Both Sides Now
Two not-so-different visions for the Hudson River Valley
Photographs by Michael Polito
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Not so long ago, the Hudson Valley was contested land.
For years, various proposals for large-scale housing developments and industrial facilities — recycling plants, power plants, and even waste dumping grounds — galvanized residents and environmental preservationists to push for protection of our natural resources. Many locals will recall the six-year battle to stop St. Lawrence Cement from building a massive plant in Hudson. That plan was eventually defeated, thanks in large part to the hard work of a small, but dedicated, bunch of civilian volunteers.
At the same time, there has been a big push by Scenic Hudson, the Open Space Institute, the Nature Conservancy, and a variety of local and regional land trusts to preserve open space. This effort has resulted in thousands of acres — including wetlands and other fragile ecosystems — being protected. Valuable farmland has been preserved, and many public parks have sprouted up along the Hudson waterfront.
But of course, development — whether residential or commercial — is a vital part of our local economy. Not surprisingly, developers and environmentalists have often been at odds over the best ways to use the land. But recently, the battle lines seem to have been redrawn. Poorly conceived development plans continue to be a threat. But there is a growing consensus that well-designed, sensitively sited residential and mixed-use projects are the ideal way to resurrect depressed downtowns and restore abandoned industrial sites to productivity. More and more, folks on both sides — from environmentalists to government officials to developers — agree that striking a balance between open-space preservation and desirable development is the key to the Valley’s future.
Achieving this goal, however, requires effective planning, and therein lies the rub. New York is a home-rule state, which means that municipal governments and local planning boards have the power to make important land-use decisions for their specific area. The result: a patchwork of inconsistent zoning requirements across the Valley. What is needed is a region-wide master plan — at least that is the consensus of two regional leaders, one an environmental preservationist, the other a major residential developer.
Hudson Valley spoke with Ned Sullivan, who has been the high-energy president of the environmental group Scenic Hudson for a decade. During his tenure, Sullivan (also a savvy businessman) has broadened the organization’s mission to include an emphasis on smart economic growth and a state energy conservation plan. He has also worked to form coalitions with similar organizations, and overseen a dramatic expansion of educational programs and community outreach.
We also checked in with Martin Ginsburg, president and chief executive officer of Ginsburg Development Companies (GDC). Based in Valhalla, the 46-year-old firm is a leading developer in Westchester County, and has built (or plans to build) developments in Yonkers, Hastings, Sleepy Hollow, Cornwall, Peekskill, Poughkeepsie, and Ossining. His new Harbors at Haverstraw, a sprawling luxury condo and townhouse development on the river, has garnered several awards from national and local building associations; Ginsburg hopes it will help revitalize the once-downtrodden village. Clearly a successful businessman, Ginsburg also strives to strengthen local communities. He helped restore ferry service to Haverstraw, was instrumental in the formation of Historic Hudson River Towns, and has reportedly donated more than $2 million to charitable causes and arts organizations.
Photograph by Michael Polito
Q&A with Ned Sullivan
President, Scenic Hudson
In 2007, Scenic Hudson announced the Saving the Land That Matters Most initiative, a commitment to preserve 65,000 acres over the next decade.
Describe how that project came to be.
Ned Sullivan: In the 400th anniversary year of Henry Hudson’s historic sail up the river that bears his name, there are going to be celebrations — from Manhattan all the way up to Albany and beyond — of New York’s history. We felt it was equally if not more important to leave a lasting legacy of our most important asset in the Hudson Valley, which is the beauty and ecological and agricultural resources. Linking people with the Hudson and providing public access is a key part of our mission. It’s also a collaborative effort: we can’t do 65,000 acres by ourselves. So we’ve reached out to the other land trusts so that our work complements theirs.
In essence, then, this effort is a master plan for preservation of open space along the Hudson?
NS: That’s right. It takes extraordinary effort and energy to reach out, come up with a common plan, and get everybody working together. We’ve had external acknowledgement by the Pew Charitable Trust, who believe the plan is the first of its kind [in the nation]. The Trust for Public Land is emulating Scenic Hudson’s model for preservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay. They have issued a challenge grant, saying that they will provide matching funds for any private resources that we are able to raise that will help us with this.
What’s the overall cost?
NS: It’s in the half-billion dollar range. This is going to require a private-public partnership. There are federal programs that have provided significant levels of resources for protection of historic regions. Also, this is in New York City’s backyard, the farmland we’re protecting in Dutchess and Columbia counties is the breadbasket of the city. We’re already making tremendous progress and have so far saved 2,000 acres — 3,000 if you count the acres [obtained by] the other collaborators.
The conventional argument is that the region needs jobs and environmental preservation gets in the way of that. Has that conversation changed?
NS: I was a founding member of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC), whose mission is to promote the Hudson Valley for green economic development across the country and internationally. HVEDC conducted a nationwide survey of more than 2,000 corporate-executive site selection consultants and realty brokers. The survey is very telling: the assets most identified with the Hudson Valley were scenic beauty, nature, and quality of life. Just this spring, three solar companies announced they are planning to establish headquarters here. Those kinds of decisions tell me we’re having an impact by protecting the beauty of the area.
How did Scenic Hudson get started?
NS: We protected Storm King Mountain from a proposed power pumping station 36 years ago. It took 17 years to stop. In the second year of the battle, there was a pivotal court decision called the Scenic Hudson decision. It gave citizens who didn’t have a direct economic interest in a major government decision or corporate project the right to have a standing in court: to bring in expert witnesses, and introduce scientific information about the impact of a project on a natural resource.
Is that why Scenic Hudson is credited with launching the modern environmental movement?
NS: Yes. The Scenic Hudson decision is the cornerstone of the National Environmental Policy Act — this country’s seminal environmental statute. It requires environmental impact statements for projects that are federally sponsored or have federal permits. Dozens of states have passed environmental quality review acts, which require environmental impact statements and the government to ask the public what it thinks.
We’ve gone beyond that battle, and created 40 public parks and preserves. We’ve protected about 27,000 acres along the river. We’ve worked to clean up the river, whether it’s getting rid of PCBs or stopping the discharge of pollutants. We’ve participated in the campaigns to get the river designated as an American Heritage River by the president and for Congress to designate the entire Valley a National Heritage Area. We’re also a force in Albany, working to ensure our reps are looking out for the environment despite the difficult fiscal climate. Finally, we’re a major force in protecting farmland.
Photograph by Michael Polito
What role has Scenic Hudson played in the review of proposed developments?
NS: We’re a voice to ensure that environmental factors are considered, and that public access to the river is a part of the picture. We think that the cities are the right place for development to occur — thoughtfully planned, and with public input. The right kind of development strengthens our city centers and makes them great places to live and work.
What are the deciding factors in determining your involvement in a proposed development?
NS: The importance of the resources that are at risk, and the degree of threat. We can’t be everywhere.
What are the top three challenges in accomplishing this mission?
NS: First, the lack of a shared vision of what constitutes good development. We need a common understanding, a shared recognition to preserve what makes the Valley so unique and beautiful. Second is the lack of comprehensive plans and zoning. Communities need to implement the local waterfront redevelopment plans that identify the areas that should be protected from a natural resources, cultural, and historic perspective, as well as the areas where development should occur, and put zoning in place. This provides the guidance, but communities have to implement it. So the final thing is coming up with the political will to ensure that development occurs where it’s supposed to.
What spurred your interest in environmental issues?
NS: I was born in Yonkers and grew up playing in the streets. When I was in fifth grade, my family moved to northern Westchester, and I had woods and streams in my backyard. I went away to school in the Berkshires, to Williams College, and flourished, hiking in the mountains and cross-country skiing. That’s where I first got involved in environmental work. There was a development project proposed for the flanks of Mount Greylock, which would have put a scar on the side of Massachusetts’ highest mountain. The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group had an office right on campus, so I got involved in fighting the project.
While earning your degree in environmental science from the Yale School of Forestry, you were also pursuing a business degree from the School of Management. That’s a little unusual. What opportunities arose that utilized both types of training?
NS: I got a job in the banking business immediately after graduate school, where I was helping to finance renewable energy projects in New England. I also developed a financial strategy for cleaning up Boston Harbor. It was a multibillion-dollar undertaking. We had to write the legislation to create an agency whose mission was to clean up the harbor by building wastewater infrastructure.
How did you find your way back to the Hudson Valley?
NS: I became the deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and oversaw New York State’s hazardous waste clean-up program. Then I was recruited to become the environmental commissioner for the state of Maine. In the process I met my wife. I moved to Maine, a year later she followed, and then we had a child and a stepdaughter. After four years, my wife said, “Let’s go back to the Hudson Valley.” We wanted to raise our child close to family. We came back and I went to work for Scenic Hudson. My wife, Tara, is the executive director of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial.
Where do you live?
NS: In Red Hook.
What’s your favorite spot on the river?
NS: I’d say Poets’ Walk [in Red Hook]. When I came down from Maine and was trying to decide whether I was going to work for Scenic Hudson, I went to Poets’ Walk. That really inspired me.
How do you spend your free time?
NS: I love to bicycle, cross-country ski, and spend time with my family. My daughter comes to a lot of Scenic Hudson’s events.
Do you think that badly conceived development will ever cease to be a threat?
NS: No. But we can dream that there will actually be a master plan for the Valley, where there would be agreement on what should be protected and where development should occur; and what kind of development would maintain the historic character [of the region] and make people want to come here, making this an incredible tourist destination.
Photograph by Michael Polito
Q&A with Martin Ginsburg
President and CEO, Ginsburg Development Companies
In your view, what makes Harbors at Haverstraw a showcase project?
Martin Ginsburg: This is the only master-plan waterfront currently under construction (as far as I know) on the Hudson River; it’s almost two miles of waterfront. We worked with the village and it took four years to develop the master plan. This was an abandoned industrial site. Before we were involved, the site had been proposed as a compost and recycling facility.
Do prospective buyers realize what a great location this is?
MG: We still have to be discovered. A major undersell is that Haverstraw does not have a good reputation. It still has crime, but we’re going to end up with a lot of charm. We’re improving it a lot.
We’re completely redoing Main Street. We acquired two buildings, one of which is the Stone Building on Broad Street. We’ve totally renovated it, and Rockland Community College has an extension center in the building. We also acquired a five-and-dime building and have completely renovated the façade. We’re soliciting to bring in a retail occupant. We have a commitment to build 180 affordable units. We’ve worked with HOGAR Inc., a local affordable housing advocate, [to contribute money to renovate] 30 existing homes.
In 2000, you also helped to initiate ferry service from Haverstraw to the train station in Ossining. How important is that to the project?
MG: It’s the key to the whole thing. Right now the ferry is used by 500 to 600 people a day. We had another ferry running from here to Yonkers and then down to Wall Street, but the funding for that one is being cut off. We hope to get it reactivated at some point.
What is the potential of the river, in your view?
MG: We appreciate the beauty, the history, and the uniqueness of the Hudson River. We have 20 million people living in proximity to the river, of whom a fraction actually enjoys it.
What are the main challenges in building developments in this region?
MG: Long-term vision is solely lacking throughout the Hudson River Valley. It’s pathetic how such a major resource is totally neglected. Everything is done piecemeal. There’s the potential to have tourists go up the river. But today, even if you have a luxury boat, you hardly have any places to stop, and when you get there, there’s nothing there. You have to create destinations, a string of pearls on the Hudson River, to drive a major multibillion dollar tourist industry that would help activate river towns.
But isn’t Harbors a residential development? Why would a tourist want to go there?
MG: Tourists would want to explore the public access waterfront trail. We’re going to have 20 historic markers, and we are placing sculptures along the walkway. Our vision is to extend this so that all [river] communities pick up some aspect of sculpture on the river. Combined with Dia:Beacon and Storm King [Art Center], you could have the largest outdoor museum in the world.
Another aspect is boat access. The plan includes a pier that would handle ferries and cruise ships. And we’re planning a major restaurant and inn. We have a deal with Buzzy O’Keefe, one of New York’s top restaurateurs, to do this. With New York City greeting 46 million tourists a year, a lot of them would be coming up the river if we had destinations in place.
Any other projects you’re planning that could tie in with tourism?
MG: We have a project we’re hoping to do in Ossining, if the economy improves. It is potentially a kick-off site for one of these pearls on the Hudson River. A number of defunct businesses were on the site. Potentially it’s a major tourist destination, with the [proposed] Sing Sing Museum. I’ve been advocating for that. There are also plans for a riverfront park. The ferry pier is already operating.
Most river towns don’t have this focus of how important the river is as a generator for their local economy. There should be a river-wide vision. On the environmental side, Scenic Hudson is working on that.
I believe everything they stand for, except their vision is defense, and this requires offense. You have to say you’re doing more, not less. They don’t like to see new development. They have a tendency to say, “Let’s make it all green.” You take these old industrial sites, which were once the economic vitality of the town, and you put in green lawns and parking lots. Towns made into parks that are totally underutilized for the most part.
I think they consider us a good developer, but that’s like a Democrat saying someone’s a good Republican, or vice versa.
Photograph by Michael Polito
When it comes to the right type of design for new developments on the river, there’s a lot of emphasis on New Urbanism, a style of architecture that promotes mixed-use, walkable, energy-efficient communities. What’s your opinion?
MG: It’s so easy to screw up development on the river. Tarrytown has a new development right now [Hudson Harbor], and the style of architecture is New Urbanist. Well, there’s New Urbanist and river architecture. There’s a difference. I would not put a downtown on the river. River architecture is more playful and lighter. It’s easy to blow it.
How do you try not to blow it?
MG: I’m an architect, and we’ve always been an environmentally sensitive developer. We are always conscious of doing things contextually. Our objective is to fit appropriate development in a particular location.
Are you a native New Yorker?
MG: Yes, I was born in the Bronx. We moved to Queens and I commuted back to the Bronx to go to the Bronx High School of Science. I’m a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I moved to New Mexico for two or three years, then I came back to New York and worked as an architect.
How did you become a developer?
MG: I have a brother who’s an attorney, and another brother who’s an architect. We chipped in and bought a lot, and built a house, in Westchester County. We sold it in 1964 and that was our start. We have a lot of income properties we’ve developed over the years as well.
Do you live on the Hudson River?
MG: I live in Dobbs Ferry, overlooking the river. I’ve been enjoying living on the river for some time. I built my first condo on the esplanade in northwestern Yonkers in the 1960s, and I moved in.
What was it about the river that appealed to you originally?
MG: I saw it as beautiful and neglected. There were a lot of people working on the purification of the river. What we have to focus on is making this river work again, for the benefit of the residents and the entire state. Let’s get the river towns focused on working together. New York is a very parochial state. Towns don’t talk to each other.
How are you helping change that?
MG: Every year I promote Flower Villages on the Hudson. I donate money to every village to help them put flowers out, and then I have a landscape architect who inspects every village. We award first, second, and third prizes. I picked this idea up in Europe. France has unbelievable flower villages. If we can get to that quality of life, it would be tremendous.
Do you have a favorite spot on the river?
MG: Wherever I go, I’m amazed at this river. It’s different in every location. I’m a Hudson River fanatic. You have all these unique aspects and most people who live here don’t even know it. I would love to be able to hike along the river; you can do that in portions, but not along its entire length.
Do you travel a lot?
MG: I do. I go to the Caribbean, Switzerland, and Italy. I like to walk and hike. If a place is beautiful and I’m with my wife, that’s all I need.
And that’s what you would like to happen here? Have a beautiful place that’s walkable?
MG: Yes, that’s usable, that people can come and enjoy and, quite frankly, see people as part of the scenery. It enhances the experience when you see people.
Next up: Recent open space victories, new developments — and the projects that scored on our "A" and "F" lists