Volume 19 Issue 48 | April 13 - 19, 2007

Talking Points

The pier’s a park, not a parkway

By Tobi Bergman

Picture a fine evening in June in the waterfront park. It’s 7 p.m. and the tail end of rush hour traffic is inching toward the Holland Tunnel. The heat of the day is yielding to a river breeze and the Greenway is jam-packed: cyclists and runners, skaters and strollers, commuting, exercising, grooving. But now, throngs of tourists are arriving at Pier 40 to experience elegant outdoor dining offered at five hip new restaurants with Statue of Liberty views. Taxis and limos are lining up to turn right or left into multiple Pier 40 driveways from Route 9A, creating havoc as they try to cross the crowded Greenway to get their fares to Cirque du Soleil and two other large event venues. Tempers fray and horns blow. Where’s the community in this picture? And where’s the park?

The Hudson River Park Trust is considering a misguided proposal to convert the biggest property in the park into a 10,000-seat, entertainment mega-complex at a site with no nearby subway.

The Pier 40 Performing Arts Center proposal by Related Companies would cover Pier 40 with a dozen buildings, using the public space as a campus environment for large entertainment venues, restaurants, and retail stores. It would sever the continuity that is an important feature of the Hudson River Park plan and mar the enlightened vision of ringing our island as much as possible with places for a riverside respite. It would overwhelm the popular bike and walking paths with high-volume crossing traffic. Fields in a park would be replaced by fields on a garage roof.  (Hot and cold weather limit use on the pier’s existing rooftop field.) The immense scale of the project makes it incompatible with the park.  People are calling it Vegas on the Hudson.

Pier 40 is a park in park-starved Downtown Manhattan. Children from thousands of families and dozens of schools love to play in the safe and clean environment of the beautiful new courtyard fields. Families choose not to leave the city because of the sense of community they find there. Halfway between 14th and Chambers Sts., the 15-acre pier is the most important opportunity for new open space in Downtown Manhattan, where land is so pricey.

The 1998 Hudson River Park Act allows commercial development at three sites in the park to support park operations, but construction of the park is the responsibility of the city and the state. Commercial uses must be “park-compatible” and residential and office developments are not allowed. Pier 40 is one of the sites, but space equal to 50 percent of its footprint is reserved for park use.

When the Trust looked for Pier 40 developers five years ago, none of the proposals were worthy of this public resource. The Trust did the right thing: they rejected all of the plans and made good on a five-year-old promise to build sports fields in the huge central courtyard of the pier.

The Trust began the same failed Request for Proposals process last year, again without first engaging the communities from Tribeca to Hell’s Kitchen for whom the outcome is of immense importance. The reasons for failure the first time were embedded in the site’s constraints. This time there is a new constraint: the thousands of children and adults who now enjoy playing on the fields won’t accept anything less than the wonderful facility they have.

The R.F.P. did not include the two most important numbers developers needed to know: how much investment in pier infrastructure would the Trust require and how much does it need to maintain the park? The glib response we’ve heard, “there’s no such thing as too much money,” is the wrong answer. More investment and higher rent payments will always come with more intense commercial use at the expense of the park. Indeed, the Trust encouraged inappropriate development by asking developers to pay for “future development of system-wide park assets,” going beyond the income for park operations that is allowed by the act.

Related Companies cannot be faulted for putting substantial resources into a good faith effort responding to the R.F.P. But the Trust’s process is not worthy of the pier’s value. It does not adequately engage the communities with the most to win or lose. It does not look for income opportunities that do not undermine the park.

This time around, in a city full of developers, there was even less interest in Pier 40 than there had been in 2002. The only other R.F.P. response came after a chance encounter I had with the leader of a non-profit group that raises money for high schools. I suggested he expand recreational opportunities at the pier without disrupting current successful uses, since the group was losing gym space at Basketball City. On very short notice, his group joined with a developer to fashion a proposal called The People’s Pier. The developers offer a good future for the pier, but still need to prove they have enough money.

At a public hearing on May 3, our neighborhoods will have an opportunity to speak out against a bad proposal. We can also support continuing the current successful uses at Pier 40, either by choosing The People’s Pier or once again choosing none of the above. Fortunately, P.S. 41, at 11th St. and Sixth Ave., where the hearing will be held, does have nearby subway stations.

Save the date and don’t be late!

Tobi Bergman is president of The Pier Park & Playgrounds Association, which supports The People’s Pier proposal.

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