Future of Pier 40

The tentative date for the end of the current state Legislative session is Wed., June 20, after which the members of the Assembly and state Senate will break for six months before returning to Albany again in January.

Among the many questions regarding which measures might get passed amid the typical last-minute flurry of activity before that deadline is whether the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 will be amended — specifically concerning Pier 40.

Last month, Community Board 2 passed an advisory resolution strongly urging that the Park Act not be amended this session. Basically, the Village / Lower West Side community board feels much more discussion and community outreach is needed regarding Pier 40, and that a hasty decision should not be made.

This much is clear: The Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that operates and is building the 4-mile-long park, wants to amend the Park Act to allow commercial office use on the 14-acre Pier 40, at W. Houston St. — a use currently prohibited per the Park Act’s original language.

Board 2’s resolution does not oppose commercial offices at Pier 40 per se. Yet the board feels that the conditions along the Village waterfront have changed dramatically since 20 years ago, when the Park Act was approved to authorize the park’s creation.

It’s no mystery that this area has seen a boom of residential construction — largely fueled by the very presence of this beautiful green ribbon of park and its piers — along with an accompanying population increase, including a surge in the number of families and children. Many of these people want and need a place to play recreational sports, and Pier 40 has become just that, earning it the nickname “Downtown’s Central Park.”

However, in the case that an amendment to the Park Act actually were to happen this session, C.B. 2’s resolution offers four recommendations:

First, the resolution says, any amendment should recognize these “changed conditions” along the waterfront and ensure that the park’s new open-space recreational areas be preserved — and also expanded.

Second, commercial office use at Pier 40 should only be allowed if there is a “balance of uses” at the pier, including arts, educational and recreational resources.

Third, C.B. 2’s “reso” says, if the Trust wants a longer lease for a tenant at Pier 40 than the currently allowed 30 years — which, in fact, it does — then the tradeoff should be that any future project’s scale at the pier be limited in size.

Finally, Board 2 stated, any construction on the pier should be done so as to allow sports and recreational uses — such as Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club games and practices — to continue there uninterrupted.

According to sources, however, the Park Act will not be opened up this session to amend the allowable uses on Pier 40. As a result, there now will be half a year in which to have a robust, comprehensive, inclusive discussion about the future of Pier 40. C.B. 2 should make doing this a priority. Did someone say, “Design charrette?” Definitely! Now would be the perfect time to solicit ideas for the pier from far and wide — whether they be for adaptive reuse of the existing pier shed or something else entirely. In other words, let’s be proactive about this — not reactive.

The Trust, though, is not happy about C.B. 2 setting limits on what can be done at Pier 40. A primary goal of the authority is to maximize revenue generated in the supposedly self-sustaining park — and Pier 40 is one of the park’s main “commercial nodes” — or piers where commercial activity is allowed. Yet, under the Park Act, the equivalent of 50 percent of the pier’s footprint also must be preserved for open-space recreational use.

Questions must be asked. For example, does the mammoth W. Houston St. pier still need to bring in around $7 million a year — or even more — for the Trust now that the park is authorized to sell its unused air rights? Around $600 million had been the figure stated regarding the amount needed to finish the park’s construction.

Yet the sale of 200,000 square feet of Pier 40’s development rights to the St. John’s Partners project netted the park $100 million. And a similar deal in Chelsea that will sell air rights to the so-called “Block 675” project, at W. 29th and 30th Sts., will reportedly bring in $40 million to $50 million for the park.

Governor Andrew Cuomo ponied up $50 million for Hudson River Park in the current state budget, and the city must match that amount. But will the state and city allocate that much funding to the park each year? It remains to be seen.

Also, there is some friction between Community Boards 4 and 2 regarding Pier 40. C.B. 4 — which has less of the park’s usable open space, but whose piers bring in much more of the park’s annual operating revenue  — feels C.B. 2 must “pull its weight” and not try to reduce the commercial activity at Pier 40.

Basically, all of this is part of what needs to be looked at, too — the whole context of Hudson River Park’s changed financial picture due to development-rights sales from the park and the governor’s newly stated commitment to finishing the park in his second term, if re-elected.

Also, the redesign of Pier 40 — that is, if its existing pier-shed structure is not to be adaptively reused — must be carefully scrutinized. C.B. 2 and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, among others, do not want the pier’s roughly 1.1 million square feet of usable development rights re-massed into a 10-story tower on the pier’s northern side. A merely “hypothetical plan” to that effect was shown by the Trust last year to the C.B. 2 Future of Pier 40 Working Group.

Yes, admittedly, some people — the youth sports leagues, in particular — are worried about another failure at Pier 40. Two previous requests for proposals, or R.F.P.’s, from developers for the pier were sunk by community opposition because the projects submitted would have had too great an impact on the park and surrounding community. But despite those past clunkers, local stakeholders shouldn’t be afraid to be bold and honest in their thinking and assessments regarding Pier 40. The Trust will have to work with the community; the resulting future direction for the pier will, necessarily, be a compromise.

And, significantly, the threat of Pier 40’s structural integrity being compromised is no longer so pressing: That $100 million from the St. John’s Partners project is currently being used to repair the pier’s badly corroded steel support piles, which was the pier’s major infrastructure challenge.

All that said, we hear there still may be two amendments to the Hudson River Park Act this session. One would be to authorize a Whitney Museum project — David Hammons’s “Day’s End,” a ghostly recreation of the framework of the former Pier 52, slated for the pier’s former footprint in the river just south of Gansevoort Peninsula.

The other amendment would be to allow the Gateway project, which would see new passenger railway tunnels laid across the Hudson River from New Jersey, going under Hudson River Park around W. 29th St. and then under Hudson Yards and on to Penn Station. In exchange for this permanent easement through Hudson River Park, the federal government will be expected to pay for improvements in this section of the park — basically, right around the southern end of the W. 30th St. Heliport and a bit south of there.

As for Pier 40, even though the park’s legislation reportedly won’t be changed regarding this key pier during this rapidly closing session, now is the perfect time to start thinking seriously, once again, about this critical pier’s future. If a 10-story tower is not what the community wants on the pier — and it isn’t — then we’re going to need some alternatives — one of which, certainly, could be adaptive reuse of the existing pier shed. But let’s get some ideas out there, and let’s get something more concrete. The past two C.B. 2 resolutions on Pier 40 have been filled with good ideas, but the one last year, in particular, was pretty nebulous. Isn’t it time to get down to some specifics and try to shape and direct this discussion a bit more? We think so.

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