Park group challenges Trust on Pier 40

By Lincoln Anderson

The Friends of Hudson River Park sent a letter to the Hudson River Park Trust’s top officials last week, saying the Trust probably violated the Open Meetings Law and the act to create the park when it failed to pick a developer for Pier 40.

Sent on June 30, the six-page letter from the Friends, the park’s leading advocacy group, strongly urges the Trust to “comply with the law,” reconsider its decision and pick one of the three developers that were being considered for the pier.

The letter says that if the decision was made by the Trust’s board, it should have been at a public meeting; if the decision was made by the Trust’s staff, “then there was no effective decision at all…the decision would appear to [be] void.”

The Friends’ letter cautions the Trust that interim uses on the W. Houston St. pier could both slow down the pier’s future development and become entrenched.

In a June 11 press release, citing the “magnitude” of the project and the 30-year lease being offered, as well as the economy’s current slump and the fact that none of the three final developer’s plans “successfully addressed” all the needs of the Trust, state and city, the Trust announced it would not pick a developer for the 15-acre pier. The park’s governing agency said it would “wait for a more favorable economic climate in which to carry out such an important project.” Instead, the Trust said it would do interim uses on the pier, including adding interim “recreational playing fields to the maximum extent feasible.”

The Friends’ letter was signed by Albert Butzel, president of the Friends’ board of directors and the letter’s primary author, and addressed to Trip Dorkey, the new chairperson of the Trust’s board of directors, and Robert Balachandran, the Trust’s president.

Balachandran told Downtown Express last week that he is looking to add to the interim fields on Pier 40 as quickly as possible in order to comply with the park law that requires 50 percent of the pier be used for park space.

On the issue of interim uses, the Friends in their letter say that interim uses “can only delay — and potentially delay for years — the long-term redevelopment of Pier 40,” which is contrary to the “intent and requirements of the Hudson River Park Act.”

Developing interim uses won’t be cheap, the Friends’ letter continues, pointing out that the interim 40,000-sq.-ft. rooftop soccer field on Pier 40 cost $2 million to build.

“Aside from the fact that the overall park faces severe funding shortfalls, if this kind of money is going to be spent at Pier 40, it would be much better spent as part of the permanent redevelopment of the pier,” the Friends recommend.

Another concern they raise is the “ad-hoc nature” of developing interim uses on the pier, which would result in a “piece-by-piece assemblage, with no overall planning and limited public participation at best.” Parking would likely expand on the pier, since it is a permissible revenue-generating use under the Park Act, and once in place, would be hard to scale it back.

Finally, the Friends also note that whatever interim uses are selected, they will need to be in compliance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act and may require a full environmental impact statement.

Chris Martin, a spokesperson for the Trust, said he had not seen the letter from the Friends and would not comment.

Although the letter calls the Trust’s decision “legally flawed,” Butzel would not say if the Friends are contemplating a lawsuit.

“We’re concerned about the decision,” he said. “At the moment, we’re going to try to meet with them to change their decision.”

“I’m not interested in having a public imbroglio here,” said Butzel. “I’m interested in getting a park built. I think that Pier 40 is one of the most important, if not the most important part of the park. It could provide 12-14 acres of park space.”

The last version of C&K/Durst’s proposal for the pier, the plan favored by C. B. 2, included an arts complex, parking and, on the pier’s roof, sports fields and gardens; Another plan, Oceanarium, included the world’s second-largest aquarium, sports fields, sports museums and parking; A third plan, Park on the Pier, proposed a possible Home Depot superstore, as well as sports fields and parking.

The Friends’ June 30 letter stresses “the importance of selecting and negotiating with a developer now.”

“We believe that this is a requirement of the 2002 amendment to the Hudson River Park Act, which provides that the Trust ‘shall complete the necessary review, selection, lease negotiations and other work related to the redevelopment of Pier 40 in an expeditious manner,” the Friends’ letter states.

The 2002 amendment to the Park Act set a timetable for Pier 40’s development with Feb. 15 as the original deadline for selecting a developer. Just prior to Feb. 15, this deadline was extended to June 15. The penalty for not meeting the deadline was that the Trust will not get a six-month extension of certain commercial uses at Pier 40, including FedEx, Academy Bus and the Police Department’s Barrier Unit, which stores the sawhorses and fences used for street events. As a result, these uses must vacate the pier at the end of this year.

Rather than rejecting all the proposals outright, the Trust should have picked a developer on a conditional basis and tried to negotiate a satisfactory deal, the Friends’ letter says. The Trust’s failure to pick a plan after so much time and investment by the developers will discourage future interest, the Friends say.

“What future developer is going to make the significant investment required for a serious proposal when the Trust’s history is one of an aborted earlier process?” the letter asks. Similarly, the public, which invested significant time in the community review process, was also disserved by the Trust’s decision, the Friends state.

However, Tobi Bergman, president of Pier, Park & Playground Association and a past G.V.L.L. president, gave the impression that the leagues, for now, may be willing to settle for larger, interim sports fields on the pier.

Bergman, also on the board of Friends of Hudson River Park, said of a possible lawsuit, “We’re a long way from that. The leagues are not at all sure how to proceed. A lawsuit might be able to stop interim uses, but the issue is, do you really win? Say you stop interim uses, how do you get something?”


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