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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Will Beckham be bending it sometime soon on Pier 40? Major League Soccer has expressed strong interest in building a soccer stadium with up to 25,000 seats, along with a “youth soccer facility,” on the popular Lower West Side sports pier.
The pro soccer team would use the stadium for 20 to 30 home games per year, many of these on Saturday evenings. This number could potentially include playoff and exhibition games.
The M.L.S. season would run from mid-March to early December, through the Hudson River Park’s peak summer season. The team wouldn’t hold its practices on the pier, however.
Although M.L.S. already has the Red Bulls, they’re a New York team in name only, since they play their home games in New Jersey. The league wants to start a 20th team and base it in New York City proper. The league has been looking at about 20 sites around the five boroughs, but has narrowed its search down to six or so, and likes Pier 40. If Pier 40 falls through, Flushing is reportedly high on the list.
A number of groups are currently vying to own this new team, including a group that owns the rights to the New York Cosmos name.
Don Garber, the soccer league’s commissioner, wrote to Madelyn Wils, president and C.E.O. of the Hudson River Park Trust, requesting a meeting with the Trust’s task force to lay out the plan.
“As you may know, Major League Soccer is looking at a variety of sites across the five boroughs to build a stadium and youth soccer facility,” Garber wrote. “We know how important soccer use is to the communities surrounding Pier 40 as well as the issue of immediate stabilization of the pier and long-term financial support for the park’s operation. We’d like to explore with you whether M.L.S. could meet the needs of the pier through developing this facility and ask the task force for consideration as a potential use for the pier.”
Last Thursday, league representatives, including M.L.S. President Mark Abbott, met with a local group of 30 people, including Hudson River Park officials and members of a task force that is exploring ways both to increase the park’s revenue and to redevelop and repair Pier 40. The hulking, 14-acre pier at W. Houston St. is in sore need of repairs to its eroding rooftop deck and its 3,700 corroding metal support pilings, work that would total more than $100 million.
According to people who attended the meeting, which was closed to the press, the presentation was not highly detailed, but general, and community members extensively questioned the soccer group.
In a statement, Wils said, “We haven’t seen a specific proposal from M.L.S. and therefore cannot comment on it. Our job is to balance the community’s clear-cut desire to maintain open space for neighborhood use with the Trust’s need to fix the infrastructure and generate enough revenue from Pier 40 toward sustaining and enhancing all five miles of Hudson River Park. We are near completion of a study that will indicate what uses can achieve that delicate balance of keeping our open space while generating necessary revenues.”
In a telephone interview, a source close to M.L.S. who requested anonymity, described the project, actually not so much as a professional soccer stadium, but as “a community recreation facility devoted to youth soccer on Pier 40.”
“Youth soccer is part of the M.L.S. core mission. Their goal is to grow the sport in America,” the source said. “The goal is to support the existing [Pier 40 youth sports] program and give them better fields, with more playing time.”
Asked if the pier would be exclusively for soccer, he said it would continue to be for the various types of sports it has now.
“The number of hours on the pier devoted to youth programing and community programing — Little League, soccer, adult leagues — will be greater than it is now,” he assured.
The community would continue to operate the youth sports programs, he said.
In addition, the source said of the Pier 40 proposal, “The goal is to create a park-like setting. There’s not really a park-like setting there now. There should be a public promenade; there should be grassy areas.”
Asked if there is a specific design or how tall the stadium would be, he said there aren’t final design plans yet. However, he added, “People will see that it sits very elegantly in a park environment.” A formal proposal will be unveiled in the next couple of months, he said.
Asked if Pier 40 was the league’s most desired location, the source said, “M.L.S. has a serious and deep interest in the site.”
In addition to fixing up the ailing pier, M.L.S. would make a “substantial ground rent payment” to the Trust, the source stated.
Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee, was among the Village-area representatives on the task force at the meeting.
“I think they met with a lot of skepticism,” Schwartz said. “Problem number one is transportation. The station at Houston and Varick Sts. is a narrow platform that couldn’t accommodate” the stadium crowds.
To allow a soccer stadium on Pier 40 would very likely require changes to the Hudson River Park Act, according to Schwartz. For starters, under the current legislation, the stadium probably wouldn’t be allowed because it would be a “for-profit entertainment facility.” Also, the pier currently can be used for parking, but “predominantly for long-term parking,” as opposed to for soccer fans’ cars. In addition, the Trust is banned from giving longer than 30-year leases, which has deterred groups in the past that wanted to redevelop the pier because it makes the financing unfeasible.
Joining the league representatives at last Thursday’s meeting was John Alschuler, chairperson of HR & A Advisors, a consultant on the Pier 40 project. At the same time, Carl Weisbrod, a partner at HR & A Advisors, was leading the task force that’s studying Pier 40 and ways to increase the park’s revenue.
“I take everybody — H.R.P.T., etc. — at their word that this was not something they were aware of when they hired HR & A,” Glick said.
According to the source, “There’s a total Chinese wall within HR & A” regarding the M.L.S. Pier 40 proposal: that is, Weisbrod doesn’t know what Alschuler’s working on and vice a versa. However, on Wednesday, a Trust spokesperson said HR & A Advisors is no longer leading the Pier 40 study. Weisbrod will continue to lead the task force.
“When we hired HR & A to do the Pier 40 study, we knew they were working with M.L.S., but were informed that M.L.S. was not interested in the site as a potential location,” the spokesperson said. “When we learned that M.L.S. was, in fact, interested in Pier 40 as a potential site, we asked HR & A to step aside from the Pier 40 study. We are now currently working with Tishman/Aecom to complete the study.”
Glick said some of her questions notably weren’t answered, such as how high the stadium would be. She was anxious to know whether the proposed project would block off light and “view corridors” to the water.
“People are concerned about height and bulk,” she said.
Glick said the soccer reps at the meeting implied the stadium would be comparable to nearby building heights.
“They said they looked at buildings in the neighborhood,” she noted.
But speaking this week, she said she didn’t know whether that meant the relatively low-scale St. John’s Center or the much taller Morton Square.
Also, Glick said, “the idea of 20,000 people streaming through the area when mass transit is not exactly close by seemed to be a big concern for a lot of people” at the meeting.
The soccer group also noted that the W. Fourth St. subway station — which is larger and only about a 10-minute walk away from the pier — is another option. But Glick said that area of the Village already is slammed with traffic and crowds on weekends.
“It’s not a neighborhood that doesn’t have transportation issues on Saturday nights,” she noted.
According to Glick, the M.L.S. group said they would need about 9 acres of the pier, or about two-thirds of its footprint.
Of course, a central issue is where the youth leagues would play and if they would have access to the stadium field. Currently, Pier 40’s massive, artificial-turf-covered, courtyard field is heavily used for sports like soccer, baseball and rugby, by youth and adult leagues alike. Under the M.L.S. plan, there would be additional fields on the pier, but again, there weren’t many specifics.
“They made this unfortunate reference to there would be these other fields ‘in the shadow of the stadium’ that other people could use,” Glick said. “One person said, ‘That’s great. You have 20 to 30 days that you can use the stadium, and we have this hulking mass.’ ”
However, Glick said the soccer group indicated that people would be able to use the stadium’s field, though not its seats, apparently due to liability issues, she assumed.
“They said you could use ‘the pitch’ — I assume that’s the field — but not use the stands,” Glick said.
The assemblymember asked if beer would be served, to which their reply was “Of course.”
“You have 25,000 people, some of whom have too much to drink,” she said. “I suggested that some people in the neighborhood might need a sedative.”
As to the stadium that would be sitting empty much of the time, Glick said, “I think there was a question about ‘What else?’ ” as in whether other events would be held there.
“I don’t think we got an absolute ‘no’ about other events,” she said.
There’s also the long-term parking on Pier 40 — currently about 1,400 cars sit there long term — which generates 40 percent of the 5-mile-long Hudson River Park’s revenue. To hear Glick tell it, M.L.S. didn’t seem overly concerned about keeping the parking. However, there is still a strong local constituency that would want to keep it.
Glick said the soccer group said the project would be privately financed. But they didn’t rule out getting funding from the city and state for infrastructure improvements, such as for mass transit and redirecting traffic.
“They did make one passing reference to building a bridge [over the West Side Highway], and that is very expensive,” Glick noted.
In general, she said, she thinks the idea that Hudson River Park must be financially self-supported by designated “commercial nodes,” like Pier 40 and Chelsea Piers, is putting too much commercial pressure on the park and should be revisited.
Glick is neither supporting nor opposing the stadium plan at this point, saying she wants to hear more concrete details.
Rich Caccappolo, a former Greenwich Village Little League president and current C.B. 2 member, said that, rather than focusing on the stadium proposal, he wants to see the task force process run its course.
“I think it is too early to discuss the design or the issues around traffic or crowds,” Caccappolo said. “I would like to see the process the Trust has initiated with the task force and the Pier 40 study through to completion before we consider M.L.S. as a specific solution. I believe the process of finding the ‘right’ future for the pier should start with a better understanding by all participants of all the options, and from that common understanding, a unified process of setting parameters for considering specific uses can be defined. Unfortunately, this process may not meet the schedule M.L.S. has set for themselves.”
Brad Hoylman, C.B. 2 chairperson, who also attended the meeting, said, “I think there are obviously a lot of concerns about a plan this big. And there was really a lot of skepticism from all participants. At the same time, I think everyone is approaching this with an open mind, considering the dire state of finances of the park and, in particular, the condition of Pier 40.”
In a statement, M.L.S. said, “We are grateful to the task force for taking the time to meet with us and to begin to explore whether soccer at Pier 40 could be beneficial to the community, to the Hudson River Park Trust and to M.L.S. We know that any plan would have to provide much-needed revenue to rebuild the pier and support the park, deliver equal or better fields and facilities to serve the local youth sports and recreation community, and create a more park-like environment that will be an asset to all in the community.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that HR & A Advisors was no longer leading the Hudson River Park’s strategic task force. In fact, HR & A is no longer leading the Pier 40 study. Carl Weisbrod, a consultant with HR & A, will continue to facilitate the task force. When the Pier 40 study — now being done by Tishman/Aecom instead of by HR & A — is finished, it will be presented to the task force for its review.