The Nicklaus-Designed Ferry Point at Last Nears Reality; Majors? ‘Absolutely,’
By JOHN PAUL NEWPORT
Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal
Ferry Point, the waterfront Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course in this New York City borough announced with great fanfare in 1998 by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, may actually soon be ready for play. Soon, in this case, is relative to the original ribbon-cutting date of 2001 given by Mr. Giuliani. Other notions about when Ferry Point would open, culled from press releases and other pronouncements by principals connected with the project, include 2002, spring 2003, fall 2006, early 2009 and late 2010. But there is substance, not merely hope, behind the latest projection of late fall 2011. And that’s big news.
On Sept. 11, the New York City comptroller, William Thompson, signed the last bit of paperwork necessary to funnel city funds to the construction crews. A new project manager, Florida-based golf architect John Sanford, has been on the case and working hard since October 2008. And Friday I tramped around the site, at the foot of the Whitestone Bridge across the East River from LaGuardia Airport, with Mr. Nicklaus’s lead design associate for the course, Jim Lipe, and a crew of shapers and other golf-course specialists. They were surveying the stakes, already in place, that mark the fairways, greens and tee boxes, and holding in-depth discussions about drainage. The bulldozers will roll Oct. 22, Mr. Lipe said.
Ferry Point will be a nearly treeless, Irish links-style course, featuring tall, blowing native grasses and dunes with teeing grounds that rise as high as 60 feet above grade and provide splendid views of the East River and, eight miles away, the Manhattan skyline. Mr. Nicklaus specifically intends the course, at 7,300 yards or so from the back tees, par 71, to be worthy of PGA Tour events and possibly major championships.
“A course like this sends a message that the city of New York has made a huge effort to build something very special,” Mr. Nicklaus said in a telephone interview. The course “absolutely” could handle majors, he said, adding that it will be up to the city to work out the parking and other logistics involved in hosting such an event, if it so desires. (There is a large city park on the other side of the Whitestone Bridge toll booths that might conceivably be used for temporary parking.) Meanwhile, Mr. Nicklaus said he is more concerned about what everyday public players think. “The last thing we want is for the course to be so substantial they play it once and never come back. It will be a challenge, but hopefully one that regular golfers can enjoy.”
Like a surprisingly large percentage of newer metropolitan golf courses, Ferry Point sits atop a former landfill. More than 70 have now been built in the U.S., including Liberty National in New Jersey near the Statue of Liberty (the site of last month’s Barclays PGA Tour event); another New Jersey private club on New York Harbor called Bayonne, which golf-architecture enthusiasts are swooning over; the public Harborside courses in Chicago; Wildcat in Houston; and Granite Links near Boston, which used 10 million cubic yards of fill from that city’s Big Dig project (and was designed by Mr. Sanford).
Landfill courses make sense because few other large tracts are available in the midst of population centers. From the point of view of a municipality, a golf course dresses up an eyesore and provides a valued amenity to residents. Housing is out for former landfills, as are most types of industrial use. And golf courses are often cheaper to build and maintain from an environmental perspective than are open-space parks heavily used by children. Many, in fact, return a profit. The 13 existing New York City courses, managed by outside companies, pump about $8 million a year into city coffers.
As former landfills go, the 222-acre Ferry Point site (the plan also includes a seven-acre community park, to open in November, and a 20-acre waterfront promenade) is relatively benign. It operated for only 12 years, closing in the early 1960s, and was supposed to take in only household garbage, not more toxic industrial waste, although apparently a good bit of illegal dumping took place after it formally closed. In the late 1960s, Ferry Point was briefly considered as the site for a new Yankee Stadium, but essentially it sat dormant until 1998, when the Giuliani administration, with the long-standing support of some in the local community, signed a 35-year lease with a private group called Ferry Point Partners to supervise capping the landfill in accordance with environmental regulations and to develop and run a golf course.
Things didn’t go well. Almost immediately, opposing local residents joined with environmental groups to sue the city, claiming the impact studies were insufficient. Once those suits were settled, after about a year’s delay, it became clear that the decomposing garbage underground was producing more methane gas than expected. That had to be vented. Other problems surfaced, too, goosing the overall cost of the project from an initial $22.4 million to nearly $100 million by October 2007. “At that point it became clear the developer could not finish the project with private equity and for the course still to be public, so the city terminated the contract,” Adrian Benepe, the New York City parks commissioner, told me last week.
Already out about $20 million, mostly for environmental remediation the city was obligated to provide no matter what use the land was put to, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg did a serious rethink but came to the same conclusion the Giuliani administration had, only this time the city would hire the subcontractors and run the project itself. The latest total cost estimate, including for the parks, is $123 million, making Ferry Point the most expensive muni ever, easily eclipsing the $70 million price tag for the Crossings at Carlsbad (California), believed to be the previous most expensive muni. (Donald Trump, by comparison, says he spent $250 million to develop his private Trump National in Los Angeles.)
Despite the many obstacles, Mr. Benepe calls Ferry Point a “win-win-win” situation—for the city, for taxpayers and for golfers. “Converting the waterfront and former industrial areas where the jobs have moved out into new uses the public can enjoy is the frontier for urban parks these days,” he said. The Bronx has a history of pioneering, he pointed out. In 1895, the nation’s first municipal golf course opened here, at Van Cortlandt Park, and is still going strong.