Downtown’s sports pier caught in squeeze play

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Thirteen years ago, tens of thousands of square feet of artificial-grass turf was rolled out inside the courtyard of Pier 40. Downtown families rapidly transformed the new playing field into a Village fixture for children’s sports. The courtyard field followed a smaller rooftop field that had been installed around five years earlier.

In 2018 — 20 years after the creation the Hudson River Park — the kids who grew up playing sports on Pier 40’s fields are now nearing adulthood, on the way to college, and even coaching the next generation of young athletes.

One of those teens is Katharine Fox, a 17-year-old rising high school senior, who fell in love with soccer on Pier 40. She played nearly two hours daily with Gotham Girls Football Club, and later the Downtown United Soccer Club. The pier became integral to her family’s weekends together. Her dad, Paul Fox, a board member of the Downtown United Soccer Club who coached her soccer and softball teams, recalls Saturday mornings meandering through the Village to the mammoth W. Houston St. pier with two kids in tow.

“It’s a great way to share the neighborhood with your children,” he said.

Without the pier — just a scooter ride away from the Foxes’ Village home — Katharine doubts that she would have been as involved with sports throughout her childhood.

“It probably would have been a hard pass,” Fox said of the possibility of traveling daily as a 7-year-old to Randalls Island, Roosevelt Island or beyond. “In the city, it’s so hard to find space — ridiculously hard.”

“It allowed me to become the athletic person that I’ve become now,” she said of the park’s “family sports pier.”

But looming over local youths’ ongoing enjoyment of Pier 40 is the challenge the Hudson River Park Trust faces in keeping the aging structure afloat.

The pier’s corroded pilings — the steel columns upon which the pier sits — have long been in desperate need of repair. In late April, repairs began on the pier’s pilings using $100 million that the Hudson River Park Trust received last year for selling 200,000 square feet of air rights from the pier to the St. John’s Partners development project across the West Side Highway. The pilings’ repairs are expected to cost $104 million, according to Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president and C.E.O.

The repairs needed at Pier 40 go far beyond the pilings, though. In recent years, the Trust has completely redone or replaced the entire sprinkler system and fire alarms, plus added a new fire-suppression system, along with new lighting in the garage — just to name a few. Bricks are sliding off the north side of the pier-shed building, which also needs to be repaired, according to the Trust.

“I’m talking millions and millions and millions of dollars,” Wils said. “This is just current work.”

Under the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, the park is expected, “to the extent practicable,” to generate its own revenue and be self-sustaining, paying for its own maintenance and operations. This year, though, the government took a larger role in funding the park’s completion — Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated $50 million for it, so long as the city matches it.

Pier 40 generates around 25 percent of the 4-mile-long riverfront park’s operating funds. But that doesn’t include how much is spent on Pier 40 each year. In the past six years, the pier’s maintenance has cost around $40 million, Crain’s reported.

“It brings us income,” Wils said of Pier 40, “but we end up spending a lot of money on continually fixing the pier.”

The long-term revenue problem of Pier 40, Wils believes, could be solved through the development of office space on the pier.

“It’s the least impactful of all commercial uses,” she explained. The original Park Act doesn’t allow that type of use at Pier 40. “We need a legislative change,” Wils said.

But some leaders of Downtown sports leagues fear that development plans for the 14-acre pier could wind up meaning less field space for future generations of young players — at least in the short run, if not longer.

“If Pier 40 were to close [for its redevelopment], it would be a disaster,” Isaac-Daniel Astrachan, another DUSC board member, said. “What probably would happen is, we would have to either shut down our operations or reduce the players.”

The Angels, above, and Diamonds, below, took the field with all the other teams at Pier 40 at Greenwich Village Little League’s Opening Day ceremonies on April 12. The Angels’ banner fittingly had a salvation theme — about saving Pier 40. Photos by Howard Barash

Last year, a Community Board 2 working group tasked with evaluating the future of the pier, recommended that any legislation change to allow currently unpermitted commercial uses — such as office space — must “be balanced by changes that maximize public open space and assure public control of the park.”

“Commercial offices may be reasonable if their high value reduces the total floor area of a project, but other commercial uses that enhance the park and support important community needs should also be included as part of any redevelopment,” the Board 2 working group concluded their November 2017 report. Those uses should include park- and community-enhancing uses, like small restaurants, performances venues, commercial recreation or arts uses, such as rehearsal space, galleries and artisanal manufacturing, the working group said.

Even if the Trust, community residents, the youth leagues and other stakeholders agree on a development plan, the pier would likely need to be closed, at least partially.

“If a generation of kids loses fields, it’s a disaster,” Astrachan said.

A spokesperson for the Trust said, “Keeping ballfields at Pier 40 for the long term is a top Trust priority. Any eventual developer at the pier would be required to include ballfields as part of its proposal and to keep the ballfields open as much as possible during construction.”

Meanwhile, kids spend their weekends dribbling soccer balls up and down Pier 40’s fields, Little Leaguers are learning how to throw their first baseball, and Stuyvesant High School students are practicing football, among the pier’s many athletic uses at any given time. Even though there are acres of field space, every sport, league and age group is vying for a spot.

“It has become apparent that field space is one of the most challenging things we have to deal with as a club,” DUSC’s Astrachan said, likening the lack of field space to school overcrowding in the city. In fact, each season, some kids have to be turned away after tryouts because of insufficient playing-field space, according to Astrachan. And as more families move Downtown, field space becomes an even bigger issue.

For all of Pier 40’s challenges and uncertain future, however, parents still say it’s the best sports space for their kids. Greenwich Village Little Leaguers even have the added benefit of indoor space on the pier — including batting cages — for year-round practice time.

“I don’t know of any other facilities that have this space,” Courtney Ozer, a Hell’s Kitchen parent whose 10-year-old daughter, Oakley, has been playing baseball and softball for five seasons.

Most of the time, the girls teams have to play at Chelsea Waterside Park, at 23rd St. and 11th Ave. Ozer noted. Pier 40 is a better facility for her daughter, though. Practicing year-round with the indoor space helps her daughter be more competitive and keep her skills up.

“Already, it’s hard because we live in the city,” Ozer said. But with Pier 40, she added, “I always marvel how it feels like we are in the suburbs.”

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