A much-debated plan to dramatically overhaul New York City's carriage horse industry collapsed Thursday, with the city council pulling the reins on a plan that would have limited the tourist-toting animals to a small section of Central Park.
The colorful coaches, which have clip-clopped through Manhattan for more than 150 years, are frequently depicted on television and in movies and a must-do for visitors who delight in romantic rides past some of the city's top tourist attractions and along the graceful, winding paths of Central Park.
But others decried the trade, saying Manhattan's loud, traffic-clogged streets were no place for the animals and called for the industry to be shuttered. They appealed to Mayor Bill de Blasio — many via generous campaign donations — and he vowed to end the practice on the first day of his term.
That was in January 2014. Now, 25 months later, a compromise deal that would have limited — but not eliminated — the carriage horse industry has fallen apart just a day before it faced a city council vote, freeing the carriages to fully remain on the city streets, at least for now.
"This is great!" said longtime driver Christina Hansen, adding that the proposed legislation "would have put us out of business."
The deal has been a debacle for de Blasio since he took office.
Though many New Yorkers seemed blase about the issue, it assumed an outsized role in the city's political discourse.
A media blitz, led in part by actor Liam Neeson and launched to counter the ones funded by the animal rights groups, portrayed the horse-drawn carriage industry as an essential part of New York that provides about 400 jobs, many to Irish immigrants.
The next blow came when a series of city unions, usually de Blasio's staunchest allies, broke with the Democratic mayor, urging him to reconsider his decision in order to save not only the jobs but a profitable source of tourism. The New York Daily News then launched a front-page campaign called "Save our Horses." And public polls consistently showed a majority of New Yorkers did not favor a ban.
Eventually, a compromise between the mayor, the city council and the union that represents the horse carriage drivers was struck.
The bill would have cut the number of horses from 220 to 95, with 75 allowed to work in Central Park at one time. The animals would have been restricted to the park and the city would have built a new stable in the iconic greenspace at the cost of $25 million. And pedicabs would have been banned from operating in the park below 85th St.
The compromise seemed to leave no one happy, yet appeared to have enough support to pass a scheduled vote on Friday. But when the Teamsters union backed out, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito scuttled the vote.
"With the legislation now finalized, our members are not confident that it provides a viable future for their industry," said George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16.
The collapse was a political blow to de Blasio and his staff, who seemed eager to finally get the item off the political agenda. Instead, the deal fell apart just hours before his annual State of the City speech.
In a bit of bad timing, de Blasio arrived at City Hall on Thursday while a group of horse carriage drivers were rallying outside. The mayor sat in his SUV for about 15 minutes before stepping out to face reporters.
"Obviously we are disappointed that the vote won't happen tomorrow, but we are going to find a way forward," said de Blasio, who criticized the union for backing out of the deal.
Animal rights activists condemned the deal's collapse.
PETA declared the horses "prisoners of politics." And the founders of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), which bankrolled the original ad campaign to push for a ban, vowed to keep fighting for the horses now forced to "continue their nose-to-tailpipe existence."
It was not clear when, or if, further negotiations might be held. When asked for a comment, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, de Blasio's frequent rival, responded "neigh."