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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Taking a different tack to try to save Pier 40, Douglas Durst, chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, is pushing an alternative plan to add valet parking and a high-tech campus to the massive but crumbling structure.
Joining Durst in the effort is Ben Korman, the Friends’ vice chairperson and a partner in C&K Properties, which formerly ran the parking on the 14.5-acre West Houston St. pier.
Durst’s Pier 40 plan is at odds with the vision of the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that operates the 5-mile-long waterfront park. The Trust, along with local youth sports leagues, has recently been pushing for residential housing development on the key park pier. The youth leagues commissioned a Pier 40 study earlier this year that found that adding 600 to 800 units of high-end, rental housing on it would provide the greatest amount of revenue along with the lowest impact when compared with other types of development scenarios studied.
Doing nothing on the pier is not an option, the Trust says, since without a major cash infusion by a private development project, the decaying pier won’t be repaired and the entire park — which depends on Pier 40’s revenue — will soon be increasingly in the red. Without funding, Pier 40 might have to be shut down in phases, the Trust’s leadership recently warned.
Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for Durst, outlined the new plan, which is still fairly general.
“It’s attendant parking,” he explained. “The current parking configuration on the pier is mostly park-and-lock,” meaning drivers park their own cars. “With attendant parking, it can be a lot more efficient in terms of space.”
Durst’s plan calls for installing stacker parking so that the cars can be parked in a smaller footprint. Attendants would be needed to park the cars and operate the hydraulic stackers.
Pier 40’s parking is currently on all three levels of the pier. Under Durst’s idea, the parking would be moved to one level — possibly the ground floor — freeing the other two levels for new uses.
Barowitz said Durst’s plan doesn’t seek to increase revenue by increasing either the amount of parking or the parking fees. Rather, the extra revenue would come from adding new uses in the space left over from consolidating the parking in a smaller area. Durst envisions these uses as “commercial, offices or a high-tech campus,” according to Barowitz.
(One park activist was alarmed by a sentence in an article on the Durst plan in the Observer referring to “galleries and shops” that indicated Durst might also be eyeing destination retail for Pier 40: “Given the area’s booming tech sector, [Durst] seems to think this could be a good spot for a technology campus of some sort, or, pitching to the neighborhood’s other historic strength, galleries and shops.” However, Barowitz told The Villager, “Douglas didn’t talk to the Observer. It’s not a quote from him.”)
Asked about the cost of adding parking stackers, Barowitz downplayed it, saying, “It’s a small piece of the scope of the work necessary to secure the pier.
‘We think it’s viable’
“It’s in the early stages, but we think it’s viable and certainly worth considering,” Barowitz said of the plan. “This is something that Douglas and Ben Korman have been working on. We think it could provide the incremental increase in revenue to finance the $100 million or so to fix the pier and also provide revenue for the park.”
As for building residential housing on Pier 40 — which would require a change to the Hudson River Park Act — Durst, who heads one of the city’s most prominent development organizations, says it wouldn’t work.
“Douglas speaking for himself does not have an ideological issue, but a practical one — that it will be too difficult to implement and construct and won’t generate the necessary revenue for the pier or the park,” Barowitz said.
Hudson River Park is intended to be financially self-sustaining, and until recently Pier 40 has supplied about 40 percent of the park’s revenue. But as the pier deteriorates, its revenue will dry up, Trust officials warn.
For Durst’s plan, Barowitz said, changes to the park act also would be needed, including increasing the allowable length of the lease for the commercial component and allowing bonding ability.
The Trust would have to issue a request for proposals (R.F.P.) for someone to “manage the pier,” he said, though adding, “Neither Douglas nor C&K is interested.”
Asked if there’s a study of their plan available, Barowitz said it’s not completed yet.
He said they’ve been talking to the Trust and local stakeholders about their plan for several weeks.
‘Exploring all possibilities’
Regarding Durst’s idea for Pier 40, Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, indicated she’s open to a wide range of uses for the pier, but that they must generate sufficient funds.
“We are working with all of our community partners to continue to explore all possibilities, including a high-tech campus,” the Trust president said. “The most important step for Pier 40 is to allow legislative changes that will give us the best chance of receiving the strongest proposals possible. Any viable proposal must be able to provide for Pier 40’s huge infrastructural needs while also making annual payments to help fund the continued maintenance of the whole park.”
The Friends of Hudson River Park had previously been the park’s main advocacy group — as well as its main watchdog. In recent years, the Friends sued to force the city to commit to remove its garbage trucks from Gansevoort Peninsula, at the north end of the Village waterfront, and also sued to end tourist helicopter flights at the W. 30th St. heliport. More recently, though, the Friends transitioned into the Trust’s private fundraising arm.
Now, with Durst and Korman opposing the Trust’s hope for housing on Pier 40, its seems the Friends — or at least its leadership — is reprising its watchdog role.
However, in a statement, A.J. Pietrantone, the group’s president, said, “Friends of Hudson River Park remains committed to finding a sustainable solution to Pier 40 as well as to the care and completion of the entire park. While all ideas and input to that end are wholly welcome, Friends continues to expand our fundraising efforts and to work with the community in establishing an improvement district.”
A “neighborhood improvement district” is one thing, at least, that people seem to be agreeing on. The district would impose a fairly small annual fee on commercial and residential property owners living within a few blocks of the park. This money would be funneled back into the park’s maintenance and operations and used to spruce up the blocks near the park.
As for political intrigue, some speculate that with Mayor Bloomberg heading into his final year in office, the Durst “mutiny” could be setting the stage for a possible change in the Trust’s leadership under a new mayor, or at least an effort to “rob victory” from Bloomberg and Wils on Pier 40.
Glick: ‘Interesting idea’
Assemblymember Deborah Glick is a fierce opponent of housing on Pier 40. The pier is in her district and she has made it clear she won’t support modifying the Hudson River Park Act to allow residential development there. She objects, in principle, to the idea that the park must be financially self-sustaining, arguing this will only lead to unwanted overdevelopment — like housing in the park.
Glick noted that Durst and Korman’s stacker-parking plan is similar to one pitched in 2007 by the Pier 40 Partnership. A well-funded group of parents whose children played sports on the pier, the Partnership’s proposal was an alternative to the “Vegas on the Hudson” plan by The Related Companies that would have turned the pier into a major entertainment site.
“We thought that was an interesting idea and were sorry the Trust didn’t pursue it,” Glick said of the Partnership’s plan, which also included space for schools.
She called Durst’s proposal “an interesting approach, a more common-sense approach. We’re really pleased to see someone who has a tremendous track record in New York City real estate and development share a similar view of the future of Pier 40 that supports the park and preserves the playing fields,” she said.
Glick figured the parking rates might rise a bit with the attendant parking, though adding, “I would hope it wouldn’t be dramatic.”
Meanwhile, she said, she could see the space freed up by consolidating the parking being used by “new media or post-production film facilities, maybe gallery space, too. There’s great potential for natural light,” she noted of Pier 40.
However, the park act’s prohibitions against housing must remain, she warned, or else, “The entire Lower West Side will be developed over time and the river will be walled off.”
Gottfried: ‘We need options’
Assemblymember Richard Gottfried co-authored the 1998 park act, and his district includes Hudson River Park north of W. 14th St. This spring he was won over to the idea of residential housing on Pier 40 as the best way to save both the pier and the cash-strapped park. On the other hand, at the big public meeting the Trust held about Pier 40 in May, he stated, “A parking garage and a tow pound — I don’t think either one of these belongs in Hudson River Park.” The Police Department’s tow pound is currently on Pier 76, at W. 36th St.
Asked last week about the new Durst/Korman plan, Gottfried said, “We need a broad range of options on the table for Pier 40 and Pier 76, including office buildings, parking garages, housing, hotels and longer lease terms to allow financing. They should be allowed in the law. Then there would have to be an open planning process to evaluate the revenue potential, traffic impact and other factors for these options. The law requires a request for proposals, public hearings by the Hudson River Park Trust, and the city ULURP process. The Trust has a good track record of getting broad community input. Douglas Durst is an extraordinary friend of the park. Any proposal he is advancing deserves our attention. The legislation I support would help make that happen.”
By “the legislation I support,” Gottfried was referring to proposed legislative changes that the Trust is expected to ask the state Legislature to approve either in a special session in November or December or, if not then, likely in March, when the state budget is passed.
Likes incremental idea
Arthur Schwartz, co-chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee and head of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, also expressed respect for Durst and said the incremental-approach idea “was a step in the right direction.” But he worried where the needed millions would come from to renovate the pier’s dilapidated roof and corroded pilings.
“The community advocates who have struggled with Pier 40 development issues since 2002, as part of two task forces, have long called for incremental development; developing the pier piece by piece, instead of as part of a grand plan,” Schwartz said. “If anyone can figure out how to do this it’s Doug Durst, and I look forward to discussing his proposal with him from a community perspective.”
‘Fairy-tale tech campus?’
P3 (Pier, Park and Playground Association) is one of the youth sports groups that commissioned the consultant’s study that found housing was the best high revenue/low impact option for Pier 40. Asked his thoughts on Durst’s plan, Tobi Bergman, P3’s president, was skeptical.
“The proposal wants to open up 500,000 square feet for commercial use based on an R.F.P.,” Bergman said. “But what if a fairy-tale tech campus doesn’t bid? Then we are left with generic commercial space that can be legally used for retail and entertainment, and what we have is a back-door approach to the same kinds of proposals that the community has rejected twice before.”
(Indeed, the city has been giving away free space for high-tech campuses in other places lately, so, some would ask, why would anyone pay for it at Pier 40?)
Bergman added, “Why insist on preserving the existing pier-shed structure when other plans might create more park space and more river access? Isn’t the idea to have a better park?
“The Pier 40 Partnership tried to show this approach works and the conclusion was it probably doesn’t,” Bergman said. “The existing building is poorly configured for most other uses. … And income from parking is too unreliable to support the investment. Shifting the costs to other commercial uses overstresses the added development.”
P.R., pro and con
Meanwhile, the local youth sports groups are poised to launch a new P.R. campaign in support of residential use at Pier 40. Called The Pier 40 Champions, they’ll use architects and urban planners to illustrate possible schemes for residential or mixed-use development on the pier.
According to a member of the group, the concept will be to graphically show how “a residential project can increase the space on the pier available for playing fields, improve access and openness to the river, and bring more income to the Trust, based on a solution that brings in fewer than 1,000 [residents] who will care deeply about the park instead of hundreds of thousands [of people coming to a destination retail or entertainment-use pier] who could care less about it.”
The group plans to use a Facebook page to allow people to see the visuals and comment.
Not to be outdone, Glick plans to wage her own visual campaign to show how putting housing on Pier 40 will “wall off the waterfront.” An architect friend of Glick’s office has produced basic renderings showing what the West Houston St. pier could look like with 15-story-or-higher residential towers added along its northern edge.