Pier with a purpose: Reuse, eco are way to go

BY CHRIS GAYLORD | Down by the water, time and life seem to move a little differently. This year brings the 20th anniversary of Hudson River Park. My son was once a boy, playing the inaugural game on Pier 40’s roof. Now, he and his wife play at the pier after work. Soon there may be grandkids to take for a stroll.

Last year’s Community Board 2 online survey and report on the “Future of Pier 40,” which produced some contradictory results and a somewhat confusing mélange of “findings,” got me thinking about the trajectory toward office use of the pier, the ingredients needed for community support and the world beyond pier and park.

Keep it low: Sixty-two percent of respondents to the C.B. 2 survey prefer not to have taller buildings on the pier. Keeping the existing “normal” pier height would be a good starting place for community support. We’ll still have the 40-story towers of the St. John’s Partners development, with its 1,600 apartments, to admire across the street.

A Little Leaguer swung for the fences — or at least for one of the historic rooftop gantries — on the courtyard playing field at Pier 40, at W. Houston and West Sts. Villager file photo by Jefferson Siegel

Keep it reasonable: Offices will bring more people to the pier and adjacent park — potentially too many. The pier may be a “commercial node,” but the Hudson River Park Act says its uses should be reasonably compatible with the purpose of the park, one of which is relaxation and relief from inland congestion. In biology, a “node” is a “small discrete mass of tissue, either normal or pathological.” The former would gain more support than the latter.

Keep it public: The pier should not be privatized into a corporate campus. It’s a public park and public property. All its current uses are open to the public. Even the idea of the pier’s future is public, debated in community meetings and the pages of this newspaper. Shared civic space, places and purpose all contribute to the city’s social health and cohesion.

The public should not be alienated from the uses within the pier, but engaged and invested in them as much as possible. If there are to be offices at Pier 40, why not use them purposefully to serve public interests, to create public value and entwine the pier with the aspirations of the surrounding community? What if the pier could do good while doing well for the park? Why not be really audacious and devote a large portion of the pier’s available space to one of the biggest, most unifying challenges facing our children and grandchildren?

The Climate Alliance Center at Pier 40 / offices for the public good: New York has scores of organizations meeting the challenge of climate change. What if a critical mass of rent-paying government agencies, nonprofits and clean energy companies were gathered collaboratively on the water’s edge? What if Pier 40 were home to offices for the U.S. Climate Alliance?

Formed in 2016 by the governors of New York, California and Washington State in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the U.S. Climate Alliance has grown to 15 states, all committed to achieving the goals of the Paris accord. These states represent 41 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, enough to be the third-largest world economy. What better way to answer the idiocy of the Trump administration and engage with the world than a prominent public building on New York’s waterfront supporting the Paris accord?

One of Governor Cuomo’s initiatives is the New York Green Bank, part of a $5 billion state fund supporting technical innovation and mobilization of private investment in sustainable energy. The Green Bank is linked to a global network fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange across state lines and national borders.

Sixty-five years ago, New York welcomed the United Nations and went on to build Lincoln Center, the World Trade Center, the Javits Center and other projects, ensuring the city’s global standing. Climate change deserves at least a modestly similar concentration of resources and political will.

Solar, wind and electric parking: A partial canopy of solar panels above the roof of Pier 40 would make it one of the largest solar generators in the city. A major obstacle to wider use of electric / hybrid vehicles is the dearth of recharging stations. If roof parking had charging connections, and gas cars paid a supplemental carbon tax, the pier would become an influencer toward adoption of clean transportation. Automakers are increasingly focusing on electric and could lease a ground-floor showroom displaying next-gen vehicles.

Though more decorative than productive, vertical or helical wind turbines (not those with massive blades) combined with the existing stadium-style lighting towers or historic gantries would add a dramatic 21st-century kinetic feature reminiscent of the ship masts that once lined the waterfront.

Financial, educational and political ecologies: If initial construction were underwritten by a public-private-philanthropic partnership, the viable tenant base would be extensive. Besides tax-supported city and state agencies, the clean-energy industry and environmental nonprofits account for billions of dollars in revenue and spend significantly for office space in the city. New York has a high concentration of individual and corporate donors, foundations and philanthropists. Why not recycle those contributions and the aforementioned tax dollars into support for the park, thus acting “globally” (as in, environmentally) and locally?

Local kids watched a fish release on the south side of Pier 40 last year. The writer feels the big 14.5-acre W. Houston St. pier could play a key educational role on the environment, among other things. Villager file photo by Rebecca White

Hope and change can be tangible, contagious and scalable. A clean-energy consortium at the pier could accelerate a shift to sustainability. An ancillary educational facility engaging schools, colleges and the public in an ecosystem of information and advocacy could build momentum and provide a talent pipeline for sustainability in science, technology, engineering and policy. If Pier 40 displayed the name and logo of the Climate Alliance and was fitted with solar and wind generators, what shifts in thinking and voting might be provoked in some of the thousands of tourists visiting the park and viewing the pier from cruise ships and river excursions?

A piazza on the pier and more: Adaptive reuse of the pier’s existing buildings would be the most environmentally responsible, most cost effective and fastest way to revitalize the pier, plus would allow the courtyard playing field to remain in constant use and the rooftop parking to produce income during renovation.

Above the waterline, the pier-shed structure is structurally robust, offering a long, useful life. The center courtyard, protected from the wind, is already a sort of grand piazza, its perimeter galleries waiting to be filled with activity. If expanded to include the cantilevered balcony, the midlevel promenade could accommodate play areas, seating, a fitness course and other outdoor amenities overlooking the games on the field.

The structures on Pier 40 should be kept low in any future redevelopment schemes a majority of respondents said on an e-survey by Community Board 2 last year. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Up on the roof, where the views are sublime, there’s a newly installed concrete deck and a large vacant area almost ready for skates, hoops and dogs off-leash. On fair-weather weekends, especially in summer when park usage peaks, much of the roof parking area is vacant, seemingly ripe with potential for seasonally expanded recreational space and continued revenue.

Personally, I like the building’s low-slung profile and clean, modernist lines. It needs work but doesn’t require “starchitecture” to be a special place; with the river at hand, it already is. Though the structure’s interiors require extensive upgrades and alterations, the facade walls, basically garage doors, would be easily replaced with new surfaces, glass, recessed balconies or loggia. Interior recreational areas might have exterior walls with transparent “French” or overhead doors, seasonally opening to the outside.

Preserving the buildings may not sit well with the organized sports leagues and open-space advocates. But leveling and rebuilding the pier into a grassland peninsula, often abandoned in winter and inclement weather, would add tremendous publicly funded costs in the form of taller, more-expensive structures on the pier, increased commercialization elsewhere in the park, or new “air rights”-enhanced high-rises on the other side of the highway. In the increasingly crowded park, the advantages of a multilevel, year-round facility, and the potential for significant cost savings, should be given a good hard look.

Adaptive reuse of the existing pier shed could accommodate eateries, beer gardens, art and performance space, extensive year-round indoor sports and play areas, a weekend farmer’s market, the community boathouse, aerialists and even some parking. But why not also a community senior center serviced by Access-A-Ride? It would be a good place to watch the tides rise while my grandkids play on the field.

My personal Pier of Dreams would also include a small museum, with permanent and changing exhibits dedicated to the history of the waterfront and the Village; “Fulton’s Folly,” the R.M.S. Carpathia and S.S. Rotterdam, the bygone times of Greenwich Village art, literature, music and affordable rents, the saga of Westway, the strange true saga of the pier’s corroded piles, the miraculous discovery of “saleable air” above the river, the rise of the St. John’s Twin Towers, and enough Pier 40 designs and Villager essays to mount an exhibit and fill a book.

Gaylord’s talking point “Could eco-sloop, Pier 40 make sweet music together?” — in which he discussed the environment, the Clearwater organization and “a possible marriage” at Pier 40 — ran in the June 16, 2010, issue of The Villager. 

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