Garbage in, Golf Course out

The course of a Bronx dump is forever changed—for better or worse, for richer and for poorer

You can't see anything on the other side now," Pierre Gagné boasts, standing four stories high on top of more than a million cubic yards of dirt, sand, and chunks of cement he has brought to the Bronx.

Where he is standing was supposed to have been a golf course by now. But instead of green grass and flapping flags, there are rumbling dump trucks, bulldozers, pockets of mud, and pinnacles of dirt. What has vanished from view as Gagné's mountain has risen are the buildings of the working-class neighborhood Throgs Neck to the east, and a public park and the Hutchinson River Parkway to the west.

Time was, when Gagné, 50, and three partners (as Ferry Point Partners LLC) were first awarded the right to build a golf course on a former garbage dump near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, that the course was expected to open in 2001 and cost $22.5 million.

In 2001, when Alex Ulam wrote about the Ferry Point project in City Limits Monthly, the course was slated to open in 2003.

When I profiled Gagné for The New York Times in April 2003, he confidently said the cost would total $50 million. Construction on the 222-acre course, he added, would be done by fall 2005 and, giving grass time to grow, opening day would be in spring 2006.

Interviewed for this story, Gagné has added another year and $20 million, making the estimated total now $70 million. The first rounds will be played in summer 2007, he says—but even that is not certain, because he has asked for approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to bring in 726,300 more cubic yards of fill he says he needs to sculpt the course into something truly world-class.

Gagné hoped for quick approval, but in November the DEC told him that the increase would be handled not as a modification to his existing permit but instead as a new application that would require a more cumbersome process, including a public-comment period. On December 29, the DEC informed the project's overseers that their application for more fill was still incomplete.

"I can't guarantee I'm going to open in '07 unless everything falls into place," Gagné says by cell phone on his way to a meeting with investors a few days after we toured the site. "I need my permit from DEC to do the grading activity I've requested."

After Gagné makes that statement, he quickly rethinks it. He does not want to make his investors or any of the politicians and bureaucrats with a stake in the project more nervous about the delays than they already are. "Whether we get the fill or not, opening day is '07. It won't make any difference except we'll end up with a lesser project."

This is crunch time for what has swollen into one of the most audacious and ambitious public-works projects in New York City's modern history. Gagné is building a Jack Nicklaus-designed, Scottish-links-style golf course with a driving range and grand banquet halls five miles from Times Square on an old methane-exuding garbage dump first created by the controversial public-works czar Robert Moses.


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photo: Cary Conover

Under its contract with the city, won in 1998 and signed in 2000, Ferry Point Partners will run the course for 35 years, paying the city a minimum of $1.25 million annually. After that time, the city takes full ownership. Whether the course ever opens and what it finally looks like—world-beater or ho-hum—may show if this town, rife with powerful and noisy constituencies who fight over everything, is still capable of allowing such audacity to happen.

Not that the noisy constituencies don't have some important concerns, ranging from environmental issues to questions of economic justice.


By contract, the city is responsible for dealing with environmental cleanup on the site and has already spent more than $6 million. Of that, about $1 million went to the law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn for defeating lawsuits filed by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance that demanded a full environmental review. Gagné says about $2 million has gone to Gannett Fleming Inc., the company that conducts DEC-mandated monitoring on the incoming truckloads of fill.

image
photo: Cary Conover

About $1 million has gone to TRC Companies, which files DEC-mandated reports every two weeks showing how much methane is being pushed out from the old dump by the weight of the fill and into monitoring wells along the periphery. (The good news is that for the most part, there is less methane being pushed out now than there was when monitoring began three years ago.)

Gagné figures that taxpayers will have to cough up at least twice what the city's already spent before the first paying customer whacks a ball. But if the course opens and the city receives only the minimum rent guaranteed it, the project could within 10 years recoup the $12 million.


What worries many in the community around Ferry Point is that Gagné will somehow convince the city that the project will only work financially if he is given the right to expand the golf course onto the west side of Ferry Point, on the opposite side of the Whitestone Bridge, where a long-neglected-by-the-government but much used 175-acre public park beckons.
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