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Boat Club Competes to Keep its Tarrytown Waterfront Home

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September 21, 2021

By Barrett Seaman—

For 65 years, the Washington Irving Boat Club (WIBC) has provided dockage for Tarrytown boaters, as well as food, drink and entertainment at a popular riverside restaurant/bar on its premises. The club is located on a four-acre patch of land at 238 Green Street, just west of the Metro North tracks. An adjoining four acres of land under water provides a boat basin and docks for about 100 boats.

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Its members would not deny that it’s a bit on the scruffy side, with its low-slung, single-story club house and a Quonset hut left over from the mid-fifties when the site was used as a staging area for the construction of the original Tappan Zee Bridge.

WIBC is not a private yacht club, nor is it a commercial marina. It’s a community boat club, built and maintained by its members, whose numbers vary from season to season but currently hover around a hundred. It charges its members dues and seasonal dockage fees of $65-a-foot, so that parking a 24-foot motorboat would run a little over $1,500. A prized asset is its ownership of the liquor license for the on-site restaurant, until recently known as Sunset Cove, now re-named WIBC and managed by two men who also own the food truck service Road Grub.

It does not, however, own either the land or the water it occupies but rather leases the property from the Village of Tarrytown.

Now the WIBC is facing an existential threat. In early July, the village published a Request for Qualifications and Request for Interest (RFQ/RFI) document that states: “The Village seeks creative approaches to redevelopment of the property (currently leased by the WIBC) — for park-based uses and a long-term franchise agreement — and wishes to potentially establish long-term relationships with the developer(s)/operators. Public access along the waterfront, not just for clients or customers, is one of the top priorities of the long-term plans for this site.” Responses are due by 11 a.m. tomorrow, Sept. 22.

The village insists its invitation extends to the WIBC along with anybody else, giving its members an opportunity to craft a new future for the property it inhabits. But the boat club and its supporters, among them several familiar local civic activists, see the deck stacked heavily against them. By specifying “experienced real estate developers” as the desired audience for the RFQ/RFI, the village is inviting real estate powerhouses with access to a level of funding the WIBC would be hard-pressed to match. All parties involved acknowledge that improvements in infrastructure — dredging, rebuilding docks, reinforcing bulkheads and renovating the restaurant — will require an investment in the millions.

Representatives of the village say they have long been unhappy with the arrangement made by preceding administrations going back decades. The last long-term lease agreement, dating back to 1990, stipulated an annual rate of $2,400 that, adjusted for inflation, rose to $4,800 in 2020. When that rental agreement expired at the end of 2020, the village extended the $4,800 rate for the first half of 2021 but then jacked it up to $10,000 for the final six months. No long-term lease will be issued until the property’s future is resolved.

Advocates for the boat club acknowledge that its historical rental rates have been substantially under-market. Though not an exact equivalent, the neighboring Tarrytown Marina, by comparison, pays $40,000-a-year in rent, plus $72,000 in her fees. But this year’s rate hike followed by the issuance of the RFQ/RFI, say the club’s defenders, constitutes a transparent attempt to price the club out of business so that they can turn the space into “a tourist attraction.”

That is how the issue is framed in a petition on behalf of the WIBC posted on Change.org, a web site that hosts petitions and surveys. As of this writing, the petition headlined “Keep Washington Irving Boat Club Open and as it is” had gathered nearly 1,300 signatures, and a paper version of the petition circulated among patrons of the tiki bar had gathered at least that many more. Judging from the comments posted in response to the online petition, much of the nostalgic good will for WIBC emanates from the restaurant and tiki bar that for many years has provided affordable food and drink — and free music.

Club supporters cast the issue as a battle between the village’s working families on the one hand and powerful developers and Village Hall on the other. Tarrytown’s trustees, however, see it as a long-overdue correction to an outdated financial arrangement effectively subsidized by Tarrytown taxpayers. Moreover, Village Hall claims, WIBC’s leaders “have not maintained or updated many of the buildings as well as they should have,” and the low-lying property is increasingly vulnerable to flooding from the rising tidewaters of the Hudson.

Boat club defenders refute the charge that they are costing the village, even if it’s an opportunity cost. In a copy of their response to the RFQ/RFI obtained by The Hudson Independent, they state that, in addition to paying for any and all improvements to the property, “the Washington Irving Boat Club has also produced over two and a half million dollars in net revenue to all taxing jurisdictions in the past ten years.”

The question of the property’s future, village officials say, has come to a head now because of a confluence of developments:

  • increasing storms and rising tides that call for extensive infrastructure improvements;
  • the completion of the bridge and its shared-use pedestrian/bike path;
  • the planned connection of the RiverWalk to the completed section south of the bridge, which would pass right through the WIBC property, and the subsequent — and welcomed — arrival of cyclists and other tourists to the village.

In this future vision, the one-story boat club headquarters on the water’s edge of a large parking lot does not fit the burnished image of a re-imagined Tarrytown waterfront.

The club’s defenders include a number of local activists more generally concerned with what they see as the village’s plans to over-develop the waterfront. They have challenged housing projects they see as too dense and/or too high, and they are defending WIBC out of fear that the alternative vision embodied in the RFQ/RFI will be too commercial for land that is designated as parkland in perpetuity.

Also coming to WIBC’s defense is the larger boating community. Scott Croft, a Tarrytown resident, is also Vice President, Public Affairs for the Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS). The pressures facing WIBC are common to all Hudson River marinas, including boat clubs, he says: rising silt levels that require dredging; soaring real estate prices that tempt struggling clubs to throw in the towel at the same time they tempt local governments to seek more tax revenue. If Tarrytown’s government is going to demand more of the club, says Croft, “they need to step up to the plate and do more to help them.”

Help, in this case, is going to be very expensive, which explains why Tarrytown is reaching out to developers. There are, however, funding opportunities through state and federal grants, such as the Boating Infrastructure Grant (BIG) that Ossining and the Shattemuc Yacht Club tapped to help pay for dredging, new docks and a “wave attenuator system” that protects boats without having to build a massive sea wall.

The village rejects the charge that it is trying to push WIBC aside so it can commercialize the property. Village Administrator Rich Slingerland says “the Village has no intent in any way to build housing or a hotel on this parkland.” The invitation to developers is to propose amenities suitable to parkland, which would include a marina, a restaurant, docks, bike, boat and kayak rentals.

The boat club, for one, is definitely throwing its hat in the ring and has prepared a 60-page response to the RFQ/FRI that will be submitted by the tomorrow’s deadline. In addition to a lengthy defense of its present and historical condition, its contributions to the community and its endorsement of the village’s goal of attracting tourists to the waterfront, the WIBC proposal offers a series of improvements that could be made incrementally over time. They include:

  • removing some of the “miscellaneous outbuildings” on the property and consolidating their functions into four remaining structures;
  • removing the fencing that separates its grounds from adjacent Losee Park, making it into “one uninterrupted public park area;”
  • doing extensive landscaping to expand “green” areas and both reduce and replace the current parking lot with “permeable rubberized asphalt;”
  • renovating and repositioning the restaurant and “tiki bar” deck;
  • creating a “Hudson River Environmental Center” on the grounds to educate the public on the river’s ecology.

Then there are the tough (i.e. expensive) steps, such as dredging to restore navigable depths, replacing some of the wooden docks and strengthening the concrete bulkhead that runs along the outer perimeter of the harbor. While the club allows that it is “ready to discuss with the Village the payments of a fair market value rent at any time,” it also acknowledges that coming up with the funds to accomplish the necessary infrastructure needs “will be significant and challenging.”

The hard truth is that building such amenities and improving infrastructure will cost millions. That prompts the question of why any developer would be willing to invest in the property without some element (like housing or a hotel) that would generate a return on that investment.

By tomorrow at 11 a.m., the Village will know who else besides the WIBC is interested in this project. Filling in the details and coming up with a financial plan will take this project well into the future.

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