Pier fear: C.B. 2 issues emergency opinion on Pier 40

Local kids and their families really get a kick out of Pier 40 — and they want to keep it that way. Photo courtesy of DUSC

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Concerned it could be déjà vu all over again on the waterfront — this time, for Pier 40, where the Hudson River Park Trust wants to create commercial offices — Community Board 2 recently passed what could be called an “emergency resolution.”

Approved unanimously at its full board meeting two weeks ago, the resolution stresses that the Village / Lower West Side board does not support any amendment to the Hudson River Park Act being made during Albany’s current legislative session.

The statement actually had a dual function since the board also sent it as a “memo” to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The state Legislature is set to wrap up by month’s end, after which the state Senate and Assembly will break for six months before reconvening again in January.

However, according to sources, including state Senator Brad Hoylman, it’s unlikely the Legislature will open up the Park Act before the end of the current session.

“I don’t think there’s enough time,” Hoylman said.

Another source, requesting anonymity, confirmed the word coming out of the governor’s office also is that the Park Act will not be amended this session.

Still, there is “not a lot of trust in the Trust,” so to speak, after what happened five years ago at the end of that legislative session: Back then, in June 2013, a sweeping bill — later blasted by critics as a “stealth bill” — to amend the park’s founding law of 1998 was passed — with no advance notice or any chance for public input — with bleary-eyed senators voting to approve it at 5:18 a.m. on the session’s very last day. Actually, it was a number of various amendments that were O.K.’d, notably including allowing the park to sell its unused development rights to sites across the West Side Highway.

Fearing the same thing could happen again this time, the matter was hastily taken up last month by C.B. 2’s Executive Committee — comprised of the board’s committee chairpersons — which drafted the resolution, which the full board then approved. The board’s leadership felt there was not enough time for a resolution to be discussed and voted on first by the board’s Parks and Waterfront Committee.

“C.B. 2 does not support any amendment of the Act during the current legislation,” the resolution firmly states.

However, in case the Legislature does, in fact, open up the Park Act to try to change it now, the board offered four recommendations for any amendment that is considered — which would also apply if the Legislature instead tries to amend the Park Act next year.

First, C.B. 2 said, any amendment should recognize “changed conditions and needs” since the Hudson River Park Act was passed 20 years ago, and should “assure that irreplaceable public resources are not disposed of unless there is a direct benefit to park uses beyond revenue generation for park operations.”

This is mainly a reference to the playing fields at Pier 40. The 14-acre W. Houston St. pier’s main courtyard ball field space — created 15 years as an “interim use” — has since become a beloved and nonnegotiable park feature for Downtown families. Basically, Pier 40’s fields and other open-space uses along the waterfront did not exist at the time of the Park Act’s creation, the board noted; meanwhile, since then, the surrounding area’s population has only grown.

“An amendment should…recognize the greatly increased and still increasing need for open-space recreation resources based on the major development of the adjacent communities all along the park, the conditions for which development were created by the success of the new park,” the board’s resolution notes.

The resolution also states that office use should only be allowed on Pier 40 “as part of a project that offers a balance of uses, including direct benefits to adjacent communities.” Specifically, those other uses should also include “arts, educational and recreational uses, [plus] limited eating and drinking and entertainment uses contributing to the park environment,” the C.B. 2 resolution says.

Young soccer players at Pier 40 have some fancy moves. Construction on any future development plan at the pier could impact the youths’ playing time there, at least temporarily. Photo courtesy of DUSC

Pier 40’s main revenue-generating use for the park currently is long-term car parking.

“Some car parking should be retained for monthly parking as well as to serve the needs of pier visitors,” the resolution notes.

If the pier’s master lease is to be extended beyond the current 30 years — as the Trust desires — then it should be allowed “only for projects that limit the scale of commercial development and provide substantial improvements to park uses,” the board’s recommendation adds.

In short, C.B. 2 feels, longer leases at Pier 40 should only be allowed for projects that limit the gross floor area of commercial uses to what is built on the pier now; the pier’s existing donut-shaped three-story pier shed is 761,924 square feet; and if a project is to exceed that size, then the extra space should only be used for park administration offices, as well as arts, educational and recreational uses that benefit the park.

In addition, “adaptive reuse” of the existing pier-shed structure is “preferable,” the community board’s “reso” continues. If structures on the pier are to be built higher than what is there now, then they should “not exceed the height of the tallest existing gantry” — a reference to the metal frames on the pier’s edges that once supported cranes for Pier 40’s original use, shipping.

Yet another want of the board is that any development of the pier should be done in a manner to allow “continuous and undiminished recreational use [of its playing fields], including during construction.”

Dan Miller, the first vice chairperson of C.B. 2, who is in line to be the board’s next chairperson, read the resolution aloud before the vote at the group’s May full-board meeting.

Speaking afterward, Miller elaborated on the thinking behind the resolution. Basically, the wide-ranging report on the “family sports pier” that the C.B. 2 Pier 40 Working Group released at the end of last year was a sort of catch-all.

“It actually has some contradictions,” he said of that earlier report. “It was really to air everyone’s view. Dog walkers, skateboarders — everyone wanted something.

“The Act was created 20 years ago,” he noted. “There was no residential presence over here. There weren’t as many families. There weren’t as many schools.”

Miller added that 550 Washington, the St. John’s Partners project, to be built across from Pier 40, will have more than 1,500 residential units. He himself lives in Morton Square, at Morton and West Sts., which was only built in 2003.

Echoing the board’s new resolution, he said, “I don’t think the community will support anything higher than the gantries — which are about seven to eight stories tall.”

Meanwhile, adaptive reuse of the existing pier shed is also favored by the Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club since it blocks the strong winds off the Hudson River.

“For the sports groups, it’s good to have the donut because it protects against the elements,” Miller noted.

Miller is a past president of G.V.L.L., one of three currently serving on C.B. 2. (The other two are Tobi Bergman and Rich Caccappolo.)

If it turns out there is a movement to “open up view corridors” to the river by removing parts of the pier shed, then something like netting could possibly be used to cut the wind, he noted.

At 14 acres, Pier 40, at W. Houston St., is seen as one of the Hudson River Park’s key “commercial nodes” for generating revenue for the 4-mile waterfront park. But, under the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, the equivalent of 50 percent of the pier’s footprint must also be preserved for open recreational use. C.B. 2 says any remassing of the pier’s structures should not exceed the height of the highest gantry. Gantries are the bridgelike structures that rise over the pier’s edges — like those seen in the photo above — which were once used to support cranes that lifted cargo when Pier 40 was used for maritime shipping. Photo by Sydney Pereira.

A key point for the youth leagues is to keep the playing fields all on the pier’s ground level, as opposed to having some on rooftops.

“The leagues want the fields accessible on the ground floor,” Miller stressed. “They don’t want to have to go through security checks to get to different levels. They don’t want it to feel corporate. They want it to feel like a park.

“Also,” Miller added, “we don’t want an anchor tenant there. It would be much better if it was like a WeWork — where something doesn’t take control of the space — instead of a massive entity.” However, he said he knows the Trust is not fond of the idea of turning the pier over to a company specializing in shared workspaces and spaces for small businesses, tech start-ups and freelancers.

Google, of course, is now leasing a huge amount of space at Pier 57 for offices — thanks to the 2013 legislative amendment, which, among other things, O.K.’d formerly forbidden office use at that W. 17th St. pier. But that kind of tenant at Pier 40, with so many employees, could eventually pose a risk to the community’s use of the ball fields, Miller warned.

“We feel like there will be spillover,” he said. “Over the years, the picnic blankets will come out.”

After the Trust recently sold 200,000 square feet of development rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s project, the pier now has a total of 1.1 million square feet of development rights left, including the 761,924-square-foot pier shed. But Miller said those currently unused “air rights” should stay untapped. Basically, the park is so heavily used now, and will only become more so in the years to come, that it can’t bear the additional development at Pier 40, in his view.

“Go on the bike path — it’s so busy, and it’s become dangerous with the barriers,” he said, referring to the safety barriers added after the Halloween Isis terrorist truck attack that killed eight just south of Pier 40. “Pier55 is going to have arts,” he added. “The park’s just going to get busier and busier.”

The fact is that Pier 40 cannot continue to be forced to be the park’s cash cow, Miller stated. The pier’s parking operation has consistently been the 4-mile-long waterfront park’s main revenue generator, netting it $6 million to $8 per year. Under the Park Act, at least 50 percent of Pier 40’s footprint must be reserved for recreational use — but the rest of it can be developed commercially.

In addition, Governor Cuomo this year allocated $50 million for the park, which must be matched by the city. Cuomo has vowed, if re-elected, to finish the park in his second term.

“If we can get $100 million a year, do we need a big project on Pier 40?” Miller asked. However, it’s not clear if the park can count on getting that much government funding for each of the next few years — or if it will return to just $1 million per year.

It all boils down to the fact that community park advocates are trying to “keep the park a park,” while the Trust wants to build the park, yet also maximize its revenue, in the view of Miller and others.

“One thing we share is we all want a successful R.F.P.,” he said, referring to a request for proposals from developers for Pier 40 that the Trust eventually plans to issue.

Although Miller’s, Bergman’s and Caccappolo’s kids have all “aged out” of Little League, the three C.B. 2 members continue to advocate for the best possible Pier 40 for the community.

“We’ve seen what a positive impact it had for our children,” Miller said. “They were able to make friends of a lifetime. I think that’s the number one reason I’m on the community board and why I have the support to run for chairperson. It’s a passion. And one of my focuses will be to get out of Pier 40 what it deserves.”

Miller is also currently chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council.

In addition to its huge courtyard field space and a smaller field on the southeastern corner of its roof, Pier 40 also sports indoor recreation space. A young pitcher working on his form got pointers on balance at a recent indoor practice at the pier, above. Photo by Sydney Pereira

In a recent interview, Madelyn Wils, the president and C.E.O. of the Trust, the state-city authority that is building and operates the park, said there is currently no set plan in place for Pier 40. Yes, six months ago, a “massing plan” was shown to the C.B. 2 Pier 40 Working Group, featuring nine-to-10-story buildings on the pier’s northern side. Yet, Wils stressed that scenario was mocked up by a developer “who was willing to spend his time and money” to do it, and it was just intended to give the Working Group an idea of what potentially could be done there.

“That was not the Trust’s plan or a plan that the Trust endorsed,” she explained.

Wils said the Trust simply “wants some very simple language” added to the Park Act to allow office use and a longer lease at Pier 40, “same as we got for Pier 57 in 2013.”

The Trust has 96 years left on its own master lease for Hudson River Park; it would like a future tenant for Pier 40 to have that same lease length, she said.

Through a spokesperson, the Trust subsequently offered a lengthy statement on Pier 40, along with the C.B. 2 emergency resolution. The statement notably expressed concern at the community board’s “putting limits” on the extent and type of development at the pier.

“Getting the future of Pier 40 right is critical for the long-term sustainability of the entire park, and for our neighbors who depend on the pier as a public-space resource for ball fields and boating,” the statement said. “The resolution that was approved by C.B. 2 introduces limits that were not discussed with the Trust or the public during or subsequent to last year’s task force process; but we understand that C.B. 2 adopted it out of concern that legislation that does not have local support could be hastily introduced and approved. That is a fear we can understand. We are unclear, however, about what the resolution now means for the future of Pier 40 because no public process has been announced to continue the discussion regarding the limits the resolution now contains, and especially because the resolution seems to be calling for a full reconsideration of one of the foundational principles of the Hudson River Park Act — that the park be self-supporting to the extent practicable and that Pier 40 be devoted partially to this purpose.    

“For most of last year,” the statement continued,” the Trust worked constructively with the community task force to answer, in detail, all the questions we were asked related to our finances and assumptions regarding Pier 40. C.B. 2’s December 2017 resolution gave us hope that we were past the point of debating whether Pier 40 would need to generate revenue for the park in the future. It also supported allowing commercial office use and a longer lease term — the two changes to the Hudson River Park Act that we have requested — but only within the context of a pier that balances public open space, appropriately scaled development and other community goals — a position we wholeheartedly agree with and that would require a change to the Hudson River Park Act. Now, we don’t know what comes next. 

“More park space is clearly desirable, for everyone who lives and works along Community Boards 1, 2 and 4,” the Trust’s statement went on. “Pier 40 is an opportunity to create more park space, as well as revenue, and this can and should be done without building towers, privatized open space or a mega-development. The Trust has stated its willingness to work with the community on planning principles for Pier 40 that can inform a successful R.F.P., and we stand by that commitment. But we need a change in the Act in order to do this. If it cannot happen this year, we hope the community will initiate another public conversation that will build on the foundation that last year’s task force process has already built.

“As we have said in the past, redeveloping Pier 40, even in an adaptive-reuse scenario that retains the existing building, is a process that is likely to take at least five years following any legislative change and include extensive opportunity for public comment, including, but likely not limited to: a public process to inform preparing of our Request for Proposals, a public process to weigh in on the proposals we receive, a public hearing and comment period as part of our Significant Action process, a public scoping hearing regarding a draft Environmental Impact Statement, and finally, a full ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure].”

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