Volume 19 Issue 52 | May 11 -17, 2007

Related’s revisions to its plans includes more field space at the south end of Pier 40, left, and fewer traffic lane entrances.

1,500 swarm park meeting

By Lincoln Anderson

More than 1,500 parents, Little Leaguers and budding David Beckhams — plus a crew hauling a 14-foot-long Whitehall rowboat complete with a sail — mobbed P.S. 41 last Thursday evening for a public hearing on Pier 40’s future.

Most came to defend the pier’s sports fields from possibly being shut down for up to 18 months — and to voice their outrage at the idea of Little Leaguers being set out to sea on barges as an interim plan.

They came to keep their mecca for sports from becoming “a mall.”

The boaters said they want to the pier to remain a place where small watercraft can find safe harbor.

At the start, the scene was total chaos, as the young players wearing uniforms— many were bused up by Tribeca and Battery Park City youth programs — and parents flooded into the W. 11th St. school’s lobby.

“Get me some water! I’m losing my voice!” Maryann Monte, a Hudson River Park Trust staffer, shouted above the din as she struggled to get everyone to sign in.

Four hundred people packed the school’s auditorium, with another 400 each filling the cafeteria and schoolyard. Shortly after the meeting’s 7 p.m. start, though, hundreds more were still outside, with a line stretching down 11th St., onto Sixth Ave. and winding around the corner onto 10th St. It was decided just to open the schoolyard gate on Greenwich Ave. and let everybody in — an estimated 300 more — and waive the sign-in.

Police officers and firefighters kept watch so that the rooms didn’t swell to over capacity. Audio and TV links to the cafeteria and yard allowed people there to follow the action in the auditorium.

It was by far the largest turnout anyone could remember for such a public hearing Downtown.

Concern is at an all-time high over the Trust’s plan to redevelop the 14-acre W. Houston St. pier. An earlier effort to do so by the state-city authority crashed in 2003, after which the pier’s courtyard was carpeted with artificial grass for sports fields under an interim plan. The fields have since become a treasured community asset in a park-starved part of town, and are in nearly constant use by the local youth sports leagues.

Two teams are vying to redevelop the pier. The Related Companies has joined with Cirque du Soleil and the Tribeca Film Festival in a $626 million proposal called “Pier 40 Performing Arts Center,” or “PAC,” to transform the pier into a major entertainment destination. The other proposal, by Urban Dove and CampGroup, called “The People’s Pier,” would cost $145 million and add a summer day camp and a school to the pier, as well as courts for public high school basketball teams and others to use.

Hudson River Park is supposed to be self-sustaining. The Trust — which is building the 5-mile-long park — is seeking a private developer to increase the revenue from the pier, which is currently $5 million to $6 million annually from the parking operation. The developer would also pay for the costly repair of the former shipping pier, which badly needs a rehab.

The developers are required to preserve the pier’s 1,800 parking spaces and provide sports field space at least equal to that currently on the pier. The Trust’s board of directors will ultimately decide which plan would be chosen, after which a public environmental review and uniform land use review procedure would occur. No schedule is set for selection of a developer or the review process.

In general, however, there wasn’t much support among the crowd for either plan. But it was Related’s vision for the pier that came in for the most savaging.

After the development teams made brief presentations, audience members were allowed to comment. About 50 did, and — in their own ways — all expressed their extreme anxiety about the pier’s future. They ranged from kayakers to residents of the tony new Morton Square high-rise building across from Pier 40 to T-ball-playing tykes.

“We say no to interim fields,” Tom Ellett, president of Greenwich Village Little League, said. “We say no to removing our fields! We say no to rooftop fields only! We say no to baseball on barges!

“You are the Hudson River Park Trust. It says ‘park’ in your name. Do the right thing for the children and families of our community,” Ellett said, as applause resounded through the auditorium.

Local politicians also weighed in. Assemblymember Deborah Glick expressed a similar sentiment and received similar rousing cheers when she said: “I believe that what’s presented to us here reflects humongous development. We were promised a waterfront park with small nodes of development; they [the nodes] develop a lot of money now.”

Also commenting were Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senators Tom Duane and Martin Connor and Councilmember Alan Gerson. All emphasized the importance of preserving the pier’s playing fields .

“The People’s Pier” plan was not without its critics. Bob Russo, of Downtown United Soccer Club, decried the idea of charging for use of the pier’s field and athletic space — though the Urban Dove/CampGroup only would do this for some of the spaces.

“They’re not giving us more [athletic space],” Russo said angrily, “and they’re charging market rate for use.” Meanwhile, of the “PAC” plan, he said, “We are an afterthought. Putting our kids on the roof…. Our kids need to be put on center stage — not on backstage.”

One of the few voices in favor of Related, Peggy Lewis, executive director of biz kids, inc., and several young actors in her program, wore artistic masks to the hearing. The acting program has had a space on the pier since 2001, and Lewis feels the pier needs the kind of repairs that Related will bring.

Lewis wondered why Pier 40 must completely be consumed by sports — in short, why Bohemia has become, well, “Baseball City.”

“My concern is exclusivity of Pier 40 as a sports pier. Why? Why?” she asked with a perplexed look. “We are in New York City, one of the largest, most fantastic arts cities in the world.”

But baseball caps at the hearing far outnumbered long-nosed theatrical masks.

‘The People’s Pier’

Jai Nanda, founder and executive director of Urban Dove — a nonprofit group helping youth through sports and other programs — assured the audience that “The People’s Pier” plan would not disrupt use of the existing main field space.

“The courtyard ball field is a safe haven for thousands of kids,” Nanda said. “Our plan keeps the courtyard ball field open year-round.” The crowd exploded with applause.

Nanda — who grew up in the Village and attended P.S. 3 — said that as a youth he used to play on a dirt lot on Mercer St. that was eventually replaced by New York University’s Coles Sports Center. His own experience typifies Downtown’s lack of playing field space, he said, noting, “It was from this reality that ‘The People’s Pier’ was born.”

Nanda added “The People’s Pier” plan won’t increase auto traffic to the pier.

Nanda said they will invest $30 million in the pier’s infrastructure, including fixing up the pier’s substructure and deteriorated piles. They would start by fixing only the piles around the edge of the pier, however, and would shore up the pier’s center at a later date. Nanda explained they could take this approach because the load of the central courtyard is less than that on the pier’s perimeter, which supports the two-story “doughnut”-like pier shed.

He said they would seek $8 million from the city and state to erect a roof over the pier’s northern edge under which there would be basketball courts for Urban Dove’s Net Gain program for public high school basketball teams that lack courts. If they don’t get the funds, they would erect a bubble on an interim basis, he said. Nanda said they feel public monies are appropriate for this structure, since it will support public use.

Though some critics have called the Urban Dove/CampGroup plan “underfunded,” Nanda said “The People’s Pier” plan — because it is less expensive — is more feasible.

“Our low impact, less costly approach is less risky [than the Related plan],” Nanda stated. A CampGroup representative stressed that they have financed and repaid $1 billion in loans in running their about a dozen camps.

In an interview afterward, Nanda clarified that all the pier’s existing field space would be free of charge and would continue to be programmed by the Trust. However, there would be a sliding fee for use of the new fields on the pier’s south rooftop, three new pools and the basketball courts. Nonprofit groups would get a low rate, corporate leagues would get market rate and some groups would even get free use, Nanda said.

The day camp — charging $1,000 a week per camper — would only use the south fields and pools for 10 weeks in the summer. The pools would be 4-feet deep, two indoor and one outdoor, large enough for competitions, with aboveground aluminum-tank construction.

Nanda said their plan would increase the pier’s open space by about 30 percent to 40 percent. He added that after seeing the demand at the hearing for keeping the pier’s indoor soccer field, they are now trying to work with the Trust to figure out how to keep it as part of their plan.

Asked about their proposal to add a school to the pier, Nanda said they have met with both the city’s Department of Education and Bill Gates’s New Visions organization, and have been advised that a sports or marine school would be most appropriate.

Also at the hearing, the Urban Dove/CampGroup’s plan to add a pedestrian bridge over West St. to the pier drew approving applause from parents concerned with the safety of their children while crossing the highway.

The ‘PAC’ pier

Jeff Blau, president of The Related Companies, started off by telling the 1,500-plus audience members, “We recognize that any development must be sensitive to your concerns.” He saw many “affordable soccer” signs in the audience and said those were a vote for the Related plan.

Noting Pier 40 has “suffered from years of neglect,” Blau said, “The Trust, the city and the state want the pier rebuilt. For safety, we are willing to commit $35 million to repair the pier.”

After Related’s first design for the pier was panned by the community earlier this year as too “glitzy Las Vegas” and too tall, Related retooled its design. The new design generally keeps within the envelope of the existing pier shed, except for the addition of a 120-foot-tall Cirque du Soleil fly tower on the pier’s northwest corner.

Also, Houston St. would be extended onto the pier via a pedestrian promenade that would house galleries, restaurants and retail space behind facades evoking the Lower West Side’s industrial past.

Related has expanded the amount of outdoor space in its new proposal, representing a 40 percent increase over the pier’s existing outdoor and field space. Most of the pier’s courtyard would be filled in. The pier’s current courtyard ball fields, as well as the smaller rooftop ball field on the pier’s southeast corner, would be moved to the northern section of the pier’s roof. In addition, more athletic space — possibly for basketball or tennis — would be created on the southern part of the pier’s rooftop. The existing indoor soccer field would be kept.

Blau added that Related is willing to add bubbles or tensile structures over the rooftop sports fields.

“All for the safety and comfort or your athletes,” he said. All athletic space would be free, programmed by the Trust.

The pier’s current sports fields would be closed for “one season” of sports during the construction, Blau said, though this could be up to 18 months. He apparently was not referring to soccer, which has fall and summer seasons. Related is exploring using barges for Little League and youth soccer during the interim.

Also in the new Related plan, a 57,000-square-foot real grass lawn on the pier’s south side replaces what would have been an amphitheater in the first plan. A “passive picnic park” on the roof in the pier’s southeast quadrant would also have real grass. More green space would be created on the pier’s east side where traffic would no longer drive across the pier’s front, but only in or out on two access roads.

Auto traffic to and from Pier 40 could be mitigated by controlling the starting and ending times of the pier’s various entertainment events, Blau added.

In addition, Related has added new safety measures regarding auto traffic entering and exiting the pier. The two crossings of the Hudson River Park bike path have been reduced from nine lanes to six lanes. Their new plan calls for on-foot safety agents to be posted at certain times and for stoplights, as exist at other points on the bike path. Bollards would prevent cars from entering the bike path.

Speaking later, Joanna Rose, a Related spokesperson, emphasized that Related not only will fix up the pier, but that giving the complex a long-term lease for the pier would provide ongoing revenue to “support the park for future generations.”

She said Related, Tribeca Film Festival and Cirque du Soleil are confident they can pull off the mega-development. Rose noted Related is one of the nation’s top private developers, with $15 billion in existing developments and $9 billion worth of projects in the pipeline.

Rose clarified that the barges for Little League would be moored and stabilized, and that they are permitted on a temporary basis.

‘Neither is acceptable’

Speaking on Monday, Tobi Bergman, president of Pier Park and Playground Association, a group advocating increased youth athletic opportunities, said the community likes the pier as is.

Rooftop fields are too hot compared to the protected courtyard, plus would require 50-foot-tall fences to keep hardballs from flying down onto the Cirque and movie theater crowds, he said.

“It would only take one catastrophic injury before they say, No baseball on the pier,” Bergman said.

Also, windscreens would be needed for rooftop fields, otherwise “every double would turn into a home run,” he said.

More important, in Bergman’s opinion, is the pier’s comfort factor.

“Right now, parents drop off their kids at Pier 40 and they know it’s a safe place,” Bergman said. “It’s completely different if you’re dropping them off at an entertainment complex. It’s no longer a park atmosphere. Tens of thousands of people is not really where you want your kids playing ball.”

While Bergman said Related’s second design is “much better” than its first one, he added that “the content” — Cirque du Soleil, a movieplex, concert hall, four restaurants, retail, banquet hall and more — is still the problem.

“The content is they’ve got a venue for 10,000 people or more,” he said. “You could have more than 10,000 people sitting down on the pier at once.”

Bergman said even “The People’s Pier” plan, which he previously supported, is not good enough, though he thinks it’s closer to acceptable.

“Given what a precious resource Pier 40 is, it’s going to have to be better,” he said.

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