downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 15 | August 25 - 31, 2006

Pier A negotiations continue running adrift

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie
A Lady Liberty Harbor Cruise ferry pulls into Pier A. Discussions between the pier’s developer and the National Park Service have stalled, putting the pier’s future in doubt.

By Ronda Kaysen

Pier A, the historic pier perched on the edge of Battery Park, was once a Victorian symbol of New York City’s splendor. Today, it is a dilapidated blight on the Lower Manhattan landscape, and as discussions to revive it repeatedly disintegrate, its future remains perennially in doubt.

The last remaining 19th-century pier in the city has sat decaying and shrouded in scaffolding for decades, despite attempts by pier leaseholder Wings Point Associates to breathe new life into it. The company restored much of the green and silver facade last year and boasted plans to transform the berth into a three-story destination equipped with a museum, catering hall and shops. But none of that has happened.

“Pier A is a piece of the puzzle to really make [Battery Park] live up to its full potential,” said William Rudin, chairperson of the board of trustees for the Battery Conservancy. “Obviously, if Pier A could get developed sooner rather than later… that would be great.”

The $40 million historic restoration hinges on a deal with the National Park Service, which wants to move its security screening operations for Statue of Liberty tours to the pier’s ground floor.

Since the tours resumed after Sept. 11, 2001, the Park Service has been screening visitors in temporary — and unsightly — tents on the Battery Park promenade. But the agency’s license with the city Dept. of Parks and Recreation to use parkland for the tents expired this summer, and the city has no interest in extending the license — it wants the parkland back.

“They will be moving. That land will now be utilized for public use,” said Parks Dept. spokesperson Carli Smith. “In terms of their license with us, that’s up and they’re going to be moving to another location.”

Smith added that the Parks Dept. “understands the predicament [the Park Service] is in” and will wait for them find a suitable location — preferably at Pier A.

The 1886 pier, which is owned by the city and leased to Wings Point, stands as an obvious alternative to the tents. Wings Point needs an anchor tenant to guarantee a flow of visitors to the isolated pier. And the Park Service needs a new home. The arrangement seemed like a perfect marriage of convenience.

In March 2005, a deal between the Park Service and Wings Point to rent the ground floor of the pier seemed imminent, and regional Park Service officials signed off on it. But when the offer reached federal headquarters in Washington, D.C., it crumbled, sources close to the negotiations say.

Some worry a resolution with the Park Service may be delayed indefinitely, since Park Service Director Fran Mainella resigned from her post last month and no replacement has been named.

“It drags on and on,” said Tom Ickovic, a Wings Point managing partner. “If the Park Service can’t make up their minds, we can’t hold it forever.”

Another interested party — a for-profit museum — is “waiting in the wings” to snatch up the ground floor, said Ickovic. He declined to name the museum.

A private museum as an anchor tenant might not be the best option for Pier A, which is isolated from the bustle of Lower Manhattan, and might have trouble attracting visitors. The tours would guarantee 3 million visitors a year to an otherwise out-of-the-way pier.

“It’s hard to come up with another use for Pier A that’s going to guarantee that stream of customers — it has to be the destination,” said Arturo Garcia-Costas, an aide to U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who has been a vocal supporter of moving Park Service operations to Pier A.

Wings Point managing partner William Wachtel has a different take on negotiations from his partner Ickovic. “Pier A developers continue their discussions with the National Park Service and hope to achieve a resolution in the near future,” a Wachtel spokesperson wrote in an e-mail statement.

The Battery Park tents were intended to be a short-term solution, but in this post-9/11 New York, they have become anything but. By 10 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning this week, a large line had already formed at the promenade, with tourists edging through the switchback lanes as they waited to board boats to Liberty Island. By midday in warmer months, the lines seem endless.

“What is a tent doing in the middle of the park?” said Henry Stern, a Battery Conservancy board of trustees member and the former commissioner of the New York City Parks Dept. “It’s good to have security, but it needn’t be in everyone’s face.”

The Park Service insists it, too, would like to see the tents moved. “Unequivocally, the negotiations are ongoing,” said Park Service spokesperson Darren Boch. “They have not ended and they are not being in any way delayed by any party.”

For months, rumors have been flying that Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry, Inc., the company that operates the Liberty Island-bound ferries, has attempted to derail negotiations between Wings Point and the federal government.

Circle Line has had a contract with the Park Service since 1953 to operate the Liberty Island ferries. Wachtel of Wings Point owns Lower Manhattan New York Waterway routes and stands to be a serious contender for the Park Service contract. If the Park Service moves to Pier A, Wachtel will have leverage in a bid for the Liberty Island contract, which expires in 2007.

“The Circle Line people, they’ve got a lucrative thing here and they don’t want anything to jeopardize that,” said a source close to the negotiations who requested anonymity so as not to undo any negotiations.

In what might be a harbinger of a bidding war to come, Wachtel began running a Lady Liberty Harbor Cruise from Pier A this summer, draping the pier’s scaffolding with advertisements promising line-free tours of the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

“That’s the elephant in the living room,” said Garcia-Costas from Nadler’s office. “If Wachtel is bidding on that concession, then they’d make it easy for the Park Service [to move to Pier A]. If they’re not interested, then maybe they’re thinking, ‘We don’t need the Park Service’” and would have less incentive to accept an offer from the government. “It’s a little bit like reading tea leaves.”

Circle Line, however, balks at rumors of their involvement, which have circulated for months. “It seems like an eternity that they’ve been trying to negotiate this, and every time there’s a problem they point a finger at us and we’re not sitting at the table… we’re not a party to this contract,” said J.B. Meyer, president and C.E.O. of Circle Line Harbor Cruises. “We’ve been for Pier A since the beginning.”

Pier A is not entirely lifeless these days. The 50-minute Lady Liberty Harbor Cruise leaves hourly from the south slip at Pier A and cruises past the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island and other harbor sights. The $15 tours average about 4,600 visitors a week.

On Tuesday morning, a score of tourists wandered onto the 10 a.m. ferry. “Usually it’s a little more crowded than this,” lamented the tour guide as he waited for the tourists to take their seats. Over at the Park Service tents, hundreds of tourists crowded in the hot morning sun waiting to get on the Circle Line ferry to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Francesco Donato, visiting from Italy with his wife, lounged on the Waterway ferry deck. He had taken the Circle Line tour a few days earlier. “How do I describe my emotions in English?” he said when asked which tour he preferred. “This one is less interesting.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com



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