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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | For those who don’t mind the sound of baseballs pinging off aluminum bats or the occasional home run shot plopping into their bubbling deck-top jacuzzis, Pier 40 could be the Lower West Side’s new residential hot spot. That is, if one of a study’s options for possible uses of a decaying pier becomes a reality.
A recently completed analysis of the 14.5-acre West Houston St. pier was presented last Friday to a task force focusing on improving the economic viability of the cash-strapped Hudson River Park. Various scenarios were presented, and housing is among the ideas generating some of the most interest among task force members and reportedly also the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that is building and operating the 5-mile-long park.
The six-figure study was commissioned by three local youth sports organizations that heavily use Pier 40’s sports fields: Pier, Park and Playground Association (P3), Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club.
The initiative was started by HR & A Advisors, but after it was 80 percent done was handed off to Tishman/Aecom to complete. This was done to avoid conflict of interest because Major League Soccer, which wants to build a 25,000-seat stadium on Pier 40, has also retained HR & A as a consultant for its proposal.
According to Arthur Schwartz, a leading member of the park task force, all the scenarios in the study would preserve at least 50 percent of the pier’s footprint as open space, as required under the Hudson River Park Act, the park’s 1998 governing legislation. However, he said, all the scenarios featuring housing have more square feet of open space than there is now on the pier.
“They looked at seven different models for the pier that started with leaving it the way it is, and they worked through various combinations of uses,” Schwartz said.
According to Schwartz, at least two of the combinations included residential housing.
There was one that was basically The Related Companies’ “Vegas on the Hudson” proposal pitched for the pier a few years ago. That plan included Cirque du Soleil, performance venues and a multiplex cinema for the Tribeca Film Festival, and was strongly opposed by community members and the youth sports leagues.
“There was one that was big-box,” Schwartz continued, referring to a supersize retail outlet. “There was one that was hotel/retail. There was office and residential; office and hotel; and hotel and residential. They were mixing different amounts of square footage together and projecting the amount of revenue they could get from each.
“The most lucrative in rent return was a combination of residential and hotel,” he said. This scenario would result in 70 percent of the pier’s footprint being open space, or as Schwartz put it, “lots of fields” for sports uses. It would also have the least traffic impact, in terms of cars and people coming to the pier, according to Schwartz.
In addition to the different options’ revenue-generating potential, the study also looked at traffic impacts on the West Side Highway, as well traffic crossing the bike path to get to the pier.
The study was premised on the idea of no restrictions on ideas for Pier 40, so as to cast as wide a net as possible for uses. Things like housing and hotels currently aren’t allowed under the Hudson River Park Act. To permit them, the state Legislature would have to modify the park act. To do that anytime soon, the changes would have to be fast-tracked and made by June, when this year’s Legislative session ends.
On Monday, at a meeting of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, Trust officials painted a dire picture of the park’s financial situation. Money is fast running out and the park’s piers are rapidly crumbling in the elements and need emergency maintenance, they said.
Daniel Kurtz, the Trust’s C.F.O. and executive vice president of finance and real estate, told the advisory council that state and city funding for the park have plunged. In the middle of the last decade, the park would get as much $30 million annually — $15 million apiece from the state and city — for its capital-projects budget. But this March, the park only got $3 million from the state, which the city will likely match.
While the Trust anticipates pulling in $16 million in revenue in 2013, Kurtz said, the park is expected to have $23 million in operating expenses that year, which will force it to dip increasingly into its reserve fund, which now stands at $31 million.
“If it keeps going this way,” Kurtz warned, “the park will have a cumulative debt of $77 million over the next 10 years.”
The Trust is already using its reserve fund for essential repairs, such as fixing a portion of Pier 40’s severely eroded roof. The West Houston St. pier hasn’t had any significant capital investment in the past 30 years, Kurtz said. The roof’s 14-foot concrete panels are being replaced in parts of the roof’s northeastern quadrant. But to fully repair the pier’s roof and corroded metal support pilings, more than $100 million is needed.
“The death spiral of Pier 40, if you will,” he said, “is if you’ve 14-foot concrete panels falling from the roof into the second floor and first floor.”
Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s vice president, added that Pier 54, at W. 13th St., is also ailing. About 70 percent of the pier recently had to be cordoned off because the wooden pilings underneath are in dangerous condition. This will force the relocation of this summer’s Heritage of Pride dance, as well as the Trust’s film series, she said.
Pier 54 has been used for events that generate revenue for the Trust, but it can’t do that anymore in its current condition, Doyle noted. The Trust currently doesn’t have the money to fix Pier 54, she said.
On Pier 40, Schwartz — who is also the park advisory council’s chairperson — noted that when MLS made its presentation to the task force a few weeks ago “they didn’t get a great, warm reception. … They haven’t come back to the Trust since then,” he said.
The Trust is also looking into bonding, or borrowing, which it currently is prohibited from doing under the park act.
“I think residential and the borrowing are the two hot potatoes in the mix,” Schwartz said. “The hotel might be as well, but it wouldn’t be as profit-making as the others.”
Another issue is how tall residential and hotel development on the pier hypothetically could be. Bob Townley, another task force member also on the advisory council, said his understanding from the study presentation was that “Thirty-story towers or 15-story towers looks like the minimum. What we were looking at, I believe, was 600,000 square feet of residential.”
Katy Bordonaro, an activist from the West Village Houses, noted that, for years, the Pier 40 Working Group — another community task force — has opposed residential housing on the pier. As for the MLS pitch, she said she was worried about a rumor going around that the soccer stadium would also have rock concerts. The Trust’s Doyle said she hadn’t anything from MLS since it made its presentation to the task force.
Townley, for one, said residential might work.
“I’ve always thought, ‘Maybe,’ ” he said. “I live in Battery Park City, so I’ve never been against residential on the waterfront.”
Wendi Paster, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried’s chief of staff, told the advisory council that Gottfried is “looking at all options” for Pier 40. “Many in this room might find that surprising,” she said, adding, “He is open to amendments in the legislation. Nothing is off the table. Considering the dire straits of the park — I hope people in this room have an open mind.”
Paster said she’d like MLS to make a presentation to the advisory council. As for the droves of soccer fans descending on the pier, she said something could be done with “staggered arrival times,” such as by giving hot dog incentives, for example.
Personally, she told a reporter, she likes the soccer plan, since “They would fix the pier,” plus soccer is so popular in New York now.
But Schwartz said he saw “not a smidgen” of support for MLS by the youth leagues, the Trust or state legislators.
Speaking in support of changing the park’s legislation, Tobi Bergman, president of P3, said while restrictions were put in the park act originally to limit commercialization of the waterfront, the park is now 70 percent built.
“The fear of the waterfront being taken over commercially — I think we’re past that,” he said.
By removing restrictions, when the Trust next time issues a request for proposals (R.F.P.) for Pier 40, it would yield more viable ideas, he said.
“The last two times we had R.F.P.s, they were disastrous,” Bergman said. “The limitations that were put in to protect the park were such that you got these inside-track-type, ‘silver bullet’ proposals — and the others were probably not realistic proposals. And we didn’t get anywhere and we wasted a lot of time. We’d probably be better off with an R.F.P. that attracted 10 proposals.”
Schwartz added, “This approach is saying, ‘Let’s develop an approach that balances income and impact, that includes uses the community actually might want.’ This could come up with a scenario with most of the elements the community might want.”
Responding to a task force member’s question about why Hudson River Park must be financially self-supporting, Paster said the park act’s co-creators, Gottfried and former state Senator Franz Leichter, didn’t favor that, but it was the only option. Changing that now is “pretty much a non-starter,” Paster said, adding, “It’s been the case for new parks that have come on.”
Extending the lease term for Pier 40 from 30 years to a longer period also would likely be necessary, since developers can’t get loans without a longer period, Schwartz and others added.
Paster said all these potential changes to the park act are currently being considered by the legislators.
“It is in the hopper — and it’s under discussion right now,” she said.
However, Assemblymember Deborah Glick — whose district contains Pier 40 — is a key player and would need to be won over if there are to be any legislative changes. Glick was shown the presentation of the Pier 40 study, but didn’t have a representative at Monday’s park advisory council meeting.
On Wednesday, a skeptical-sounding Glick told The Villager she’s concerned the Trust is trying to “frighten and stampede” people into accepting residential use on the pier. The park might well need some emergency repairs in spots, she acknowledged. But she said she’s concerned this is just a case of real estate developers trying to make a grab for Pier 40 while they still can during Mayor Bloomberg’s final years in office.
Glick said, according to the park legislation, a public hearing must be held for major changes — with 30 days’ prior notice given — followed by another 30 days for public comment.
“The Trust has painted a dramatic picture of the pier falling into the water, although it turns out that wouldn’t happen for years to come,” Glick said. “My concern is that they’re asking for dramatic changes, but don’t seem to have any plans for public hearings — and the legislation requires significant changes to be vetted through the public, not just a task force of 25 or 30 people.”