Volume 18 • Issue 32 | December 23 - 30, 2005

Pier A deal looks like it may heat up – again

Downtown Express file photo by Jennifer Weisbord
Once again a deal to reopen Pier A in Battery Park appears close.

By Ronda Kaysen

The National Park Service voiced renewed interest in a landmark pier in Battery Park, after nearly a year of stalled negotiations with the pier’s leaseholder.

Last Friday, Park Service officials sent Pier A leaseholder, Wings Point Associates, a memo of understanding indicating it was interested in using the entire lower level of the three-story pier as a security checkpoint and queuing area for visitors heading to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on Circle Line ferries. The memo suggests agreeing to a far shorter lease on the space — 10 years — than Wings Point’s suggested 43-year-lease and requests using the entire ground floor rather than a portion of it, as previously discussed.

“The Park Service wants to come to an agreement and lease the space,” said Linda Rosenthal, an aide to U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who has followed the negotiations closely.

Pier A, a Victorian berth built the same year as the Statue of Liberty in 1886, has stood empty for decades, falling into disrepair and slipping from the once glorious relic of New York’s architectural history to a blight on the waterfront.

Wings Point signed a lease with the city in 1989. Over the years, the company says it spent $19 million stabilizing the property, but progress about what to do with the pier remained embroiled in bureaucratic wrangling. While Pier A remains shrouded in scaffolding and locked behind a chain link fence, the city loses money in potential tax revenue and Wings Point pays the city substantially less in rent than it would pay if the pier were functioning.

Last winter the iceberg that is Pier A appeared to thaw. The company settled its lawsuits with the city and New York Waterway, which sold its Downtown commuter ferry routes to attorney William Wachtel, Wings Point’s managing partner. In February, Wings Point reached an agreement in principle with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to transform the property into a mixed-use destination with retail, restaurants and a checkpoint for tourists to board Circle Line tours. At the same meeting at the U.S. Customs House across the street from Battery Park, Park Service officials unanimously voiced their support for moving their facilities to the pier, Thomas Ickovic, Wings Point’s chief operating officer, told Downtown Express Tuesday. Currently, Circle Line passengers board ferries from a temporary location in Battery Park.

With the deal all but sealed, Wings Point hired contractors and enlisted restoration architect Denis Kuhn of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects to renovate the 32,000 sq. ft. structure, which was built immediately after the Brooklyn Bridge and with the same equipment. Wings Point sunk $500,000 into design work. For the first time in the pier’s history, it became a very real possibility that the green and silver landmark with sweeping arched windows and impressive harbor views might open to the public.

“We have structural engineers, we have a whole team ready to pounce. We’re geared up and ready to go,” said Ickovic.

Then all movement on the project ground to a halt, as federal level negotiations with the Park Service went nowhere.

Ickovic has been campaigning to dedicate part of Pier A to Park Service uses since shortly after Sep. 11 when he met with Park Service Director Fran Mainella in Washington D.C. At the time, Mainella expressed interest in taking over part of the pier, said Ickovic, but as of yet nothing has been finalized.

In recent talks, the Park Service indicated its desire to occupy the entire ground floor, rather than just a portion of it, sign a shorter, 10-year lease, and pay substantially less than what Wings Point would like them to pay in rent.

The memo, however, does not include a specific rent request, nor does it include extensive details on a possible lease, said Ickovic, who had been hoping to see more substantial progress by now. “We’re a little put off that this M.O.U. [memorandum of understanding] is so vague. It’s like saying, ‘Hi, my name is Tom.’ We already know this. We already had the deal all done… Meanwhile the project sits there stalled and it looks like a black eye on the rebirth of Lower Manhattan.”

Behind the scenes, tensions between Wings Point and Circle Line have contributed to the delays. “Circle Line is not happy that this is happening,” said Rosenthal, Nadler’s aide.

Because Wings Point managing partner Wachtel bought up New York Waterway ferry routes between Lower Manhattan and Hoboken last February with a new company he created called BillyBey, suspicions between the two ferry operators run high. Once Statue of Liberty-bound ferries operate out of a Wings Point-run pier and Circle Line’s concession contract with the Park Service comes up for renewal, Wachtel would be free to bid, offering his own ferry company as the provider.

“Wings Point and Circle Line are getting ready for something to happen where both of them will be in conflict,” said Rosenthal. “They anticipate something happening soon so they’re trying to stake out different positions in anticipation of the contract renewal.”

Ickovic insists Circle Line has nothing to worry about. “Right now Circle Line is the concessionaire. We have nothing to do with that,” he said. Who runs the ferries from Pier A to the Statue of Liberty “really doesn’t matter to us, that’s not our business. We’re just accommodating what they [Park Service] need.”

Circle Line did not return calls for comment for this story Wednesday.

Ickovic worries negotiations will drag out indefinitely. “All this takes is someone to say ‘enough of this nonsense, let’s get this done,’” he said. But “this is just how government works. They tend to be slow, they tend to be overly cautious. Avoiding a decision is better than making one. It’s the nature of the beast, which I’ve learned to know all too painfully.”

Park Service officials did not return calls for comment for this story. Officials at the General Service Administration, which has been involved in the negotiations declined to comment, citing the delicate nature of negotiations.

Rosenthal insists the main sticking point for Park Service is cost and security. “It was too much money and the lease was too long,” she said. “That letter to them [Wings Point] is better than nothing. It shows the process is moving.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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