Madelyn Wils will leave post at Hudson River Park

Madelyn Wils, who has run the Hudson River Park Trust, the city/state agency that manages the park, for nearly a decade, will retire from her post at the start of next month. And since I am a member of the board of directors of the Trust, I will say right up front that this is personal! And… since Madelyn has lived in Tribeca since 1985 and spent 18 years on CB1 and has served on several other neighborhood institutions, her decision — and her tenure at the park — is also important to the neighborhood on many levels.

I first met Madelyn in the late ’90s when I was chair of CB4 and she was the soon-to-be chair of CB1, a post she held for four years through the bombing of the World Trade Center and its aftermath. The leaders of all three community boards at that point, along with state and city electeds, were working to hash out the governance of a riverside park that would stretch from Chambers to 59th Street. Madelyn was appointed to be a member of the new Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors by then Borough President C. Virginia Fields and would from the beginning make the park a priority in her efforts as both a volunteer and eventually a paid staffer.

To back it up a little, Madelyn and her husband, Steven, moved into the Wils’ family’s commercial loft building in 1985 (Steven a decade before that) at a time when few of her in-laws could imagine why they would want to live on Duane Street. (Steven at that point was running the family’s butter & egg concern started by his grandfather in the original Washington Market in 1921.) They raised their three sons there, and along the way they both left a huge mark on the neighborhood early on. Steven was one of the founders of Taste of Tribeca 27 years ago. And in a classic community guerilla tactic, Madelyn and a few other neighborhood parents, frustrated that PS 234 did not have a playground, decided the lot behind the school, scheduled for development, would make a good one.

“One night three of us broke the lock with a pair of wire cutters, changed the lock and took it over,” she says with a laugh. “It caused a ruckus but in those days you could get away with something like that. We moved some play equipment in there to make the point that we had no playground for the school and the city got the message.” (She eventually worked it out on a formal level with the mayor’s office, leaving half the lot for a dog run.)

Her work on the community board included historic designations, rezonings with height limits, and the creation of Millennium High School, where she made sure it was the first building to open after 9/11. And as a parent in the neighborhood, she had the idea to claim one of the last unbuilt sites in Battery Park City for interim ballfields. That was 1995. Now it’s impossible to imagine the neighborhood without that resource.

“As a mother, I called the Greenwich Village Little League to enroll my son Sam in T-ball and I was told they were too crowded and were not taking kids from Tribeca,” she said. “That made me angry and made me think we would have to make our own league. But we needed a place to play. Those sites in Battery Park City weren’t going to built for another 10 years, so why not there?” With the help of Shelly Silver, the fields were made permanent after 9/11.

Madelyn and I crossed paths again in 2005, when I had just moved to the neighborhood and had joined the Friends of Washington Market Park. The Friends had been for years trying to get a bathroom built in the park, and while the then-city councilman secured some funding, we were short by close to half a million. Madelyn was then on the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, created after 9/11, and chair of the “off site” committee. She got us the balance. (She also secured $72 million for Hudson River Park in that role as well.)

In between her volunteer community gigs, she also had day jobs — first as a television producer (she put Larry King and Charlie Rose on the air) and then as the president of the Tribeca Film Institute, where she developed it from a 10-day festival to an institution with year-round programming. Then, just before coming to Hudson River Park, she was executive vice president of the Planning, Development and Maritime Division of the NYC Economic Development Corporation where her portfolio included the redevelopment of Willets Point, Coney Island, the East River Esplanade and Hunters Point South, along with several dozen other projects.

So, to get back to Hudson River Park. It was founded in 1998 by an act of the state legislature, and there has never been a time when Madelyn was not involved. In its first decade, the park established itself as a north/south linear park, creating the four-mile bikeway/walkway and esplanade, with all the upland features and structures, and also developing a few of its piers. The second decade was dedicated to the creation of the piers as parkland. Hired as president in 2011, Madelyn oversaw the development of Pier 26, Pier 55 and Pier 57, and the Gansevoort Peninsula is scheduled to open in 2022. She also came up with a funding scheme for the park, creating a special district much like the High Line’s that allows development rights to be moved out of the park and into the street grid for the park’s benefit.

“It was a struggle to do two things when I got there: to get the park on good financial footing, and to get government to continue funding the park, which at that point wasn’t happening.”

For Tribeca, watching Pier 26 develop and then open in the midst of a pandemic had to be one of the more exciting neighborhood happenings since, well, the opening of Pier 25. As a steward of our neighborhood’s open spaces, and our neighborhood as a whole, Madelyn has certainly made a mark and I for one am grateful. So I think I can speak for all of us when I thank her for her service to Tribeca. Once again I am reminded why we are so lucky to live here.

 

13 Comments

  1. Great that you gave Madelyn some of the praises she well deserves.

  2. @GC is so right. Let’s add Madelyn’s leadership after 9/11, not only getting our battered downtown all kinds of services but through force of example instilling a belief that we would pull through that terribly tough time.

  3. This is an amazing tribute. She deserves high recognition. Thank you Madelyn.

  4. Madelyn oversaw, against opposition from all angles, the creation of the most transformational and stunning waterfront in the US over the past 20 years. HRPK has become an oasis for all citizens of the 5 boroughs and has catalyzed a quality of life boom for families that is unrivaled. She is a hero plain and simple. With an unwavering focus on the city’s best interests, she persevered despite relentless corrupt interests and local political bias for the better good of us all. Thank you Madelyn. For your dedication, your singular grit and for skippering this stunning achievement. Thank you sincerely…

  5. Amazing work. Thank you Madelyn for making our lives better!

  6. Or you can simply say she is nothing more than a relentless opportunist who found a way into local politics post 9/11, like many others in the neighborhood. Always follow the money!

  7. in this case, a relentless opportunist for the common good of us all

  8. Wow! This is a great tribute. Thanks Madelyn for all you have done and thanks TC for publishing this article.

  9. The summary of Madelyn Wils’ accomplishments on behalf of Tribeca highlights the void in neighborhood leadership – both citizen and elected – that succeeds her. Thankfully, we have Tribeca Citizen.

  10. Thank you Madelyn!

  11. Madelyn is such an inspiration. She has been a guiding light in Tribeca for so long. After 9/11, it is Madelyn more than anyone else who kept the neighborhood alive, while we were in fire and darkness. She called the first in-person meeting of a group of neighbors in a call to action. Not the borough president. Not the city council. Not the mayor. Madelyn. She, more than anyone else, convinced my wife and I to stay in Tribeca after 9/11. I remember being being on Duane Street with Madelyn; the smoke was still in the air; we were both crying. Madelyn said if we don’t stay, what would be left our neighborhood? We stayed.

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