Calculating the Worth of East River ‘Waterfalls’
Amid all the hoopla over Olafur Eliasson’s “New York City Waterfalls,” which opened on Thursday along the East River, one might think the city was in for a windfall.
When asked whether the public art installation was worth the $15.5 million it cost to erect it, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other “Waterfalls” enthusiasts have said the exhibit is expected to generate $55 million in economic activity during its run, which ends in October. That amounts to about 0.09 percent of the $59.1 billion budget city officials agreed upon hours after the water began to cascade under the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday — roughly the amount generated by a single World Series game during the Subway Series in 2000.
And while such forecasts on economic impact are often bandied about by elected officials and tourism boosters, their accuracy is difficult to assess, particularly in the case of a public display like “Waterfalls” that has no admission charge and can be taken in during a walk, a bicycle ride or even while taking the subway — or sitting in traffic — over the Manhattan Bridge. How much of the money visitors spend on T-shirts or bottled water while viewing the exhibit would otherwise have gone to, say, movie tickets or museum souvenirs (or bottled water while doing something else)?
“The methodology is not invented; it is based on something,” said John Tepper Marlin, a former economist for the city who was responsible for many an economic-impact evaluation in his day. “But the margin of error is quite wide. How many people are going to come from out of town? You could say 10,000 and I could say one million, and who knows?”
Seth W. Pinsky, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, estimates that 10,000 people will come from out of town specifically to visit the “Waterfalls” over the next three months. He guesses that 7,500 of these will be from the United States and 2,500 from other countries. Nearly 76,000 people from the New York metropolitan area are expected to make special day trips to glimpse the installation, Mr. Pinsky said in an interview, for a total of 86,000.
Then there are the 254,000 people who would have been in New York anyhow and will probably take a look at the flowing water.
These numbers, and the attendant dollar amounts they might yield, were calculated based on how many people visited other public art installations, including the opening of Millennium Park in Chicago in 2004, “The Weather Project” at the Tate Modern in London in 2003 and “The Gates” in Central Park in 2005.
The Economic Development Corporation expects the visitors to spend $19 million while visiting the “Waterfalls” — that would be 1.9 million $10 adult tickets on a Circle Line boat tour (if there were that many available) or more than nine million hot dogs purchased at carts along the route. That spending, in turn, would generate an additional $13 million in indirect benefits like sales taxes.
The crowd on the sold-out Circle Line Downtown 30-minute cruise at 1:30 p.m. on Friday was indeed a mix of locals and tourists from California, Connecticut and Kentucky. Several passengers on the boat, which fits 115 people, said they had come to New York to see other sights and took the cruise, but doubted others would come just to see the “Waterfalls.”
“I wouldn’t have made a special trip from California to see it, but it’s interesting,” said Julie Greenfield, a school nurse from Castro Valley who was in town visiting her cousin. “Then again, I think compared to the rest of New York, it pales in comparison.”
Others thought the same thing.
“It looks like a construction site that sprang a leak,” said Christina McVaney, who was visiting from Westport, Conn., with her two children. “They should have put some fake rocks around it to cover up the scaffolding. That would have worked better.”
Perhaps the more dubious part of the economic-impact calculus concerns the $23 million that Mr. Pinsky counts from the construction of the exhibit. There is the $15.5 million it actually cost to construct the installation (paid for with $2 million from the quasi-public Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and donations from 120 individuals and groups, including Mr. Bloomberg and his company). And then there is nearly $8 million in more of those indirect benefits — what the construction workers spent on lunch and parking, and all the accompanying taxes.
“The city’s economy is one that aggregates from lots of small impacts, so $55 million for three months is not chump change,” Mr. Pinsky said. He noted that with “The Gates” exhibit, the city predicted an economic benefit of $80 million and eventually counted $250 million in “Gates”-connected revenue.
The “Waterfalls” is not the first controversial water element to grace the city’s shores and headlines. The philanthropist George T. Delacorte donated $400,000 to build a 450-foot geyser at the end of Roosevelt Island, then known as Welfare Island, that opened in 1969.
Upon learning that the source of the water was the East River, which then had 160,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, the city’s health department demanded that the water be chlorinated to reduce the risk to public health. The chlorine spray damaged a stand of 55 pine trees donated by residents of Sutton Place to improve their view. After occasionally failing, being vandalized and turning red from too much chlorine, the fountain fizzled out in 1987.
While many New Yorkers have expressed concern about the environmental impact of the “Waterfalls” exhibit, Michael V. McGraw, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said that Mr. Eliasson, the artist, “has taken some precautions to make sure that wildlife is not hurt.” He said, however, that the site should be checked several times a day, declaring, “Not one fish should get caught in the intake areas.”
At the Seaport Cafe at Pier 17, Mohammed Alangir, 33, the manager, expressed hope on Friday that the exhibit would bring in new business, but worried about tourism in general because of the high cost of fuel.
“This year may be slow because of the economy,” Mr. Alangir said, adding that the weather had not helped business.
Employees at Bike and Roll, which is already double-booked for tours of the exhibit this weekend, were more optimistic. “There is a lot of excitement in the city,” said Steve Howson, 28, a guide on tours that cost $40 for about three hours and include a bike, a helmet and a guide. “Some people have just heard about it, some ask, and some have known for months.”
The Ritz-Carlton New York at Battery Park has created a special package for visitors who want to see the “Waterfalls.” For $480, visitors get a room with a harbor view, a telescope, two tickets for a 60-minute cruise and shuttle bus tickets.
Jennifer A. Oberstein, a spokeswoman for the hotel, said that a better-than-expected 30 customers had already bought the packages and that the company had advertised in Germany, Switzerland and Russia.
Andreas Sappok, the general manager at Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises on 42nd Street, said it was too early to say whether his company would benefit from the “Waterfalls.”
“You can put the best exhibits in the river,” he said. “But if it rains 60 days in a row, it won’t matter.”
By KEN BELSON