The USS Intrepid museum has a choice berth on the Hudson River, with easy access to Midtown Manhattan. The rent? A dollar a year. That’s too cheap, say local officials seeking a much higher rate in the institution’s new lease with the Hudson River Park Trust.
“It’s terrible public optics that an organization that is as well run as the Intrepid pays only $1 a year,” said Maarten de Kadt, a member of the Manhattan Community Board 4 and co-chair of its Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee.
Pier 86, which hosts the museum’s 800-foot aircraft carrier, is part of the park operated by the trust, and although the land is public, the community board has only an advisory role.
With a regular admission fee of $33, the Intrepid attracts more than a million visitors in a normal year. However, museum officials say their organization doesn’t make money.
“We are a zero-based not-for-profit,” museum President Susan Marenoff said at the committee meeting. She said revenue ultimately flows back to upkeep as well as free admission on selective Friday evenings and online courses for public schools that serve low-income families in New York.
Like other park tenants, the museum maintains its pier, a “good value,” said Daniel Kurtz, chief financial officer of the Hudson River Park Trust. Despite the community board’s push for numbers, the park trust has not released cost estimates for repairs for the next three decades.
The symbolic $1 rent was already in place when the trust took over park management in 1998. New York City forgave the Intrepid’s rent because “the cost of operating a museum far exceeded their revenue,” Kurtz said.
Public records show that the Intrepid entered into a series of agreements with the city in the 1980s that required rent of about $17,900 per month. The Intrepid was more than $800,000 in arrears by 1999, when the city decided to release the museum from its rent obligations. Just three years earlier, the city had forgiven all of the museum’s unpaid rents prior to 1996.
The museum has been more fiscally stable in recent years. Its latest financial disclosure, in 2018, shows $30 million in operating revenue, on par with the operating revenue of its landlord, the Hudson River Park Trust, which operates Manhattan’s second-largest park and relies mainly on rent from its tenants.
Last month, at the waterfront committee meeting, members discussed drafting another letter to publicly demand a rent increase, though it ultimately did not. “The Intrepid seems to be in a lot better financial standing today than it was in the 1990s,” said Jeffrey LeFrancois, co-chair of the committee and chair of the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council. “The cost of doing business typically comes with paying rent.”
Because of COVID-19, the museum has canceled all on-site programming through March 2021, after a brief reopening in the fall of 2020.
While recognizing the immediate impact of the pandemic, members of the community board argued that a 30-year agreement should look beyond the museum’s temporary difficulties and that the Intrepid should pay rents more in line with those of other park tenants.
The board, whose jurisdiction covers the northern half of Hudson River Park, also criticized the museum for limiting public access to Pier 86 during museum closures.
“Public space is precious in New York City,” the board wrote in a June 2020 letter addressed to Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust.
The proposed agreement, released for public review on Jan. 13, expanded public access to the pier deck.
At the community board meeting, an organization that offers kayaking programs at Pier 26 supported extending the nominal lease for the museum.
“I also pay $1 rent,” said Graeme Birchall, president of the non-profit Downtown Boathouse. “They are providing a [public] service and you should judge that service as it is.”
Birchall warned that supporters of nonprofits would “resent intensely” if donations are not used fully for their intended purposes. Unlike the Intrepid, the Downtown Boathouse is free and does not have paid staff.
The public comment period for the new lease runs through March 19.
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.