Volume 19 Issue 44 | March 16 - 22, 2007

Larger restaurant would push some kayaks out of Tribeca boathouse

By Skye H. McFarlane

When Community Board 1 Waterfront Committee chairperson Julie Nadel started up a Pier 26 Task Force, she merely wanted to examine the details of the proposed park space and make a few suggestions.

What she and the Task Force found in the current pier plans has the Waterfront Committee crying foul and demanding a seat at the Hudson River Park Trust’s design table.

“I had no idea that I had literally opened Pandora’s box,” Nadel said Tuesday, after bringing the Task Force’s findings before the Waterfront Committee Monday night.

According to advocates, the plans — which show a two-story, 229-seat restaurant surrounding a boathouse that is too small to store several types of kayaks — are symptomatic of the Trust’s seeming unwillingness to include the public in its park planning. Furthermore, they pointed out, the Trust may have violated two sections of the Hudson River Park Act in creating the plans.

Nadel started the Task Force back in December after it came to light that there was no funding to construct the boathouse and estuarium on Pier 26, in the Tribeca section of Hudson River Park. Before the old, deteriorating piers in the section were closed for demolition in late 2005, the Downtown Boathouse organization had offered boat storage and free kayaking out of a basic shed on the pier. The River Project had run a similarly low-key educational center to study the Hudson River estuary environment (thus giving rise to the term “estuarium”).

The Trust’s conceptual plan for the park’s Tribeca section has long included putting a boathouse and an estuarium back on the pier, with operators to be determined during a later bidding process. However, Nadel, who also serves on the Trust’s board of directors, had heard from friends in the boating community that the new boathouses built by the Trust farther upriver had problems. Boaters have said the docks are too high to serve kayakers, and the plumbing was not only expensive, but it doesn’t work very well because it is built on a pier, instead of on land.

Nadel and the Task Force wanted to head-off such problems at the new Pier 26 boathouse. They also hoped to make the structure less expensive and more eco-friendly by eliminating frills like indoor showers and year-round heating. If there was no funding, Nadel said, then why not make some positive changes? But when Nadel asked to see the current plans for the pier, she was first told that the Trust staff could not locate the detailed plans. Later, according to Nadel, Trust president Connie Fishman said that the pier might receive additional funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which gave the Trust $70 million for the park’s Tribeca section. The Trust was ready to bid the plans out for construction on April 1 and therefore no changes could be made.

The Trust did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Eventually the Task Force was given access to the plans, which contained detailed renderings of the boathouse and restaurant, but no drawings of the pier as a whole and no renderings of the estuarium. Several Task Force members surmised that the lack of estuarium plans stemmed from an earlier, behind-the-scenes effort by Fishman to designate the Beacon Institute, a creation of former Governor George Pataki, as the estuarium operator. While Beacon had created some designs for the space — which were never shown to the public — the Trust itself had apparently produced no plans of its own.

After viewing the plans, the Task Force decided that it could no longer merely make design suggestions. The Waterfront Committee agreed.

“We should tell them to cease and desist,” said Linda Roche, referring to proposed April 1 bid-out.

“We need to remind people that we had this pier taken away from us,” said Ro Sheffe.

By the estimation of Jim Wetteroth, head of the Downtown Boathouse, the boathouse in the Trust’s plans is 30 percent smaller than the old Pier 26 boathouse. More critically, it is 9 feet narrower, with kayak storage slots designed to house boats up to 14.5 feet in length along both walls. While the space would be a tight squeeze for the open-top kayaks often used by beginners, it would not accommodate the longer, narrower boats used by more advanced paddlers. High-end kayaks can reach up to 18 feet in length.

Beyond a unanimous desire for a more functional boathouse design, the group agreed that the 10,000-square-foot restaurant would gravely alter the use and feeling of the pier. While there was a restaurant in the conceptual plans that the Trust presented to C.B. 1 in 2002, Roche, who was the Waterfront Committee chairperson at that time, said that the earlier restaurant was much smaller and did not have a second story.

A resolution passed by the board in July of 2002 affirms that point, as it mentions enlarging the pier’s second-floor “observation deck.” Additionally, a more detailed resolution passed by the Waterfront Committee in June 2002 expressed the desire that the restaurant be “secondary” to the pier’s other uses and not a “destination” eatery. Both resolutions expressed C.B. 1’s desire to collaborate with the Trust in developing more detailed plans for the Tribeca segment. However, according to C.B. 1 records, the Trust never brought any additional plans before the board until the Task Force demanded them in early 2007.

As several Task Force members pointed out Monday night, the Hudson River Park Act, which created both the park and the Trust, states specifically that Pier 26 is set aside for park use. Any commercial activity on the pier, the act says, is to be “incidental to public use.” The act gives the examples of concession stands and information booths as incidental uses.

“When you have 220-something seats in a restaurant, it’s not looking like a concession stand. It’s looking like a commercial establishment,” said committee member Albert Capsouto, a restaurateur with a background in architecture.

The committee members said that the Trust’s lack of collaboration with C.B. 1 also violated the spirit, and possibly the letter, of the Hudson River Park Act. In the event of “significant action” such as a request for proposals or a lease-out, the act states that the Trust must present its plans both to the public and to the local community board, with 30 days advance notice. In general, the Trust is directed to have regular, “meaningful” consultation with the public and Community Boards 1, 2 and 4.

On Monday, the committee passed a strongly worded resolution rejecting the Trust’s current plans, demanding that the Trust not bid out the plans, and insisting that the Trust’s designers work with “Pier 26 Task Force members as ongoing participants in every decision regarding Pier 26.”

If the full board approves the resolution on March 20, Nadel said she plans to send a copy to her colleagues on the Trust’s board, as well as a slew of local politicians. She has also asked Fishman to come to the Waterfront Committee’s March 26 meeting to answer questions about the planning and funding of the pier. After opening Pandora’s box, Nadel, fittingly, is left with hope that the situation will turn out for the best.

“The Trust could have saved a lot of money if they had just stuck to spirit of the park legislation and shown us the plans,” Nadel said. “But I think we caught it just in the nick of time.”

Downtown Express is published by Community Media LLC. 145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 | Fax: (212) 229-2790 | Advertising: 646-452-2465 | © 2007 Community Media, LLC

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.