Volume 20, Number 36 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Feb. 1 - 7 , 2008

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

As Chris McGinnis spoke at Sunday’s rally on Pier 40, Ilan Gold, 11, gave his opinion on the Related Companies’ plan to move the pier’s fields to make room for an entertainment complex with Cirque du Soleil. McGinnis’ group, the Pier 40 Partnership, wants a non-profit conservancy to run the pier.

1,000 pack pier to rally against Cirque plan

By Lincoln Anderson

More than 1,000 kids and parents, one celebrity chef, local politicians and community leaders, L.G.B.T. waterfront activists and a rockin’ band of 12-year-old guitar heroes packed Pier 40 last Sunday afternoon. The occasion was a mass rally to celebrate the pier’s playing fields and call on the Hudson River Park Trust to reject a megadevelopment plan for the W. Houston St. pier at its expected vote Thursday, Jan. 31.

As the crowd gathered, rubber mini-footballs flew — “Go long!” a young girl shouted as a boy sprinted out for a pass — and soccer balls bounded as kids scurried and fell everywhere on the glistening, green artificial turf. The exuberant scene of youthful activity was the polar opposite of kids as couch potatoes watching Sunday morning TV cartoons.

Signs on wooden posts bobbed above their heads in various spots with the names of local schools written in magic marker: P.S. 234, P.S. 41, Village Community School, Grace Church School, City and Country School, P.S. 3, L.R.E.I. — all of whose students make heavy use of the pier, many of them through local sports leagues, such as the Downtown Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club.

Chef Mario Batali, a Village resident whose Babbo on Waverly Pl. is hailed as one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city, kicked things off. He made a plea for the spell not to be broken at the four-decades-old former cargo-ship pier now transformed into a vibrant community hub.

“The pier and these fields are a magical space for our neighborhood and for all New Yorkers who need open space,” Batali said. “And we don’t want this magic to be replaced by a private developer’s idea of what their magic might be — which would be a strip mall, movie theaters and mediocre restaurants.

“If we wanted strip malls and private space, we would live in the suburbs,” he said. “Development is good — but not here.”

On Thursday, the Trust is expected to vote on whether to select either of two proposals for the pier that resulted from a second, more recent, R.F.P. process. The proposal by The Related Companies is the more feared and strongly opposed by the community; Related’s plan would turn the pier into a Downtown entertainment destination, sporting a Cirque du Soleil and independent film movieplex for the Tribeca Film Festival. Related’s development scheme would draw millions of people annually to the Lower West Side pier.

The Pier 40 Partnership, an ad hoc group of parents whose children all play on Pier 40, formed as a countermeasure to Related’s plan. The Partnership’s idea relies on tax-exempt bond financing to renovate the pier, which would be run by a nonprofit conservancy.

On Sunday, predicted snow flurries held off and the sun was beaming down, warming the protected courtyard during the rally. Assemblymember Deborah Glick noted she had been all bundled up and wearing earmuffs on her way over to Pier 40, but found, once safely inside the courtyard “doughnut,” that she was overdressed.

“Here in the doughnut, I don’t need that,” she said of her winter gear. “It clearly demonstrates that this is where the fields should be — not in the shadow of Cirque du Soleil on the rooftop in a corner.”

Related’s plan would move the fields to the pier’s roof, which parents and the sports leagues say is too exposed to the elements and the gusts off the Hudson River.

Chris McGinnis, a leading member of the Pier 40 Partnership, touted the benefits of their proposal versus Related’s: “Not a lot of traffic or vehicular traffic [in the Partnership plan]. [Related’s] plan is for 3 million people to descend upon this pier every year.”

On Wednesday, State Sen. Tom Duane, whose district borders the pier, signed a letter with other Downtown politicians calling on the Trust to reject Related and consider the Partnership’s non-profit approach. Previously, Duane wanted to leave the door open to negotiations with Related, and had expressed skepticism about the Partnership’s bonds idea.

Pier 40 is in the district of State Senator Martin Connor. Connor, a strong supporter of the Pier 40 field, noted he had hoped his son could play there when he was on the Stuyvesant High School football team, but unfortunately he graduated before it was built. The field is an important practice facility for Stuyvesant, which has the nation’s oldest high school football program, Connor noted, yet lacks a home field.

“I’m delighted that your kids get to play here,” he told the parents. “It’s important to our community. It’s important to our youth. … No to Related,” he said. “We don’t need Disney World here. This is our space.”

Local kids were no less adamant in their comments after the speakers were done.

“I like the pier because you have a lot of space,” said Benno Batali, chef Mario’s son, cradling a football from a pickup game he had broken away from. “It’s open in here and it’s a lot of fun. I’d rather be playing outside than in a Cirque du Soleil.”

NAAJJ, a power-guitar blues-rock band of local school kids, selected fitting songs from their repertoire — “I’m Still Here” and “Lost Its Soul” — to match the occasion.

“Pier 40 rocks my socks!” their lead singer declared in between tunes. “I want to say we all grew up playing at Pier 40, and I made a lot of friends here.”

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