Garbage in, Golf Course out


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.

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.

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.

“We will get the EPA and everyone and their mother involved if he passes that bridge line,” says neighborhood resident Jimi Hughes, 50, who fought for years just to get the Parks Department to put a few picnic tables and barbecue sites on the west side of Ferry Point. “I’ll have hundreds of people out there ready to deal with him.”

Since the mid 1980s, when vandals stole the copper roof off the bathrooms on the west side of Ferry Point Park, none of the mostly working-class people who play soccer and softball, who have barbecues, and who fish off the sandy shore there has had a private pot to piss in.

All that’s left of the former bathrooms are a few cracked feet of old tile floor. A formerly stately waterfront promenade is now buckling and weed-filled. The few remaining lamps along it do not work. The baseball fields have large, bare dirt spans. Many dead trees have not been cut down.

One of the most heroic stands of the Revolutionary War took place in 1776 on Westchester Creek, which now runs along the park’s western edge. Twenty-five sharpshooting colonists shielded behind a woodpile prevented 4,000 redcoats from crossing the creek and cutting off General George Washington’s communication and supply lines from Boston.

One of the big issues that war was fought over was taxation without representation.

About 230 years later, Gagné says he can add more cachet to the future course if it hosts a PGA tournament, but it would probably only be possible to do that if he could expand his course to 27 holes. The additional nine holes would be where the public park is now. At tournament time, that area could be used as a parking lot, he says.

He has backed off those plans for now, but he has not forsworn them, saying, “We may revisit it later, but for now it’s not something we’re considering.”
Nor has the Parks Department given a firm no to the idea. Ron Lieberman, director of revenue and concessions at Parks, says that the department is not currently interested in the idea of expanding to the west.

“If there ever were a day,” he adds, “Ferry Point Partners would have to make the city whole, in terms of any loss of use of ball fields.”

In other words, if the golf course expanded onto the west side, the city would expect Gagné’s group, in exchange, to build ball fields somewhere else nearby.

Forty-seven thousand trucks have been signed into the golf site since October 2002 and allowed to dump their “clean” contents there. About 900 trucks since then have been turned away by the environmental monitors because their loads were deemed unclean: full of debris like pipes, old radiators, and other junk.

Pierre Gagné: Changing the course of the Bronx
photo: Cary Conover

If Gagné had not figured out how to change the arithmetic of that dumping, the project would have already far exceeded its permitted limits. What he managed to have changed is the “compaction factor.” Because dirt carried on trucks is considered to be fluffed up, a calculation has to be made about how much that dirt settles once on the ground. Originally, the DEC determined that for each 10 cubic yards contained in a truck, 7.2 cubic yards would be the amount counted against the permit.

In September 2004, Gagné told the DEC that topographic surveys conducted by an airplane bouncing sound waves off the earth showed that there had been far more settling of the fill than the original compaction factor took into account. The DEC agreed and allowed the math to change. Now, for each 10 cubic yards trucked in, only 5.8 cubic yards is counted against the permit. The result: The trucks continue to come.

Perhaps only in New York would it be possible to collect so much fill. Creating contours on the course is only possible by building up, because digging down into the old garbage would be impossibly costly. Material that will be sculpted into mounds, fairways, bunkers, and greens has come from such gargantuan construction projects as the transportation hub at the World Trade Center site (not the ground zero site), the Time Warner Center, and the new American Airlines terminal at JFK.

Looking down Sampson Avenue from the course site
photo: Cary Conover

Each truck pays Laws Construction, the company Gagné hired to do the hands-on building of the course, to dump its contents at the golf course site. Critics of the course have charged that Gagné is profiting from the dumping.

Gagné says all the dirt he’s gotten has allowed him to build a better course. Laws receives between $4 and $6 per cubic yard from dumpers, he says, and it costs roughly that amount to pay the environmental monitors and bulldoze the fill into place. He insists that what he has done is figure out a perfect system to build the course with more and more dramatic elevation changes than he and his partners first thought possible, without its costing him an extra nickel.

As part of its agreement with the city, Ferry Point Partners is building a public 19-acre waterfront park and esplanade and refurbishing a seven-acre community park in Throgs Neck. But Gagné is focused less on the local community members than on those who work in buildings farther away, the type who can afford to pay $100 and more for a round of golf.

Fields of dreams: The city plays ball with a developer while the neighbors feel left out.
photo: Cary Conover

When I mentioned there was no website yet for his course, Gagné showed me some computer-generated photos his designers are working on. In the foreground the pictures show the envisioned emerald-green fairways and rolling reed-brown hills and dales of the course, and in the immediate background is the East River, where it is in reality. Right across that in his pictures is a bit of fantasy: the towering buildings of Wall Street. The trick photo makes it look as if those buildings were merely a strong 3-iron distant from the back nine at Ferry Point and there were nothing so cumbersome in between as LaGuardia Airport, the borough of Queens, and a hunk of Brooklyn.

“We’re just playing with some images,” Gagné says. “These aren’t final.”

Gagné says he has not taken a salary on the golf project in two years. He has brought investors’ money into it and says he is doing all he can to make it come to fruition.

One night after an event at the New York Botanical Garden, he came out to the golf course with his wife and drove to where the 12th hole will be. He pulled his golf clubs from the trunk of his car. Still in his tuxedo, standing in a pool of light provided by the headlights, he began driving balls into the darkness. It was impossible to see where they landed.