From park pier to horizontal ‘office building’

BY TOM FOX | The Hudson River Park Trust recently announced that it would allow the developers of Pier 57 to replace the area dedicated to Anthony Boudain’s proposed public market with an additional 70,000 square feet of Google offices. That public market had been announced with great fanfare two years ago but was abandoned this past December when the venture was not economically viable as initially envisioned. Google will now build a total of 320,000 square feet of commercial office space in Pier 57. At more than 1,000 feet long, Pier 57, at W. 15th St., is equivalent to the height of a 90-story building.

A design rendering of Pier 57 from a presentation in February 2016. Once the existing Pier 57, at W. 15th St., is redeveloped and opened in 2019, it will feature 110,000 square feet of outdoor space, including a green roof of usable public space. However, the pier will feature less open public area now that Google will be taking a significant portion of the space formerly earmarked for a large food-vendors hall. Image courtesy Hudson River Park Trust

The 1998 Hudson River Park Act prohibited commercial offices, hotels and residential development in the park. It was agreed that these land uses were better accommodated on the inboard side of the West Side Highway. However, in the closing hours of the 2013 legislative session, the Trust, supported by a lobbyist paid by Friends of the Hudson River Park, got the state Legislature to amend the Park Act to allow office development specifically at Pier 57. The Trust has recently mentioned that it would like to further amend the Act. Continuing efforts to commercialize the park will greatly reduce public use and enjoyment of what was planned to be the 21st-century equivalent of Central Park.

Inadequate public info

I started to pen this opinion piece after reading the February 21, 2018, Villager article “Google keeps gobbling up space in Chelsea; Takes more of Pier 57,” which described this new twist in the decade-long quest to redevelop Pier 57. I had several questions about the project and asked this newspaper’s editor if there was any public information describing which spaces were designated for different types of uses and how the public space would be managed.

Three weeks ago, he asked the Trust to provide a copy of the new plan proposed for Pier 57. The Trust didn’t have any information and referred him to Seth Pinsky, the executive vice president of the pier’s developer, RXR Realty, who said that there wasn’t a plan immediately available, but something would be available in a week or two. The Villager has yet to receive a copy of the modified plan.

It’s hard to understand how the Trust can present a revised land-use proposal for Pier 57 to Community Board 4 without having a plan to describe where different uses will be and how they will function, be accessed, managed, etc.

I hope the Trust isn’t repeating the tactic used several years ago when it sought legislative support for amending the Hudson River Park Act to allow the reconfiguration of Pier 54 as a concert facility. Back then, the Trust kept private the plan for a new theater complex at the pier — to become known as Pier 55 — which it had spent two years developing in closed-door meetings with the Diller von Furstenberg Foundation. Instead of sharing the plan with legislators, the public employees working at the Trust showed elected officials a drawing on a napkin.

Update Trust Web site

I searched for additional information on the Trust’s Web site, but was disappointed to read a description of the project that was apparently more than five years old. It described the initial proposal made by Young Woo in 2009 with Pier 57 containing 7 acres of “creative commerce”:

“Following an extensive Request for Proposals process, followed by public review and business negotiations, the Trust selected Young Woo & Associates to develop the pier privately. Young Woo’s winning proposal contemplates using stacked repurposed shipping containers in some areas of the pier shed in order to create approximately 300,000 square feet of ‘creative commerce’ space featuring restaurants, cultural and educational uses, and 2.5 acres of landscaped public rooftop… .

“Assuming the successful completion of the required environmental review process — currently in progress — Pier 57 will be transformed into a one-of-a-kind urban marketplace by 2015. Eight hundred permanent new jobs will be created at implementation.”

The Trust should keep its Web site current, as it relates to proposed development projects. The description of this project should include the change in developers, which happened in 2015, and the replacement of “creative commerce” space with “commercial offices.” Is the Trust’s failure to update the Web site and keep the public informed due to a lack of resources, or is it the Trust’s perception that everyone knows what’s happening due to the broad media attention this project has garnered, or is it just apathy, or a purposeful intention to misinform? Who knows.

Looking further, in the Web section that describes the public review process for Pier 57, I found more recent information.  However, it was a three-year-old technical memorandum to the Environmental Impact Statement, which stated that the development team now included RXR Realty and that the programmed uses of the pier were modified from what was initially proposed in the project’s initial E.I.S.

In the section on land use, zoning and public policy, the memorandum stated, “The proposed modifications to the project’s program would include an introduction of approximately 207,000 gsf of commercial office use (including office lobby space and office space in the caissons)… .” However, the total amount of commercial office space now being built on Pier 57 is now much larger.

Public vs. private space

The space dedicated to commercial offices in Pier 57 has grown to occupy the vast majority of the space within the pier. That’s quite amazing considering the city’s waterfront zoning won’t allow this type of nonwater dependent uses anywhere else on our waterfront.

The 300,000 square feet initially envisioned as “creative commerce” has incrementally become 320,000 square feet of commercial office space. While I imagine that the office space occupied by Google will be a type of “creative commerce,” the offices will not be accessible to the public.

Retail and public market spaces are both, by their nature, places that welcome the public. The number of people visiting Hudson River Park is averaging 17 million a year. Even in an e-commerce era, retailers, restaurateurs, artisans and merchants still rely on footfall to market their services, sell their goods and encourage impulse buying. These spaces actively encourage public visitation.

Commercial office buildings are not public spaces. Private companies are generally concerned about employee productivity and safety, liability and maintaining the confidentiality of proprietary information developed in the workplace. Commercial offices are, by their nature, private spaces.

When RXR Realty joined the project as a development partner, Pinsky told Crain’s, “having traffic from office tenants to the pier would help energize its retail spaces. Conversely, office tenants would be drawn to the location by the thriving retail. The two components help activate each other. The goal here is to attract the kinds of creative businesses that have become such drivers of the city’s economy.”

Last month, Pinsky told The Villager, “Unfortunately, in talking to the Bourdain team and other operators, we repeatedly heard that a food hall of this scale was simply not financeable… .”

It’s interesting that the nearby Chelsea Market is about the same size as the market proposed by Mr. Bourdain and seems successful.

With the paucity of public information available, I can’t tell if the 800 permanent new jobs promised by the developer in 2009 will materialize. I’m sure that new job creation was an important criteria in the initial selection of Young Woo & Associates as the developer of Pier 57. The current revised project will certainly create permanent new jobs but there will probably be quite a few existing Google employees relocated to the pier. It would be great to know how many permanent new jobs the project is currently estimated to create.

Move market to Pier 57?

Google recently purchased the building that houses Chelsea Market, which is virtually right across the West Side Highway from Pier 57 and the park. The Bourdain proposal for Pier 57 was a 140,000-square-foot public market and Chelsea Market currently occupies 104,000 square feet of space at its existing location. Relocating the Chelsea Market to Pier 57 would seem like a perfect fit and may even relieve the current market traffic that clogs local streets.

The space currently occupied by Chelsea Market, in the building recently purchased by Google, is closer to Google’s existing headquarters. Perhaps Google should consider relocating Chelsea Market to Pier 57 and developing the space that the market currently occupies into new office space? This way the space on the river would remain open to the public while Google gets the room it needs to securely expand closer to home.

I agree that Google, and all the other adjacent landowners, should provide financial support for the Hudson River Park. But not by occupying it. They should contribute to the park as good neighbors whose property values, corporate image and employees’ health and happiness benefit from having a magnificent waterfront park at their front door. New York City should never be forced to relive the devastation visited on public parks, including Central Park, Union Square and Bryant Park, in the ’70s and ’80s when the public failed to adequately invest in maintenance, programming and capital replacement of parks.

Already self-sustaining

In that same 2015 Crain’s article, Madelyn Wils, the president and C.E.O. of the Hudson River Park Trust, said. “This partnership is another step toward moving us closer to fulfilling our mission as a self-sustaining park.”

The rationale for the Trust’s continued commercialization of the Hudson River Park is this oft-told myth that the park is required to pay for itself. As I described in my March 2013 Villager talking point, “Why is funding the Hudson River Park so contentious?” nothing could be further from the truth. The Trust’s continued repetition of this falsehood, as has become increasingly common in politics these days, doesn’t make it so.

Tax revenue generated by the appreciation of the inboard property was initially recommended to help finance the park, complemented by revenue generated from limited recreational, maritime and entertainment uses at specific locations in the park. The areas for limited development within the park were designated to provide supplemental financial support of the park. The first, and only, development node to be completed to date is Chelsea Piers, which opened on July 12, 1994.

The city did rezone all of the property inboard of the West Side Highway to maximize the revenue generated by our public investment in the Hudson River Park. Hudson Yards, Hudson Square and the upzoning of the Far West Village, Chelsea, Clinton and Tribeca are generating hundreds of millions for developers and increased real estate taxes for the city.

However, none of that money has been dedicated to the park.  The Hudson River Park is only 70 percent complete and it’s being abandoned to privatization. The continued commercialization of what was planned to be a magnificent public park will almost surely kill the goose that laid this golden egg.

Public facing space?

While Ms. Wils has no previous professional park experience, she may have created a new term for the lexicon of urban parks with “public facing space.” When more information is made available I hope to better understand the concept of public facing space versus what she called “true public space.”

Google will apparently take over the programming of 50,000 square feet of “public facing space” to support cultural events and educational programs, including 24,000 square feet for studio rehearsal space for local performing arts organizations.

According to a Trust spokesperson, public facing space is “space to which the public is anticipated to have access either all or some of the time. So, for example, Google is currently planning to use a portion of the caissons as demonstration space. It will be open to people from outside Google from time to time.  Though specific programming and schedules have not been finalized, examples could be YouTube studios that the public could come to tour, or exhibition space for Google products and technologies that the public would be invited to visit.”

(An engineering marvel, the caissons are basically three giant floating concrete boxes anchored below the waterline that Pier 57 sits atop.)

I think that it would be preferable for the Trust to manage, operate and program spaces in the park that will be available to the public. If that space will be used by Google some of the time, the Trust should develop a formula for public versus private usage of the space. It is important to build the Trust’s capacity, rather than offload these responsibilities to the private sector. It would be unfortunate if that space was primarily used to promote and sell Google’s products and services.

A strong public / private partnership is generally most productive, and successful, when the private sector provides the required resources and creative energy, while the public sector contributes its talent and protects the public good. I trust that balance will be struck at Pier 57 and look forward to reviewing the newly proposed plan and program for the pier.  Most important, I hope this is not an example of New York City’s joining a troubling national trend that appears to be gaining momentum — exploiting public lands for private gain.

 

Fox was a citizen appointee to the West Side Task Force in 1986, and the West Side Waterfront Panel from 1988-90; the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy (which completed the General Project Plan for the park) from 1992-95; a member of the Hudson River Park Alliance (which supported the park’s founding legislation) from 1996-98; a founding board member of Friends of Hudson River Park from 1999-2011, and, more recently, a plaintiff in the litigation regarding Pier 55 Inc.

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