Pier 40 housing idea is in eye of the storm

\\A few hundred people attended Hudson River Park Trust’s May 31 meeting at St. Paul’s Chapel. Downtown Express photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  More than 250 people packed St. Paul’s Chapel near City Hall on Thurs., May 31 to hear Hudson River Park Trust president Madelyn Wils present a recent study’s finding that market-rate residential housing on Pier 40 could offer the best hope for saving both the cash-starved park and the crumbling pier within it. Housing would raise the most revenue for the park while offering the least traffic impact, according to the study, which was formerly reported by the Downtown Express.

However, to allow residential use, the Hudson River Park Act would need to be modified by the state Legislature, whose current session ends on Thurs., June 21.

At the meeting’s outset, Arthur Schwartz, head of the task force that has been studying how to improve the park’s finances, explained the pessimistic picture. The park is only 70 percent finished, and needs more than $200 million to complete the job — not counting Pier 40, at West Houston Street, which is expected to be redeveloped by a private group that would pay rent to the park; and Pier 57, at West 17th Street, which will also be privately redeveloped but lacks Pier 40’s revenue-generating potential, since it’s smaller.

Schwartz argued that the park’s capital needs are outstripping the park’s revenues.

“The biggest problem [is] at Pier 40, where $9 million is going into repairs this year just to keep the roof from collapsing,” he said. “It’s in a general climate where government funding for parks has fallen off.”

Hudson River Park is intended to be financially self-sustaining, at least in terms of its operations and maintenance. The current parking at Pier 40 has been the park’s main economic engine. Meanwhile, the 14.5-acre pier is also home to a sprawling courtyard ball field heavily used by youth sports leagues as well as teams from Stuyvesant High School and other schools.

Over the next 10 years, the park is expected to bring in $200 million in revenue but has expenses of $280 million, translating into a deficit of at least $80 million. Pier 40 alone needs about $100 million in repairs. Among other necessary fixes, the pier has badly corroded metal pilings that need to be encapsulated in concrete.

Echoing others who spoke at the meeting, Wils said a proposed “park improvement district” extending a few blocks inland, which would assess a small tax on nearby property owners. The entity would serve to raise revenue for Hudson River Park, given the five-mile-long park’s impact on property values, she said.

“The park has brought people over to the West Side,” she said. “All that development of property down the West Side is now the ‘Gold Coast’ — 94 new buildings, it’s quite extraordinary.”

A PowerPoint presentation of the study’s scenarios was given, including some massing studies that showed generally how residential buildings could be situated on Pier 40 while preserving the sports fields.

Assembly Member Deborah Glick, who also spoke at the meeting, said she appreciated the Trust letting the public in on the process and showing the massing studies. However, she stressed, it was never the park act’s intention for the Trust to have to finance the park’s construction.

Furthermore, with climate change and rising sea levels, luxury rental apartments on Pier 40 would be “putting the city and state on the hook for lawsuits for half-done developments damaged in a storm,” she said to cheers from the audience.

Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, the second speaker, said that when he was crafting the park’s legislation in the mid-1990s, the hope was that the park would get $400 million for its construction. But while the park has gotten about $350 million in government funding so far, it now needs another $200 million to finish the job. The main fear before was that the park would be “a five-mile wall of buildings like Co-op City in the Bronx,” he said. But the park that has emerged has been “extraordinarily successful,” and the benches, trees and pathways that are there now block any future development of buildings, he assured.

Gottfried zeroed in on Pier 40 and Pier 76 — the latter currently used as the Police Department tow pound at W. 36th St. — calling them the park’s “two big ugly monsters.” Both piers block people’s views to the water, he noted.

“A parking garage and a tow pound — I don’t think either one of these belongs in Hudson River Park,” he said, to some hisses from the crowd.

If the park act were modified, Gottfried said, there would still be a planning process, including a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (U.L.U.R.P.), which would allow communities to have input on decisions affecting the park’s future, “so that things the community values could replace those two monsters.”

The city recently announced it was giving $260 million to spruce up Governors Island, while the East River esplanade is getting $30 million, noted Community Board 2 chair Brad Hoylman.

“We as West Siders have to ask, ‘Where is the money for our park?’” he asked, drawing cheers. “We’re talking about maintenance — but let’s finish the park,” he said. “Before we open up the park act…city and state government must be made aware that the West Side of Manhattan deserves a park that is completed.”

Similarly, Corey Johnson, chair of C.B. 4, said, “The city and state need to step up and complete the funding of the park. Governors Island is used five months a year. Hudson River Park is used 365 days a year.” However, he added, “Let’s look at opening up the act in a smart way that doesn’t hurt the park.”

John Doswell, who founded Friends of Hudson River Park as the park’s main advocacy group, said of the grim financial picture, “This was not manufactured…It will become a crisis, and we need to decide what to do.

The park is only financially supported by 20 percent of itself, Doswell noted, since 80 percent of the park is free and open to the public.

“It doesn’t get paid for magically,” he said.

Tobi Bergman, president of P3, a commercial youth sports group at Pier 40, noted community opposition sunk two past Requests for Proposals for Pier 40. He said the permissible uses must be expanded beyond big-box stores or “Las Vegas on the Hudson”-type extravaganzas.

“We rejected retail the first time around. We rejected entertainment the second time around. We rejected everything that’s legal,” Bergman said. “We have to open up the act to get more ideas.”

Downtown United Soccer Club’s home field is Pier 40, chimed in Andrew Scruton, who said that different options to renovate the pier are needed.

“We support the Trust seeking options [and] searching for solutions,” he said.

No legislative changes, particularly ones concerning Pier 40, will get passed if Glick opposes them. Some proposed changes to the park act are less contentious, such as the Trust’s proposal to shift its southern border to Chambers Street in order to avoid having to finance the maintenance of an inland park strip along the bike path south of there.

In addition, the Trust wants to obtain any future commercial revenue from Pier 76, which is in Gottfried’s district — whereas the park act currently says the city would get this money.

Reached in Albany during a break in session on June 5, Glick said, “the spirit of the law” of the park act requires a more formal public hearing with 30 days’ notice before major changes affecting the park. Some of the Trust’s proposed changes are “minor” and might not require a hearing, she said, but major changes would need more public input.

Asked if the Trust’s desire to get bonding authority, for example, was minor, she replied, “No, no, no — that is a major change — as are terms,” referring to extending the permitted lease terms for Pier 40 and other “commercial nodes” in the park beyond the current 30 years.

As for whether allowing residential use was a major change, Glick said, “Of course,” before saying she had to get off the phone and head back into session.

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