Boat Basin Adrift: 79th Street dock residents worry over increased fees

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Despite what the real estate listings would have you believe, there are places on the Upper West Side where a person can live for less than $700 a month-provided you can handle a little seasickness. The West 79th Street Boat Basin is not only a marina for summer boaters and luxury yachts to dock; it's also a close-knit, diehard community of permanent residents who live on their boats. While the group of "live aboards," as they're called, has historically been a scrappy bunch willing to fight for services and to maintain their watery lifestyles, new negotiations with the Parks Department, which operates the marina, threaten to dislodge some of the residents.

"They have a lot of issues," said City Council Member Gale Brewer, who has been an advocate for the Boat Basin community and is helping broker the latest round of talks between the residents and Parks.

"They want to have more boats year-round, they want to make sure that when they have to plug into the electrical grid, the Parks Department is not taking an administration fee. The biggest issue is with their permit fees," Brewer said. Currently, the permit fees for the year is $196 per linear foot of a boat. Boats vary in size, but many that are large enough to live on full-time are around 40 feet, meaning that an average yearly fee is around $7,840, or $653 a month. While that's a bargain rate for rent on the Upper West Side, some boat owners also pay mortgages on their boats, and many residents are retired and on fixed incomes. Parks has proposed raising the permit fees, to $225 per linear foot, bringing the example average up to $750 a month, a 15 percent increase. Parks also plans to raise rates for parking, storage and some other services.

"Certain fees are being increased in high demand service areas that will help pay for the costs of operating the marinas, including structural repairs and maintenance," said Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson. "Marina fees have not been increased over the last four years and will remain far lower than the rates charged at privately owned marinas."

The new rates would go into effect in May 2013.

Several current residents of the Boat Basin declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the ongoing negotiations with the Parks Department over the fees and other issues. Famed civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel has been representing the Boat Basin tenants for several years, winning victories in the past when residents pushed for better protection from ice floating in the river and restoring several slips to be made available for permanent residents. Prior to the 1987, there were over 100 boats docked at the Boat Basin full time, but the Parks Department stopped issuing permits for permanent residents in Boat Basin Café and a longtime Upper West Side resident, said that he remembers when the neighborhood wasn't safe and the Boat Basin was in terrible condition.

"I've lived in a rent-stabilized apartment for 40 years," O'Neal said. "This area was packed with drug addicts. We were sort of pioneers, and those people [at the Boat Basin] were part of it."

Even now, he said, when the fees are a comparative bargain for the neighborhood, it's not all easy living.

"It's an extraordinary place that inspired me to become a naturalist and a science teacher and a nature writer," said former resident Leslie Day, who lived at the Boat Basin for 36 years before moving recently to an apartment on solid ground in Washington Heights. Day and her husband raised their son there and still keep their boat docked and go back during summer days.

"When my son was born in 1980 ? it was a wonderful live-aboard community," Day said. "The community is nowhere near what it was when it was such a thriving and wonderful place, and that's sad."

The decline in year-round boaters is partly due to older, longtime residents leaving; it's no constant party to live on a boat.

Jill Baker, an artist and writer who set her novel at the Boat Basin, lived there in the '80s and remembers it as a feisty community of artists who had to bear a lot of negatives to enjoy the benefits.

"The river is really rough in the winter- it has a lot of ice and cold, cold wind," Baker said. "I can remember walking down to the boat with a big canvas for a painting, and it acted like a sail and I almost didn't make it. It was whipping around and trying to blow me back."

"There was a nor'easter in December 1992 where it rained for three days and the river actually came up over the West Side Highway," Day remembers. "Many boats sank that night, the ones tied to the pilings of the fixed dock. People lost their homes. That was terrifying."

Now some are afraid of losing their homes to other outside forces, like creeping rates and poor conditions at the Boat Basin. One of the biggest needs there is for dredging the Hudson River to clear away the silt build-up that makes it all but impossible to maneuver watercraft except during high tide. The analysis of the project alone, which would require the cooperation of state and federal environmental agencies, would cost several million dollars, and the actual dredging would be much more. Much of it is out of the hands of the Parks Department, which has been making other improvements over the past several years, said Abramson, the agency spokesperson.

"Parks has invested significantly in the wholesale upgrade of the 79th Street Boat Basin in the past eight years, including floating docks and electrical and plumbing complete line replacements as well as upgrades in the outer wave wall and ice protection systems," he said. "Most of these improvements were in direct response to the concerns of boaters who use the facility."

Now those boaters await their fates as they try to negotiate with Parks to keep their beloved community livable.

As Ed Bacon, a longtime resident who runs a charter yacht company and publishes the Boat Basin Bulletin, wrote in his inaugural 2008 issue of the newsletter, the assembled drifters at the Boat Basin have become a group of bonded Upper West Siders who want to keep their way of life afloat.

"This community has become like the suburbs," Bacon wrote. "Instead of neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs, we have mooring fields and docks."

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