Gail Dubov doesn't remember exactly why she attended her local Community Board 7 meeting last November — like most, she isn't exactly enthused about jumping on yet another Zoom call — but she can't forget what she saw.
The Parks Department and Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) were presenting their renderings of the new dock house at the 79th Street Boat Basin, part of a massive $90 million reconstruction of the entire marina inside Riverside Park.
Suffice it to say, she hated it.
"I really hadn't been that aware of the original dock house plan, I wasn't in the loop," Dubov, who has lived on the Upper West Side for over 40 years, told Gothamist. "But I saw this plan — I just was horrified."
For more than 80 years, the 79th Street Boat Basin has been a hub of activity nestled inside of Riverside Park. It is one of a very few marinas in the NYC area offering year-round dockage at affordable prices; it also had the advantage of being located adjacent to the stone rotunda which previously housed the wildly popular Boat Basin Cafe. But the basin has been in desperate need of improvements for decades: it hasn't been dredged since 1958, some wooden structures are breaking apart, and the dock house is on the verge of falling into the water.
By all accounts, the new design is a much-needed upgrade, one that would finally fix the dilapidated infrastructure, comply with various environmental standards, and increase the amount of boats able to access the basin. But the process of agreeing on a new design has infuriated both Upper West Siders, longtime marina users, and liveaboards — the full-time boaters who built their own close community there until being dispersed in November 2021 because of "unsafe conditions." The project won't begin construction until 2023, at the earliest.
I don't want people to be jogging down that strip in 10 years and have to pass by some monstrosity.
"This park is something that my neighborhood really depends upon. For generations, people are going to have to live with whatever is being built, and I want it to be something beautiful," said Dubov, the president of the West 83rd Street Block Association and a member of the UWS Coalition, a newly-formed group of dozens of block associations and neighborhood groups throughout the area. "I don't want people to be jogging down that strip in 10 years and have to pass by some monstrosity that they shake their head at and say, 'How did this happen?' I'm somebody that will yell and scream if I feel like something isn't correct."
Last year, the Parks Department and Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) announced they would begin a total reconstruction of the area to make the marina "climate resilient, enable more ecological research and education, and expand access for boaters."
The marina will be demolished, dredged, reconstructed and extended as part of the $90 million project, which includes just under $30 million from FEMA; there will be more slips available, more boating amenities (including that brand new dock house), more ice protection, less in-basin wave action and debris, and the site will be brought up to modern ADA, resiliency and security standards, per the city's plans.
"The new dock house is being designed to meet the operational and site safety requirements for the 24/7 year-round facility, with space for customer service, maintenance, security, and administrative functions," said Parks Department spokesperson Megan Moriarty in a statement. "The project will also make the facility ADA-accessible for the first time in its over 80-year history."
She added, "The design is not final at this time – NYC Parks and NYCEDC continue finalizing based on input from the community and Public Design Commission."
In interviews with over a dozen local UWS residents, community board members, and boaters, most agree the Boat Basin needs to be upgraded. But almost nobody seems to like the city's current plan, with much of the ire falling on the design of the new dock house.
"It looks like a throwback to the 'ticky tacky' houses Pete Seeger sang about plopped on the water," local Shelley Feinerman told WNYC/Gothamist, referencing the Malvina Reynolds song, "Little Boxes," which mocked suburban tract housing. "I am a visual artist who has lived on the Upper West Side for 50 years and have painted in Riverside Park — this rendering is quite an aesthetic eye sore. Hideous hideous hideous!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Steve Anderson, who heads the Theodore Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association on West 81st Street and is board chair of the UWS Coalition, said he feels that between the pandemic, concerns over congestion pricing, and fights over new construction, many Upper West Siders were not paying close attention when the Boat Basin plans were presented at a series of recent community board meetings.
"The idea of the upgrade of the Boat Basin was something most of us thought sounded like a good thing," Anderson said. "When the design came to more of our attentions, this was not the building of a new boathouse — this looked like the monstrosity on the Hudson."
He compared the design to an Amazon warehouse: "It looks like a big giant box store showed up on the river's edge. And that's just not right. It is neither welcoming to our community, nor seemingly fitting into what we feel would be an appropriate design."
Now that more people have seen the plans and spoken out, locals hope the city can put the brakes on moving forward until there’s more discussion. "We need those people who are the shepherds of this project to take the time to gather our community together and to show us what is possible, what is appropriate, what is affordable and what could work. Because what I see doesn't look good," Anderson said.
Steven M. Brown, the chair of Community Board 7, explained that Parks and NYCEDC first presented plans (without designs) in the winter of 2019, then returned on June 21st, 2021 with renderings. There were a lot of upgrades for the dock house, including publicly accessible restrooms, showers, and a giant community space that could be used for public programming. It would also end up being significantly larger than the old one, with an anonymous, boxy aesthetic that Brown says turned off many.
He said on November 15th, 2021, "they came back with a second design, and I think that's where it sort of took a little bit more of a negative tone."
The universal feedback was that this was not a very attractive building.
In the new renderings, the roof of the building had been sloped; very little else about the design had been changed, despite the previous backlash. Brown wrote a letter to NYCEDC to express the some of the community's concerns.
"Essentially, they presented the same thing with...some small cosmetic changes," Brown said. "I think the universal feedback was that this was not a very attractive building. You're looking at the 79th Street Boat Basin, this is an iconic and historic area, and it just didn't seem like it really did it justice."
Dubov, who was at that last meeting, said she was frustrated that the project design stuck out like a sore thumb amid the tranquil feel of the surrounding neighborhood.
"It just seemed enormous," she said. "It's so much larger than anything I would have envisioned in that area. It is blocking the view of any of the people walking north or south. It just does not fit into the landscape of Riverside Park, at that spot."
After that meeting, she did everything she could to bring attention to the project: "I really took it upon myself to start yelling loudly that we need to do something," she said. She sent screenshots of the presentation to politicians, local news outlets like West Side Rag, and the Riverside Park Conservancy, who disavowed the project.
"Riverside Park Conservancy is deeply concerned about the proposed design of the 79th Street Dock House," the group said in a statement. "It is boxy and dense, and incongruent to the surrounding area of the Park. We were neither briefed nor consulted on this design, and we are making our views known directly to the NYC Parks Department."
Dubov posted about the project on Nextdoor, hoping to drum up more voices to push back on the designs.
"It was unbelievable how within a short period of time, so many people responded," she said. "I'd say 99% of the people were equally as disturbed as I was. And every once in a while there was someone that said, 'What's so bad about this?'"
One of those people is Andrew Beddini, 49, who kept his boat at the marina from 1999 up until last year, when the Parks Department made the last remaining boaters move until the project is complete (which could take up to five years). He said he's happy that officials are finally trying to improve the marina — his boat was damaged several times because of slips separating from pilings — even though he felt he had no choice but to sell his boat while construction is happening.
"It's absolutely useless to me,” Beddini said in an interview. “I can put it up in New Jersey, but do I want to deal with the commute to go over to New Jersey to go hang around on a boat? No."
When he first saw the post on Nextdoor, "somebody was saying, 'Oh, my God, this is the most disgusting thing in the world, have they no shame' and all that sort of stuff, it kind of put me in sort of a contrarian position, because I'm like, this person isn't evaluating this at all from a functional standpoint at all," Beddini said. "And they have no idea what's required architecturally for a structure in a facility that is utilized for that purpose, they're just going, 'When I walk my dog, I don't want to see anything.'"
He said there is often a misconception about what kinds of people are using the marina, one of the most affordable places to keep a boat in all of New York state.
"Slip fees [there] are very reasonable," he said. "I was keeping my 25-foot boat there for $3,000 for the season, which is chump change compared to any private facility throughout Manhattan. So it made it very accessible for middle income Manhattanites to utilize the facilities. There's this misconception that it's millionaires with money stuffed in their pockets named Chad, with the captain's hat on and stuff like that, [but] it's just a lot of everyday people."
'It's all about the liveaboards'
The Boat Basin first opened in 1937 under then-City/State Park Commissioner Robert Moses, but it was a project that had been on Moses' mind a long time. According to the Parks Department, Moses had visited that part of the park 20 years earlier — when the vacant land had become a dump on the riverside — and dreamed of a redevelopment plan "that would yield new parkland and public amenities. He believed this waterfront could be the most beautiful thing in the world.'"
Council member Gale Brewer, who served as Manhattan Borough President from January 2014 to December 2021, said beyond the affordability and the location, the most important thing about the Boat Basin are the people who turned it into their full time homes: "What makes it special is the liveaboards. You can have a marina and that's nice, there are marinas all around the city. But the fact that it is a home for people ... that's why it's unique. It's all about the liveaboards."
The community of liveaboards and stayaboards—liveaboards literally live on their boats year-round, while stayaboards tend to use them like second homes or office spaces — flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, with more than 100 families taking up residence at the marina. In those early days, it was something of a divorcés paradise.
"I met my husband there, he lived across the dock," said Leslie Day, who was one of a few single women living at the basin when she moved there in 1975. "And then we had a child, and people started raising families there, and going to the local public schools. And in the winter, we had to park completely to ourselves, which was really nice, even though winters were very hard."
Day ended up living at the Boat Basin for 36 years until 2011, when she started to lose her balance. She called it a life-changing experience.
"We were always there for each other to help," she said. "People started putting gardens on their boats and on the docks. There were so many celebrations. It was just a floating small town. And the other thing is that people came from all over the world, and so we had neighbors from every continent and from every walk of life, people unemployed to fabulously wealthy people, and everyone in between. And so it was an unusual place to be, we all lived together. And oh, God, I loved it."
Although he never technically lived at the marina, Dick DeBartolo kept boats there for over 50 years, and may have been the longest person left there by the time it shut down. In addition to being a longtime Mad Magazine writer and contributor to Match Game and other TV game shows, DeBartolo wrote for a now-defunct boating magazine, using his boats as a part-time office.
"I started testing boats," DeBartolo, who has an apartment at 82nd Street said in an interview. "And over the years, I had probably 25 boats at the marina of different kinds. And I really miss it terribly."
He would host regular Mad parties on his boat, and, as documented in a New York Magazine article last summer, was neighbors with an eclectic array of artists, tradespeople, celebrities (including musician Richie Havens), teachers and maintenance workers. The shared experience of the marina forged bonds between people that would last decades.
"People in New York City, you don't know your neighbors," he said. "I mean, I hardly know the people in this building. So you knew your neighbors and you were there to help your neighbors, because there's a feeling about a boat that you can't run across the street and get something — if you need something, it's easier to go to your boating neighbor. So it made sense that we were a close knit family."
Even back then, the place was a bit of a mess. "The problem was that the docks really were falling apart," he explained. "I always had a theory that when all the boats left, the marina might float away because it almost seemed like the boats were the only thing holding the marina together."
It's not as if the boaters haven't tried to work with the city to fix things up. Ed Bacon, 81, who has been a liveaboard for over 50 years, is known as the "unofficial mayor" of the community, a Boat Basin historian and activist who has written a newsletter about the marina for years.
In the mid-'70s, he says the city "had money allocated to dredge the place, and we even had a deal set up with all the boaters saying, anybody's got a running boat, go somewhere else, and the non-runners stay here and we'll move the non-runners back and forth so the dredging can be accomplished. The city took the money and went elsewhere, and here we are [many] years later, finally getting around to maybe dredging again." The area is silted up now, and "it's the big drawback of the basin, you have to go out somewhere near high tide with your boat, and you have to return near high tide, which makes it limited for some people."
The relationship between the Parks Department and the liveaboards has never been great. In 1980, the department closed the marina and apparently tried to evict them after a transient boat caught fire. Peter M. Wright, then chairman of the Riverside Park Fund, declared in 1991 that "the people in the Boat Basin are squatters on public land.”
In the early '90s, the Parks Department stopped issuing year-round permits in what the New York Times called "an effort to gradually reduce the population of full-timers, who once occupied nearly all of the 116 permanent slips."
Short-term rentals brought in more money, and by 2008, there were only 43 liveaboards still there who had been grandfathered in. Around that time, the Parks Department also changed the rules so all boats had to be running and seaworthy. While the dockage fees there were cheap, maintaining a running-boat is much more expensive, which led to more liveaboards leaving.
Bacon, who still lives on his motor yacht with his wife and dog, said he agrees with the UWS locals that the new dock house design is out of alignment with the area.
"It's five times as large as the current dock house, and we're going to do with less than double the slips. I call it the WWII POW camp commandant's building, it looks like it's just hovering over the Boat Basin," he said. "They want to get their design through with as little input from the outside as they can. But now the chickens are coming home to roost with things like the dock house."
While boaters would prefer a floating dock house barge with a one-level house on it, the Parks Department and NYCEDC says the barge design wasn't considered as a permanent replacement because of "maintenance and inspection requirements, and complexities with utility connections for providing dock house services."
As for the height and bulk of the new dock house, a spokesperson for the city’s economic development corporation told Gothamist, "the building has to be elevated above the design flood elevation" so the bottom of the building is 16 feet above the median high tide. The building's internal design and mechanical systems dictated the height of the roof.
When the project is completed, the liveaboards have been told they'll get first dibs on new slips, but none of that is guaranteed. NYCEDC noted that they expect there to be 193 slips total once the project is done. The Parks Department told Gothamist, "It is our expectation that the project will significantly expand the number of berths available for year-round dockage at the Boat Basin. As is consistent with Parks policy, all existing permittees will be given priority to return." They also say the project "is not tied to any fee increases," though they wouldn't say whether the costs would remain the same.
Brewer is determined to make sure the liveaboards don't get left behind. She said the city has not done enough to bring the community into the project: "The issue is: why not talk to people? Right? Just having a hearing at CB7 is not enough. You've got to sit down at a round table, and I'm gonna push for that. Apparently Riverside Park Conservancy wasn't even consulted, that's ridiculous."
The Parks Department and NYCEDC could not confirm whether they were planning to present a totally new design in the coming months, but they did emphasize that nothing was set in stone. "NYCEDC with NYC Parks will continue community engagement, as the design process is not complete, and we will consider all proposed community suggestions," said an NYCEDC spokesperson.
Brewer, who grew up on a boat herself, said she will continue to fight to prioritize 52 slips for the liveaboards so they can make it their homes once again.
"They want to come back to the Upper West Side, they love it, this is a very special place," she said of those who have been dispersed. "They will all be back I hope, God willing, depending on people's health and so on. But the issue is to have enough people to be secure—you gotta have enough liveaboards so that they can support each other too."
DeBartolo, who is currently boatless, hopes he will be able to return: "I hope to come back when it's available. I tried to move my boat but I've never owned a car in my life and the nearest marina I could get to was about 90 minutes by public transportation. And I just decided, I'm going to sell my boat, which I did. And then hopefully buy a new one, if I'm still alive, whenever it reopens."