Klein: Inside the Ferry Point Park project

The New York skyline forms the backdrop for what would be the short par-4 seventh hole at Ferry Point.

The New York skyline forms the backdrop for what would be the short par-4 seventh hole at Ferry Point.

NEW YORK -- The story of Ferry Point Park is one that only this great city could produce. It’s a story that spans decades and is filled with characters worthy of a novel. 

It began more than 70 years ago with a man who came to be known simply as “the power broker.” More recently this tale has included a bombastic billionaire tycoon with a serious golf habit. The cast also includes a pair of strong-willed mayors and the greatest golfer in history.

The story line hardly could be more improbable. It revolves around the development of a major championship-quality golf course on the most unlikely of locations – an old garbage dump under a busy expressway on the East River in the gritty south Bronx. It will, in true New York form, be the most expensive municipal golf course ever built. And it’s a project that everyone agrees will lose tens of millions of dollars, in part because of costly union contracts.

This is a Tom Wolfe epic just waiting to be told. Think of it as “Bonfire of the Vanities” meets “On the Waterfront.” 

• • •

Ferry Point is a 222-acre parcel under the north side of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which crosses the East River and connects the Bronx with the borough of Queens. It’s bordered to the east by housing, much of it low-income, and to the north by a cemetery marked by a towering cross. The cross provides the ideal target line for the approach to the 10th green of the course that Jack Nicklaus has designed for the site. The western boundary is lined by the Hutchinson River Parkway, which carries 103,000 cars on and off of the bridge each day, enshrouding the site in a steady, high-decibel thrum. 

Grandiose plans have been floated for Ferry Point since the 1930s, when omnipotent parks commissioner Robert Moses – the aforementioned “power broker” – proposed golf, sports fields, a beach and bus terminal.

For two decades after World War II, it was used as a landfill. Plans to cap the site and build a golf course have been floated since at least the mid-1970s. In 2000, a private firm, Ferry Point Partners, undertook to build a Nicklaus-designed course with surrounding park and commercial development. The initial cost estimate was $22.4 million, with the developer paying the city $1.25 million in the first year and $3 million by Year 35. The project had strong backing from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his successor, current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both avid golfers. 

Ferry Point Partners, however, pulled out in 2006, and city officials moved to turn it into a public project. Meanwhile, the price tag was exploding. The golf course alone now is projected to cost $97 million. At least another $87 million will be required to cap the site and manage two parks adjacent to the course – a 10-acre community facility park and an 18-acre waterfront park. That doesn’t include the cost the city will have to pay to build an access road to the parkway.

The newest player in this drama is Donald Trump, who earlier this month was awarded the contract to manage the course. Trump plans to build a $10 million clubhouse, which he doesn’t have to finish until Year 5, and spend up to $850,000 annually on the grow-in process. The 7,158-yard course is scheduled to open in 2014. 

“It’s a spectacular piece of land, a major-championship site literally right next to everything, in the city,” Trump said. “It’s important for golf. Golf has been suffering lately, and it’s a major course in the biggest city in the world.”

For Trump, his first foray into municipal golf was a no-brainer. “My feasibility study is my gut,” he said.

The total budget is by no means fixed. One professional involved in Ferry Point calls it “the most complicated project I’ve ever seen.”

When the city put the course development back out for bidding in 2008, the contract was awarded to the newly constituted team of Nicklaus and John Sanford, who will manage the project and coordinate the army of consultants, engineers, contractors and municipal agencies. Sanford’s credits include Granite Links Golf Club, built on the site of Boston’s “Big Dig.”

Plans are to haul in 220,000 cubic yards of sand, enough to plate the course 1 foot deep for turf cultivation. The sand will be trucked in from eastern Long Island, 60 miles away. At an average load of 27 cubic yards per truck, they’ll need 8,150 truck runs, with drivers earning $98 per hour – half in direct pay, half in benefits. 

At rates like that, it’s easy to see how costs can skyrocket. One fellow sits in a truck all day at $100 per hour monitoring the fuel tank on a pump station to make sure it has enough gasoline. The maintenance building and surrounding storage areas will cost $6.8 million. The price tag for a 20-by-30-foot bathroom on the course? A staggering $1.2 million.

• • •

City officials agree that Ferry Point will not pay for itself, let alone make money. The strongest economic argument the city could muster is that the other alternatives are costlier, whereas the golf course would set the city back only $42 million over a projected 35-year period.

According to a 2007 document provided by the Department of Parks & Recreation, closing the landfill would have cost $44 million, with no revenue stream or public utilization; a nature park atop a closed landfill would cost $77 million (that includes $1 million per year in maintenance); and an actively used recreation park would cost $152 million to build and operate (at a cost of $1.2 million for annual maintenance). By contrast, according to the 2007 estimate, the golf course would cost $61 million to build, but would be partially offset by $19 million in revenue over a 35-year period.

“Our goal is to provide a public service, not to seek a return on investment,” said Vickie Karp, a Parks Department spokeswoman.

Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Parks Advocates, a watchdog group, said the golf course is preferable to an unused, closed landfill. Still, he says, “The whole project is a waste of taxpayer money. The city has so many other needs, for education, police and fire, and for our rundown parks. We’re flushing our money down the drain for a billionaire.”

There is strong demand for golf in New York. Tee sheets for the city’s 13 munis are booked solid. The first Saturday in January, in unseasonably warm weather, Douglaston Park in Queens registered 250 golfers. Lee Finkel, regional director of Northeast operations for American Golf, which operates six city courses, said his courses do 300,000 rounds per year, adding that “we’re making money and the city is making money.” Peak green fees typically are $40.

Trump plans to charge city residents $125 to play Ferry Point; non-residents will pay more. Trump is not required to pay any fees to the city for the first four years; thereafter, he’ll pay $300,000 or 7 percent of annual gross revenue, whichever is greater, with payments escalating to $470,000 by Year 20.

For Croft and other critics, none of the math – the total bill, Trump’s obligations – adds up. But Ferry Point Park’s redevelopment seems destined to proceed. By 2014, Trump says golfers will be beating balls in the shadows of the Whitestone Bridge. At some future date, the irrepressible developer hopes to bring a major championship to the south Bronx.

It’s a scenario that even Tom Wolfe would have difficulty imagining.

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