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By LINCOLN ANDERSON | Attorney Arthur Schwartz said he met with Madelyn Wils, the president of the Hudson River Park Trust, on Friday afternoon, and she informed him that the secret $100-million memorandum of understanding, or M.O.U., for transfer of Pier 40’s air rights has officially been scrapped.
As reported by downtownexpress.com and The Villager at the end of last month, attorney Arthur Schwartz said he was considering suing if a secret Pier 40 air-rights transfer plan was not put through a lengthy environmental review.
Schwartz was considering a lawsuit to block the air-rights transfer altogether on the grounds that a comprehensive, lengthy environmental impact study would need to be performed.
“Madelyn told me, ‘I read The Villager article. I want to meet with you,’ ” Schwartz said on Friday, June 6.
“She confirmed that the M.O.U. is dead,” he said.
The M.O.U. was signed by Wils; a representative of the Empire State Development Corporation; and a representative of Atlas Capital Group, a part owner of the St. John’s Center building, located across the West Side Highway from Pier 40, at W. Houston St.
The language of the M.O.U. — which still reportedly has not been seen publicly — refers to a state-run General Project Plan, or G.P.P., for the project — not the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. A ULURP would have a greater level of community review, plus binding votes by the City Planning Department and the City Council, and also normally would take more time than the faster G.P.P.
However, according to Schwartz, Wils described the document’s language as conditional.
“She said the M.O.U. reads, ‘Should the state engage in a G.P.P. …’ not ‘The state would engage in a G.P.P,’ ” he noted. “The M.O.U. was conditioned on there being a decision made to do a G.P.P. But given the reaction, it’s not going to happen….
“There won’t be a G.P.P. There will be a ULURP process.”
According to the attorney, who is a longtime Hudson River Park activist, the Trust president said the M.O.U. was circulated in December, but was not actually signed until late February or early March.
Wils or other Trust officials have not yet confirmed Schwartz’s account of the meeting. However, as of last week, other park insiders were also already saying the M.O.U. was now dead, including Tobi Bergman, a leader of the Pier 40 Champions group, which has been more supportive of Trust efforts to save the pier fields.
The area’s politicians have all said they were shocked to have learned only a few weeks ago — and only through a New York Times article, much less — that an agreement had been signed concerning a massive air-rights transfer and a G.P.P. They quickly all signed onto a joint letter opposing a G.P.P. process — similar to another letter they had written only a few weeks before, when rumblings of the G.P.P. resurfaced after not having been heard of since last fall.
The idea of the M.O.U. plan subsequently moving forward in the face of such overwhelming political opposition was highly unlikely.
Schwartz said Wils was clearly smarting from criticism she has received in the past few weeks in the wake of the bombshell story. He added that sources close to the governor with whom he is in touch are furious about the fallout, feeling it’s been bad publicity for Governor Cuomo — something he really doesn’t need or want in an election year.
In last week’s UnderCover column, Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said the fruitless search for the M.O.U. made her feel like she was being treated like a child at a Passover Seder.
Schwartz said, Cuomo believed doing a G.P.P. at the St. John’s Center site was something that local politicians and the community actually wanted.
“A lot of people were onboard last year with a G.P.P. — but with a ULURP review,” Schwartz noted.
A source familiar with the project said that what the Bloomberg administration, Cuomo and E.S.D.C. all actually favored was something that could be called a “modified G.P.P.,” which would have had pseudo-ULURP-like elements.
However, in a follow-up article to the initial Times article, the paper reported that Alicia Glen, a deputy mayor for Mayor de Blasio, was now calling for city review for transferring unused Pier 40 air rights to the St. John’s building.
Under the M.O.U., the three-block-long, four-story-tall building was to have been demolished and rebuilt in phases, with a mix of residential and commercial uses. More particulars about the project have not been forthcoming.
Local politicians recently resorted to filing a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request to view the document. The M.O.U. still has not been produced, but it usually takes some time to get a response to a FOIL request.
Schwartz said Wils basically told him his potential lawsuit is now moot since the M.O.U. is sunk.
“You don’t need to do this — because it’s not going to happen,” he said Wils urged him.
Asked if he accepted Wils’s statement at face value — that the M.O.U. has been tossed in the trash bin — Schwartz said, “Absolutely.”
A week prior, Brewer convened a meeting of the local politicians, City Planning representatives, of members Community Boards 1, 2 and 4, and other Hudson River Park activists, to discuss the mystery M.O.U. Delores Rubin, chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, attended.
Rubin said the meeting started with everyone joking around, saying things like, “O.K., where’s the M.O.U.?” and “Who’s got the M.O.U.?” with people then pretending to search in their pockets for it and quipping, “I’ve got it!” “No, I’ve got it!”
But, on a serious note, she said, “Despite the news reporting on the M.O.U., everyone in the room was moving forward, to work together to find a mechanism, a pre-certification — the process before the process. The G.P.P. would clearly be a shortcut. City Planning did say there are mechanisms to keep ULURP from being overly lengthy.”
The consensus in the room regarding Pier 40 and the St. John’s Center, though, she said, was: “We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
As for the advisory council’s own concerns, she said, “We have questions. But everyone’s asking the same questions. Like, how many square feet are available [for transfer from Pier 40]?
“Everyone is aware of the idea that time is of the essence in bringing money to the park,” she added. “But neither the electeds or anybody else wants anything [to go] too fast. It was a very productive meeting.”
Any money from the sale of Pier 40’s air rights must, under the legislation passed last June, be funneled straight back into the huge but dilapidated 14-acre pier for its sorely needed repair.
The Trust is poised to release a report saying that, without a massive cash infusion, in a worst-case, doomsday scenario, the pier could completely collapse into the Hudson in as little as two years. Pier 40 needs $100 million for full-scale repairs — coincidentally, the same dollar amount as in the M.O.U. — according to the Trust. According to Assemblymember Deborah Glick, however, $44 million is sufficient for the most important repairs for the pier.
State Senator Brad Hoylman was among the group in Brewer’s office.
“At the meeting, city officials confirmed earlier statements made to the press that a ULURP will be the process to transfer any air rights to the St. John’s building,” he said. “The city also discussed instituting a public process for creating a mechanism for evaluating and transferring air rights to the St. John’s building and any other sites. We will be discussing this process further. I’m pleased that the city is taking an inclusive approach that will involve the local community.”
Hoylman added that it’s “an ongoing outrage” that they still haven’t been able to see the M.O.U. Yet, he said, now that FOIL has been initiated, “it may take some time to get a response because a FOIL triggers a bureaucratic and legal review.”
As for Brewer, she said she’s upset, too, like the area’s other elected officials, at not having access to the M.O.U. Despite the fact that three of the Trust’s 13 board of directors members are appointed by the borough president, she said she — like all the other local politicians — was unaware of the M.O.U. until only a few weeks ago.
That raises the question of whether the Trust’s own board members even knew what was going on.
As of last week, the local politicians said their understanding — based on what an E.S.D.C. official recently only happened to let slip to them in another meeting — was that the M.O.U. was signed in December, a month before Brewer took office.
“It wasn’t on my watch,” Brewer said.
“Full transparency is required,” she stressed. “We were all shocked to learn of this secret M.O.U. I am happy the city is committed to bringing the process under city review and including community input.”
A spokesperson for Brewer’s predecessor, Scott Stringer, said the current comptroller similarly was also unaware of the secret agreement.
Bergman, a leader of the Lower West Side’s youth sports community and a strong candidate to be the next chairperson of Community Board 2 in November, was also at the meeting, along with David Gruber, the current C.B. 2 chairperson.
Bergman said the process for Pier 40 and the St. John’s site is now focused on “moving forward with developing a zoning framework for transferring air rights, which means through the city Uniform Land Use Review Process, not a state General Project Plan that would bypass zoning, an idea which is now buried.”
For Downtown families, preserving Pier 40 — with its huge courtyard sports field, in an otherwise park-starved community — is an absolute must.
The advisory council’s Rubin said her group’s job is not to weigh in right now on the Pier 40 / St. John’s air-rights discussion — but later when an actual plan is in place.
However, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who is also on the park’s advisory council, differs with Rubin on that issue. The advisory council met last Monday evening.
“There were a variety of opinions expressed at the meeting,” Berman said. “Some, like myself, expressed extreme frustration that secret negotiations, agreements and meetings continue to characterize this process. We keep being told by the Trust and elected officials that this process — which began in secret and without public involvement or notification — will be transparent and inclusive. Thus far, there has been little or no evidence of that.”
Meanwhile, Cuomo may be right to have feared political payback for backing a G.P.P. at the St. John’s site. It emerged as a hot-button issue at the Downtown Independent Democrats’ recent endorsement meeting.
“Downtown Independent Democrats endorsed all the other Dems for statewide office, except Andrew Cuomo, for whom we took ‘no position’ — basically not endorsing him,” said Sean Sweeney, a leading D.I.D. member. “Particularly glaring for us locals was his recent clandestine approach to the air rights at Pier 40, as well as his support of state Senate Republicans.”
In related news, the Trust and the Friends of Hudson River Park are no longer being represented by SKDKnickerbocker, the high-powered and politically connected lobbying firm. According to a source, the reason is that Gregory Boroff, the Friends’ executive director, wants to focus P.R. more on fundraising, which is the Friends’ primary role.
SKDKnickerbocker represented both the Trust and Friends, and was involved in lobbying the state Legislature on the air-rights transfer legislation that was passed by the Assembly and state Senate last June at the end of the legislative session.