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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