A new vision for Pier 40 and for a truly public park

A rendering of how the west side of Pier 40 could look in the Pier 40 Champions proposal.

A rendering of how the west side of Pier 40 could look in the Pier 40 Champions proposal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BY TOBI BERGMAN

On clear and crisp Saturday morning in April, 27 years ago, I walked with my family along Clarkson St. past J.J. Walker Field, a dust bowl that had long been the exclusive home of a network of local “bar league” softball teams. Groups of Little Leaguers were on the field, something I had never seen before, gathered in groups with their coaches.

My older son, born with a baseball glove on his left hand, was transfixed. He sent his mother out to the registration table, but she came back with bad news: no more spaces for 6-year-olds. Patrick would not be dissuaded, so we sent him out on the field to make his case. Our very shy son, to our amazement, tugged on coaches’ shirts until Coach Ken Levy said, “Yeah, sure, I’ve got an extra shirt.”

I didn’t know then Patrick was introducing his family to community.

For almost 20 years, our neighborhoods have discussed the fate of Pier 40 with customary passion, in this case, appropriate to the importance of the topic. The discussion will continue at a community forum next week.

The funny thing is, excepting for a fringe that says to let the pier fall into the river, everyone agrees that the goal is to get the best park we can get on this very special, publicly owned, 15-acre site. And most now agree the status quo is not an option, and the Hudson River Park Act has to change.

The youth sports leagues were and are rightly impatient. Back then, leagues that asked for temporary fields at Pier 40 — because they had run out of space and were turning children away — were seen as interlopers and compromisers by those demanding an open green park. Now families want to protect the fields, for themselves and others to follow, and leagues want to increase them because the neighborhoods are growing and they are again turning children away. Children can’t wait.

Sure, children can travel to play ball, but it takes a local field to make a village. And yes, families get to know each other in schools, too, but the leagues are broader, and the times on the field are less rushed. Youth sports is about kids playing games, but it’s also about small-town ways in the big city, and the Pier 40 fields are pure, joyful magic for that.

Others in the neighborhood were and are equally dedicated to getting the best possible park at the pier and are rightfully worried about powerful developers getting a foothold along the river. But they feel less urgency, and the compromises they are willing to make are different.

The two points of view were at odds in the years prior to passage of the Hudson River Park Act. Then they came together in 2005 in a fight against a harmful proposal for an entertainment-and-retail mega-complex. Now we are all faced with a challenge: to change the act in a way that allows a practical and excellent solution.

Is it better to allow a limited amount of residential development in the area in front of the pier in exchange for a 9-acre park with more fields and income for the park? Or is it better to accept a lesser park, but hold the line against residential development on the waterfront? Is it a greater risk to allow some residential development, or to accept a choice between high-impact projects and ones that don’t provide fields our families need and can’t provide the income necessary to maintain the park?

Our West Side communities got a decent deal in the Hudson River Park Act. The city and state agreed to build the park. The Hudson River Park Trust was given control of the land and piers on the west side of West St., mostly state-owned. Most areas were designated for park use, and a few “nodes,” including all of Pier 40, were designated for “park commercial use.” It was not the enlightened vision our city had during a century of construction of great parks. But that was a different time, and on the plus side, unlike our city parks — where income flows to the general municipal fund — funds generated in this park stay in this park, including revenue from the commercial nodes and most taxes and fees. As tax-levy funding for parks spreads thinner each year, Hudson River Park is fortunate it has the framework for a way to fund the much higher per-acre costs of

maintaining waterfront parks.

A new vision for Pier 40 will be presented on Feb. 28 by Pier 40 Champions and WXY Architecture — one that seeks to “save and green the pier, protect and grow the fields.” It may fairly be said the idea lets a foot in the door for residential use along the river. But it also squeezes the door tight by designating 60 percent of the pier for park use and eschewing new construction on the pier entirely. It opens views to the river across a new 9-acre park. And it creates, for the first time, a true public park on the pier, with the same protections as other city parks, perhaps not perfect and immutable, but strong and long-lasting.

A different and less-visionary approach will be presented by a team led by developer Douglas Durst.

It should be a time for a serious and productive discussion about how best to save our very important pier, and for people to come together. Come, and be community.

Bergman is president, P3 (Pier Park & Playground Association), a member of Pier 40 Champions 

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10 Responses to A new vision for Pier 40 and for a truly public park

  1. I have been in the visioning business for over 40 years, so Toby is right; it is time for me to let others do the visioning. However, I have gained some practical knowledge over the last 40 years. That knowledge led me to believe that building new structures on Pier 40 was impractical, and now Toby and FOHRP agree as they no longer are visioning high rise buildings on Pier 40.
    Their new vision is to tear down a part of the pier and build high rises in the HRP upland. My experience tells me this also will prove impractical. It will be very expensive, very wasteful, and environmentally harmful to tear down a portion of Pier 40. Pier 40 is a very solid and useful structure.
    Our lesser vision is to keep, restore, and repurpose the existing structure in order to fund the cost of renovating the existing structure, improve the fields, and help fund HRP.
    Once the decision is made to build housing in the Park, and I am very much in favor of building housing in parks, there is no reason to only look at the Park in front of Pier 40. There may be better locations, and if so, the parking area in front Pier 40 could be park instead of high rise housing.

    • Not only could the parking area in front be park instead of housing, it should be, many of us have been saying that for years, the soccer ideas have always stated and presumed using that currently wasted space to enhance the fields/park-space imperative. At the time I'm responding to this, there are three posts, all of which advocate housing in the park, and Mr. Durst's, seemingly, in any park, not just the HRP. Should we perhaps consider his phrase, "Once the decision is made to build housing in the Park, (…), there is no reason to only look at the Park in front of Pier 40", as actually meaning "If a decision WERE to be made to build housing in the Park, (…), there WOULD BE no reason to only look at the Park in front of Pier 40"?? The phrase "I am very much in favor of building housing in parks" seems to speak for itself, unless he meant to exclude true New York City parks whose outlines are not public/private as is the HRPT. Perhaps a clarification. As there is still firm political resistance to housing across the board, it seems odd that the current main players are arguing different avenues toward the same goal, and one which seems currently impossible politically. When can we begin to focus on alternative ideas and weigh their possibilities? Tobi and Madelyn seem to argue that new ideas cannot be possible until the Act is changed, and for the political establishment and much of the public the obvious fear is that once the Act is changed, housing is a done deal, regardless of an RFP. Time, money and effort seeking creative, economically feasible, potentially brilliant possibilities is being wasted on this ongoing stalemate. Why do we have to wait for the Trust Act to be changed and an RFP, which will clearly only bring MORE OF THE SAME? Why hasn't there been a public competition in advance of an RFP, why haven't our elected officials been promoting this as an opportunity to engineering schools, to Silicon Valley, or as a problem solving opportunity to every architecture school in the world. There should be fifty ideas in front of us RIGHT NOW. NOW. Let's create this task force, within one year we can have an answer that is not housing and the best and least resisted (as in pre-approved by Glick et al) can be steered toward funding and into the RFP when it's time. We already know what we don't want. We have yet to see what we want, and the solution that codifies sports and park space it is out there. Pier 40 could be the feather in some old pro's cap, or the start of a brilliant young architect's career. It's a world stage kind of opportunity, an urban pier re-use, on a major river, in New York City, in the global warming era. It needs visionaries to take a whack at it outside the constraints of an RFP. Let's give them the opportunity to let us know what they can dream. The team that solves it makes history. And of course, I continue to believe a sports business like a small soccer arena already achieves all of the above. The public can't use luxury housing, the public can use a revenue generating arena. I argue on my blog for Green Bay Packers-like public ownership of both team and arena, with professional management. It's still the best compromise.
      Patrick Shields Greenwwich Village http://nycmls.com/posts/

  2. It is time for the community to define what success will be for Pier 40.
    Hopefully we can all agree that it needs to be the epicenter for organized sports in lower Manhattan. Not a lesser vision, but a grander more extraordinary one, worthy of our great city and the generation long residential transformation taking place on the lower west side.

    As a community we are barely keeping pace with creatively providing sufficient class room space for our kids, we cannot afford to fall much further behind in providing the commensurate locally accessible sports fields, which we all know is so vital to the health and future of our community. We have no where else to turn that represents as great an opportunity to exponentially magnify the impact of sports programs in lower Manhattan than expanding upon the contiguous ball field space on the ground plane at pier 40. This is a remarkable opportunity to do something extraordinary for our children’s future.

    The removal of the eastern and western wings will open the park to the pier and the pier to the river, creating a truly public park. The relocation of the square footage could be almost anywhere within reason that makes both financial and planning sense, on either side of West Street. We need it to pay the bill, so we should maximize the return and reduce the impact by thinking of this square footage as being likely residential. “Where” to put it should be easier once we find common ground on defining what makes for success at pier 40.
    Let’s think big with our heads up and be game changers as a collective community and not get caught thinking small.

  3. Once repaired at great cost, the structure may become useful and strong again. The fields in the center are beautiful and a wonderful place for children to play. But the structure as it stands today is a menace to the park on the outside.

    The 800-foot long area in front of the pier has a highway on one side and a 40-foot wall on the other. It blocks river views from the esplanade and will never be a nice part of the park. This unpleasant stretch divides the areas of the park to the north and south, denying visitors of the intended pleasures of the continuous waterfront park. The Champions idea is to swing the park esplanade away from the highway, behind the new buildings,and into the park on the pier, with beautiful long views across the play fields on a nine-acre open park to the river. Now, the 800-foot walk along the river behind the pier is deserted and foreboding. Once parts of the building are down, it will be one of the most attractive areas in the whole Hudson River Park. For families on Manhattan's Lower West Side it also offers a long-term solution to problem we have: no place to build the fields we need in a park environment.

    Indeed, there may be better places in the park for housing. Let’s look, but with understanding that all the commercial uses can’t all be in one area. Much of Manhattan’s west side waterfront has been commercial for more than 300 years. It doesn’t have to be all parkland now. Let’s find the right places for parks and the best uses for everything else. The Hudson River Park Act is a great framework because most of the funds earned in the park go back to the park. But some of the details are wrong. It was wrong to designate all of Pier 40 for “park commercial” and it was wrong to limit “park commercial” to retail and entertainment, uses with high impacts and large footprints.

    Now the Act has to change if the park is to survive, so let’s get it right. Let’s designate 60 percent of Pier 40 for park use to create a permanent 9-acre open park to serve the growing neighborhoods on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, and our city and its visitors. And let’s include in “park commercial” the uses that will bring the most value to the park so great developers will compete and hire great architects to create great proposals so our communities will have great choices and our park will get the great care it needs.

    Development on public waterfront property should be limited by designating the right land and the right piers for park use, not by imposing artificial restrictions that prevent best use of property, a policy that undervalues land and leads inevitably to failure.

  4. Like many others, I have been exercising in this park more than twice as long as the pier has been used for sports. I'm not sure why we're acting like sports on the pier have been there since the stoneage.

    It does not seem fair to put the needs of sports people above the needs of people who use this park for other purposes. And it doesn't seem fair to spend $40 million (to start) to rebuild their part of the park, and the rest of us are left to put up with the changes they've devise to get their way.

    Changing the Park Act seems so self-centered. It was correctly written to make sure the park stays a park. Changing it to add residential development sets a terrible president for this park and all the others. Imagine Central Park with a residential tower in it next. It's just not right.

    Save us the millions of dollars and keep it a simple park with grass and water. Nothing more is needed, and no one is put out just because they aren't members of a community board.

    • Have you not seen the successfully implemented rest of the park, or been listening to the actual facts about the pilings, and concrete falling in chunks (which prevents maximum revenue currently)? And the sports people are arguing for both sports and park, this has never been in question. In any case it appears to be moot. Just saw Glick's latest e-mail, and it seems she is favoring the Durst plan. The P3/Pier 40 Champions people, at least at this stage, seem to have bet on the wrong horse, and spent a lot of money doing so. Never could understand that one…they needed a sports partner from the get-go.

    • It may be instructive to read the Hudson River Park Act.

      The Act turns over control of various lands and piers to the Hudson River Park Trust. It then designates some of these for "park use" and others for "park commercial use". The commercial areas, while under the control of the Trust, are not parkland in any sense of the word.

      Unfortunately, Pier 40 was designated entirely for commercial use. There is a stipulation that the equivalent of at least 50 percent of the pier be available for "open space recreation", but this may be on rooftops of privately operated commercial sites and is not protected by the public trust doctrine that protects our true parks, including the areas of Hudson River Park designated for "park use".

      No one is proposing a reduction of the amount of parkland on Pier 40. The Durst proposal leaves it unchanged, at zero. The Durst plan we have all seen calls for covering the existing fields with a garage with fields on the roof, but he told me recently that he now plans to leave the fields where the are. That's better. The Champions are proposing increasing the amount of parkland by an area equal to the size of Washington Square. That's way better. We are a built-up park-starved community with no place to put new open space. We need way better.

      The great thing about the Hudson River Park Act is that income generated in the non-park areas is dedicated to the maintenance of the park areas, with the intent that the park would have a reliable source of maintenance funds. The concept has failed so far because the commercial uses were restricted to retail and entertainment, uses that bring unwanted traffic impacts, low income to the Trust, and relegate play fields for children to the roofs of commercial buildings. Developers have avoided two Requests for Proposals in droves, and the few proposals that have been put forward would have been bad for the park and bad for the community. Fortunately, they were defeated.

      The idea of the Champions plan is not to sink public funds into the pier or to increase the commercial use to the detriment of the rest of the park. It is to secure 60 percent of the pier for permanent protected parkland where none is secured now, and to generate more income from higher income, lower impact uses to maintain the rest of the park, . Yes, we admit, we are asking that some of this new parkland be used to increase the space available for children to play. Yes we do think it's important, as residential populations grow, to provide for growing minds and bodies with new schools and new places to play.

      The Durst plan offers no improvement to the park. If the proposed 400,000 square feet of offices on the river doesn't attract the hoped-for tech campus use at the very optimistic projected rents, or if underwater repair costs end up being more like the much higher costs experienced at similar projects in New York City, the proposal can only devolve into another retail mall and/or generate far lower payments to the Trust that would devastate the maintenance of the park. The risk is too great to our park and our community. We don't need a west side South Street Seaport.

      But it is helpful and sincerely appreciated that Mr. Durst makes his comments herein without anonymity in a sober voice that encourages the kind of discussion that we will need to solve the park's problems and secure its future.

  5. Bergman and Durst both understand the Act, thank goodness, but need to sit down over a cocktail with an ombuds and seek a "Middle Path". There is a solution to this problem. Glick = no luxe housing, Durst = no open space. Am I reading it wrong or is that where we are? What's the compromise? Let's get some ideas out there, community, if a commercial sports partner has been rejected, then there must be another. Why go into the 28th with no new ideas??
    Patrick Shields Greenwich Village

  6. Sports is great, but Pier 40 should be for the entire community, not just those pro organized sports. The vision should be for ALL of the community.

  7. 1. The proposed residential will split Hudson River Park into two (South Park and North Park). If you stand at Perry Street at the Hudson River and look south your view of the new WTC tower will be blocked. Will the community at large be happy about this?

    2. Whatever is done, it should take into account that Sandy is not a one off. Critical parts of the pier should be elevated regardless of scheme.

    3. The posts above have a lot of criticism of Durst's efforts, but are there any financials for residential? Does it work financially?

    4. The Champion's efforts are laudable, but could they kill pier 40?

    Before buying into any scheme, suggest everyone think about the finances necessary to keep Pier 40 alive. Also suggest before buying into one scheme or another everyone read "The Emperor Wears no Clothes."

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