By Sarah Trefethen
One unusually balmy March afternoon last week, Madelyn Wils steered a golf cart onto Pier 25.
“Look at this,” she said. “Look a the playground.”
The jungle gym was awash with toddlers. Every swing was in use.
“It just confirms what you think,” said Wils, executive director of Hudson River Park. “People go to places that have what they need, and downtown, they need places to play.”
All along the five-mile stretch of park on Manhattan’s west shore were similar scenes. Every portion of the park open to the public — picnic benches, skate parks, tennis courts and soccer fields — was bustling.
“You see how people use it and love it? Now we just have to find a way to take care of it,” Wils said.
Wils took the helm of the park seven months ago, leaving a position as executive vice president with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, where she oversaw waterfront development projects from the South Bronx to Coney Island.
The park reported an operating deficit of $10 million last year, but with Pier 40 in disrepair and other piers awaiting development — one is still in use as Department of Sanitation parking facility — the park’s need for capital investment is significant.
Even without taking maintenance into consideration, Wils estimates $200 million is needed to finish the park.
“I really did not know the breadth of issues when I came in,” she said. “I knew there were issues, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
The end of Pier 25 offers a view of New York Harbor, where shipping barges and small sailboats glide past Liberty Island. Wils, who has lived in Tribeca for 26 years and was chairman of Manhattan’s Community Board 1 in 2001, says it’s her favorite spot in the park.
“The Statue of Liberty is what kept me going after 9/11,” she said. “Living downtown, that was really an icon for me.”
A Flushing native, Wils earned a degree in drama and music from the University of Arizona before returning to the city to pursue a performance career. On a blind date 30 years ago, she met Steven Wils, third-generation owner of Harry Wils and Co, a butter, egg and cheese distributor in the neighborhood then known as Washington Market.
Wils raised three sons in Tribeca, and got her start in economic development advocating for baseball fields in Battery Park. She worked on the neighborhood’s rezoning as a member of CB1, and after 9/11, she shut down her television production company to devote herself full-time to revitalizing lower Manhattan.
That led to her work with the EDC, and her eventual return to advocating for downtown recreation space in her current position.
Hudson River Park was created on a combination of city and state land and designed to be self-funding, with income coming from commercial enterprises that operate within the park.
But capital funds from the city and state have fallen to just $7 million from a high of $42 million in 2008, according to the New York Times.
“What I’ve done since I started here is I’ve gotten my arms around the costs of the park, and the formula is not there in the legislation to support the costs,” Wils said.
In December, Wils created a task force to find additional revenue for the park. They hope to have their recommendations ready by May for the next legislative season.
The solution could come from additional revenue generation within the park, Wils said, but she also has her eye on the billions of dollars of residential construction — and associated tax revenue — that has sprouted in formerly industrial portions of Tribeca and Chelsea since the park was built.
Meanwhile, work at the park is not completely stalled. In April, the park plans to issues a request for proposals for a 250-seat restaurant to be built in Tribeca, just north of Pier 25.
Much of the seating will be outside, on a rooftop deck and patio.
“I’m not a restaurateur, but I think something in the seafood area would be good,” Wils said. “Probably something family-oriented.”
In 2009, park officials selected a design by Young Woo and Associates for Pier 59, located at the end of 15th Street in Chelsea. The project, currently going through environmental impact assessment, would create a small shopping center of local artisan stores.
Wils hopes to find a funding method to support not only Hudson River Park, but to provide a model to sustain other waterfront parks in the future.
“The saying is, God helps those who help themselves,” she said. “We have to find an answer.”