,000-unit residential development that went nowhere during the indifferent Lindsay administration. In 1975, the year of New York City’s brush with bankruptcy, Donald Trump optioned the site and proposed the same thing--12,000 apartments. None of the three proposals was truly serious.

Then in 1980, the Macri Group, who came to be known locally as the Argentines, optioned the site, and quickly proposed Lincoln West--a 7.3-million-square-foot project with 4,300 residential units. They were serious. They got the necessary rezoning in 1982 from the Koch administration. But they then failed to get financing, and lost the site.

In January 1985, Donald Trump bought the site for $100 million in partnership with Al Hirschfield--who had also been a partner with the Argentines--and proposed a 16.5-million-square-foot project, Television City, designed by architect Helmut Jahn. It included the world’s tallest building at 152 stories. Trump hoped to entice NBC to move in as prime tenant. Outraged West Siders and civic groups, which had been active but relatively polite regarding Lincoln West, organized immediately in opposition.

In late 1986 Trump proposed a new 14.5-million-square-foot project, with 7,600 apartments in 60- and 70-story towers, and a regional shopping mall. This time his architect was Alex Cooper, who had been the lead architect for Battery Park City’s master plan and who was well-regarded by nearly everybody, including the good government groups. But Cooper’s reputation didn’t diminish West Side outrage, and opposition to the project’s size swelled.

Mayor Koch aligned himself with the community opposition, and said he would oppose any project larger than 7.4 million square feet, the old Lincoln West size. He also rejected out of hand Trump’s request for zoning waivers and a $1 billion tax abatement to attract NBC. An uneasy NBC announced in 1987 that it would not be moving to Television City.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s finances worsened into near bankruptcy. In 1990 the banks restructured his $2 billion in loans, and deferred payments on his $200-million loan for the Penn Yards project, which he began calling Trump City. But the banks urged him to produce a workable, buildable plan.

Everybody knew that wasn’t going to happen without community cooperation.

Meanwhile, a coalition of civic groups led by the Municipal Art Society, that had been suing to stop the project, riveted Trump’s attention. They were willing to see a much smaller project go forward. From his banks’ point of view, a smaller project was better than none at all. As the late Linda Davidoff, then Parks Council executive director, said, “The Riverside South project is going to test whether civic initiative can cut through the gridlock in the development process that has come about.”

In March 1991 Trump and the coalition of civics, which also included the Parks Council, Regional Plan Association, Riverside Park Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Westpride, agreed to reduce the project’s size by 40% to 8.3 million square feet. The buildings would range from 30 to 40 stories, and the waterfront park would cover 23 acres. Design standards would impose variations among the towers, and the street plan would respect the existing West Side grid. In exchange, the civic groups promised to usher the Trump proposal through the land use review process.

And indeed they did. Despite the disapproval of Community Board 7, the project was almost immediately approved by the City Planning Commission and by Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. The project passed the City Council in December 1992. Still, construction didn’t begin until the spring of 1997. The first building was finished in 1998, and six buildings are completed today.

Speaking of the problems of development to Newsday in 1989, Charles Moerdler, former city housing and building commissioner and a partner in the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, said, “There are two schools of thought. One is for a developer to present a chamber of horrors and then compromise to make people think they won something. And the other is not to get them aroused and united in the first place.” Moerdler thinks the second strategy is preferable.

Without talking about the Trump project, Moerdler commented recently that there’s a lot to be said for the scenario in which a developer comes to the community and says “I have no intention of arousing community opposition. Let’s meet and cooperate. But give me what I have a right to, which is a fair return.” The problem comes from the “many different, contending community groups, organizations, and viewpoints that even if you get A to agree, B will not, even if or maybe because A has agreed.”

Perhaps Trump figured the community was going to force a huge cut in the size of the project whatever he proposed, and perhaps he didn’t actually want to build for 20 years, but his outsized project coalesced the West Side--normally a maverick, divided group--against him. Plus he seldom had mayoral support on his side. No developer can build with both the community and the mayor opposed.

Having been carved out of a wasteland of abandoned rail yards and bordered by obsolete roads, Riverside South has always had more than its share of transportation problems. The most serious is the still-looming elevated Miller Highway--a remnant of the earlier Westway wars--which blocks the river and sits over 8 acres of riverfront park. The RSPC pact between Trump and the civic organizations was monitored by city officials, who agreed to have the highway moved inland and buried beneath Riverside Drive. But the agreement was never made legally enforceable, which is of course hard to do with government. Trump senior vice president Charles Reiss says that the blame goes back to the Dinkins administration. “We ended up with the mess on the highway because Dinkins didn’t want to stop the project, but didn’t want to help it either.”

Many elected officials, most notoriously Congressman Jerrold Nadler who has held up federal funding for the relocation, seem to believe that moving the highway was a Trump initiative, meant primarily to enhance his property values. But it was always a civic initiative, part of the civic agenda long before they coalesced with Trump. The highway blights the park and the waterfront.

As for Trump, he laughs and says the highway allows all those potential buyers and renters to drive by his buildings and see how great they are.

Michael Bradley, RSPC executive director, says, “The major victories won by the civics and the city and the West Side in opposition to what was proposed by Trump are ancient history now. What’s done is done, but don’t let that interfere with getting the best possible development and park for the public.” Trump and his investors have their project and profits, which are substantial and fine, but the West Side still has the ugly Miller Highway--in large part because some West Siders have fought to keep it. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says that some project antagonists wrongly thought that if they left the Miller Highway standing, the development would be so devalued that it would never be built. They were very wrong.

Sooner or later the Miller Highway, thought to be the nation’s oldest elevated highway, will have to come down. But in the meantime, Trump is creating the new Riverside Boulevard as an extension of Riverside Drive. The boulevard has to be built either on landfill or on a platform. Commissioner Benepe argues that the plan has always been to reconstruct the Miller Highway beneath the new Riverside Boulevard in order to have an unblighted park. Thus Benepe urges that the boulevard be built on a platform now, which is relatively cheap to do though more expensive than building on landfill. When the highway is abolished in coming years, the new highway will be able to snake beneath the platform. Says Benepe, “We don’t want to come back 10 years from now, and abolish the park we’ve just built.”

Benepe also notes that Riverside Park was itself built on top of covered-over railroad tracks in the 1930s. For many years several trains a day passed beneath the magnificent promenade above. Surely if New York could do it in the 1930s we can do it today?

January 2004
Riverside South Planning Corporation
New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
Department of City Planning
Upper West Side District 6 via Gotham Gazette’s Searchlight
Manhattan Community
Board 7
Livable New York
Municipal Art Society
Mayor plans to curb overdevelopment in boroughs
Brooklyn’s BP Markowitz warmly welcomes Nets & arena
New Councilmember James denounces arena
Dept of City Planning hopes to amend community facilities zoning
“Riverside South isn’t about Trump. It’s about really nice people who have come to the West Side--school teachers, working families with young kids, Knick basketball players. We’re very much part of the West Side.”
Melanie Radley, resident
“From an aesthetic point of view we got buildings that are bulky and not gorgeous sitting between the city and the waterfront. But this situation was also ameliorated by some things no one paid attention to, such as extending the street grid into the project, so that neighbors can walk through. And, of course, the folks living there think they have wonderful buildings.”
Brendan Sexton, former president of the Municipal Art Society