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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | More than 400 people turned out for a public forum on Pier 40 last Thursday night, to hear presentations on two competing plans for the crumbling structure — including one that would add a pair of 22-story residential towers at the foot of the pier.
The standing-room-only crowd packed the ground-floor meeting space at the Saatchi & Saatchi building, at Hudson and Houston Sts., just two blocks east of the sprawling but dilapidated 15-acre pier.
The Pier 40 Champions plan would make the key Lower West Side site into even more of a sports mecca, expanding upon its existing, generous athletic field space. To fund sorely needed repairs for the aging pier, the proposal would include two high-rise towers located within Hudson River Park, just east of the pier. However — a critical requirement — a legislative change to the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 would be needed to allow housing in the park.
The rival plan, by the Durst Organization, is an adaptive reuse of the current pier-shed structure. The pier’s parking operation would be consolidated into less space via parking stackers, while new commercial uses would be added to the pier, including a mix of high-tech offices and retail.
Sporting their blue soccer training jackets, as they filed into the meeting, about 20 members of The Zum Schneider FC came to support the Pier 40 Champions plan.
“We hold five permits at Pier 40. We’ve been playing there about 10 years,” said Joseph Roubeni, the 150-member soccer club’s director.
Asked about the two 22-story towers, Roubeni said, “I think it’s a bit of a tradeoff, but if it could help push the financials at Pier 40, then I’m for it.”
“It’s large,” he said of the appeal of Pier 40’s sports facility. “It has among the best fields in the city.”
Meanwhile, standing nearby, Maria Passannante Derr, a former chairperson of Community Board 2, was lobbying people to oppose the Champions plan and asking them to sign a petition.
“I got two pages full of signatures, about 50 names,” she said later.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Derr said, “I think it’s impractical to build on the water right now.”
Plus, she added, taking away, or “alienating,” parkland to add towers is an issue for her.
“We have the issue of park alienation,” she said, “and to alienate parkland in a community where we don’t have enough parks… .”
Tobi Bergman, president of P3 (Pier Park & Playground Association) — a member of the Pier 40 Champions coalition of youth leagues — said that, as of this Tuesday, they had received more than 5,000 signatures on their own petition in support of their plan. Most were from family members of youth leagues comprising the Champions, like Greenwich Village Little League, Downtown United Soccer Club and Gotham Girls.
The leagues also did a good job turning out people for the forum, judging by the strong applause levels at various times during the evening. The audience makeup seemed a bit weighted toward the Champions.
Quinn weighs in
However, there’s no question that the Champions plan is still struggling to find support among elected officials, which will be essential if the park act is to be modified to allow housing.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senators Brad Hoylman and Daniel Squadron have all made it clear that they have serious issues with the idea of housing in the park. And this Tuesday, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told The Villager that Quinn also opposes housing in Hudson River Park.
“The speaker supports a set of principles for the development of Pier 40, including a commitment to no residential development,” Justin Goodman said.
The spokesperson added, “Any future development at this site must retain the playing fields and not relegate them to a roof of the structure. Finally, we must do everything we can to work together to expand park space, and add more playing fields at both Pier 40 and throughout the park.”
Stringer: Hear the people
Speaking at the forum’s outset, Borough President Scott Stringer indicated he’s on the same page with Glick regarding housing at Pier 40, which is in Glick’s district.
“I think whatever is decided for the pier, that the voice of the people must be considered,” Stringer stressed. “Deborah Glick, in particular, has been right at the forefront of making sure the community’s voice is heard.” A portion of the audience — those opposed to housing in the park — applauded.
Next, Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust — the state-city authority that operates the 5-mile-long riverfront park — outlined the greensward’s financial plight. The park is supposed to be financially self-sustaining, but with 70 percent of it complete, its operating budget has ballooned to $16 million per year.
Wils: Pier shed’s kaput
The Trust has never received operating funds from the city and state, but rather is expected to operate the park with revenue it collects from a few designated commercial “nodes,” a major one being Pier 40. However, the prodigious pier has now become a cash drain on the park.
Every day something new is failing on the infrastructure of the 50-year-old pier building and needs to be fixed, Wils said.
“Pier 40, historically, supported 35 percent of the park’s revenue,” she noted. “Now the park is funding Pier 40 — it’s costing $2 million [per year] for the Trust to keep up Pier 40.”
As a result, the Trust is dipping into an endowment left by the state Department of Transportation, the pier’s former owner, but that will be depleted by 2015.
“We’re looking at well over $125 million to fix the pier — and we just don’t have the money,” she explained. So, the Trust is mulling a “managed shutdown” of Pier 40, she said, and this year will consider closing down the parking on the pier’s south side, where the roof is in bad shape.
Wils indicated the Trust hopes to put out a request for proposals, or R.F.P., for the pier in a few years. But, unlike previous R.F.P.s that tanked, in 2003 and 2005, she said, this time the park act should be opened first, to allow a wider range of legal uses, “so we can have — instead of failed R.F.P.s — successful R.F.P.s.” Another portion of the audience this time — the sports contingent — cheered and clapped loudly.
Douglas Durst, chairperson of the Durst Organization, one of the city’s biggest developers, gave the opening remarks about his proposal. Durst was formerly chairperson of Friends of Hudson River Park, the park’s leading fundraising group, but resigned last December over differences with the Trust about Pier 40.
Durst: Fast, low-impact
Differing from Wils’s assessment of Pier 40, he said, “The building is in good condition and can be used to support the park. Adaptive reuse of the pier would be the fastest way to stabilize it while minimizing the impact on existing uses,” he said — “existing uses” clearly referring to the popular sports fields.
Durst said Pier 40’s current layout is what today’s tech firms seek: large floor plates and high ceilings.
His plan would avoid “the demolition and disruption of building two, 300-foot towers and razing half of the pier shed,” he added.
On the other hand, the Pier 40 Champions plan calls for opening up the pier by removing the middle segments of its eastern and western walls. Durst’s plan would retain almost all of the current pier shed.
Under Durst’s scheme, the playing fields would be moved up one level — on a platform built over the ground floor, where the parking would be concentrated. This would ensure future superstorms don’t flood and damage the sports field, as happened during Sandy. A running track would ring the field. The rooftop would include park space and areas for paid recreational uses, such as tennis and basketball courts.
The total project cost — including fixing the pier — would be $384 million. Durst says his concept would generate $10 million in annual revenue for the Trust.
Korman: We may come in
Partnering with Durst in the concept design is Ben Korman, who formerly ran the parking at Pier 40. Until now, Durst and Korman have said they are just “putting the idea out there” to be helpful. But last Thursday, Korman hinted they might be interested in actually doing the project.
“This is not necessarily for us to do, but could be for another developer,” Korman initially said last week, though later added, “At one point we may come in — but right now we’re doing it as citizens.” They haven’t said they want to develop the pier themselves, he said, because they “didn’t want to seem self-serving.”
Champs’ proactive fight
Bergman presented the Pier 40 Champions plan.
“The pier isn’t in good condition,” he stated. “The roof is collapsing.”
During previous R.F.P.s for the pier, Bergman said, the youth leagues fought proposals they didn’t want, like The Related Companies’ so-called “Vegas on the Hudson” that featured Cirque du Soleil and the Tribeca Film Festival, which would have turned the pier into a destination entertainment zone.
This time around, Bergman said, “Instead of fighting against, we decided maybe to fight for something.”
Working with WXY Architects, the Champions came up with their current plan, including the two residential high-rises. The towers would be constructed on sites “that really aren’t now that attractive, and would never be desirable for park use,” he noted.
The Champions design, like Durst’s, also features a running track, but elevated above the field level.
By removing the middle part of the pier shed on Pier 40’s eastern and western sides, Bergman explained, “The idea is to connect the park to the pier and the pier to the river.”
Bergman took a shot at Durst’s design, charging that its retail space would necessarily attract large-sized retailers, and that it would take years to find a good one.
“You can’t have mom-and-pop shops, Murray’s Cheese, in 400,000 square feet of space or even 100,000 square feet of space,” he maintained. “You need an anchor tenant.”
Bergman added that the Champions would build the sports field only 3 feet higher than where it is now, while in the Durst plan it would be 20 feet higher.
Would double field size
Due to Lower Manhattan’s population boom, the Champions’ idea calls for adding even more playing-field space to Pier 40 than there is now.
“The same amount of fields is not enough,” Bergman asserted. “We’re going to have conflicts between one community and the next. We’re proposing doubling the size of the playing fields.” The pro-fields faction applauded heartily.
As to the towers’ height, he said it would roughly be the same size as the Saatchi and Saatchi building in which the forum was being held.
“They’re about the same size as other buildings that are going to be coming into Hudson Square,” he noted.
The buildings were originally designed at 15 stories, but based on the income figures sought by the Trust, were bumped up to 22 stories. The concept plan also includes parking, paid indoor recreation, retail uses, some office space and a marina.
The Champions total project cost is $691 million — including $493 million for the two towers and $197 for pier repairs and renovations.
The Trust recently commissioned real estate consulting firm Newmark Grubb Knight and Frank to do financial models for the two competing plans. As first reported last Thursday morning in a special online article by The Villager, Newmark recommended that the best scenario for the Champions proposal would be one 280-unit residential condo building paired with one 326-unit “80/20” rental building, with 80 percent market-rate units and 20 percent affordable units; the developer would get a property-tax break for creating the affordable units.
An upfront ground-lease payment for the two towers would pay the Trust $115 million, Newmark found — about equal to what the Trust says is the cost to fully repair Pier 40. On top of that, the towers and other commercial uses would generate $10 million per year for the Trust, according to Newmark.
In Newmark’s analysis, rents for the market-rate units would range from $3,580 for studios, to $4,500 for one-bedrooms, $6,500 for two-bedrooms, and $8,645 for three-bedrooms. Meanwhile, the affordable studios would rent for $647 per month, one-bedrooms $812, two-bedrooms $1,175, and three-bedrooms $1,560.
As for the Durst plan, Newmark felt its projected rents were too optimistic.
During the Q&A, Korman assured that their anchor tenant would be “a strong tenant and will come in as a partner.”
Each team claimed their project’s construction phase would be less disruptive of the ball fields’ use than the other plan.
Pols on residential use
At the forum’s end, three local elected officials took turns at the microphone. A convert to the idea of housing in the park, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried said he felt the park act should be opened up to allow new types of uses for both Pier 76, at W. 36th St., in his district, as well as Pier 40. Gottfried co-authored the park legislation along with former state Senator Franz Leichter, who was seated in the front row, next to Bergman.
Hoylman: Not gonna do it
However, new state Senator Hoylman took a hard line on residential use in the park. He represents the area around Pier 40, though due to quirkily drawn district lines, Squadron’s district includes the actual pier.
“I think we should be very, very skeptical about gifts being brought to us in the form of housing on public land,” Hoylman said. More to the point, he stated, he opposes giving away public parkland to build luxury housing.
“I’m just not gonna do it,” Hoylman declared, sparking applause. “We have to stay faithful to principles.”
He also emphasized that the city and state must allocate more money “to keep up the park,” especially given that the city recently allocated $260 million for Governors Island and has given $130 million to the High Line. Over the years, the city and state have given Hudson River Park a total of $350 million to fund construction costs.
Glick: Soccer in shadows
For her part, Glick said, “The pressure for development on the waterfront will never change. The easiest thing to do is say, ‘Let’s take a chance on high-rise development.’ ” She noted that the park act was developed, not in a rush, but at numerous meetings like last Thursday’s, “over two, three, four years.”
“I appreciate the effort of the Champs,” she said, adding, “They were given financial targets by the Trust. But two 22-story buildings right in front of Pier 40 would have your kids playing in shadows in the morning, and in the afternoon — with the pier shed down on the west side — winds coming in.
“The only thing that keeps [the Trust] from making bad decisions are the protections in the legislation,” she stressed.
Can fix 40 in phases
Also, she asserted, “You don’t need $120 million right at the beginning. You can fix the pier in phases.”
Glick said the forum should be seen as just the start of a planning process for Pier 40.
“I pledge to you: Open ears and open mind,” she told the audience, “but committed to a principle of open space for an open park.”
Gottfried, Hoylman and Glick all said they support the proposed Hudson River Park Neighborhood Improvement District. The NID would assess a small tax on surrounding property owners, with the revenue going toward the park.
“I think it’s a creative idea,” Glick said, however, adding, “I think there might be some inequities about how money would be raised.” She said she might favor a sliding-scale fee.
Caccappolo: Call it off
Meanwhile, following last week’s forum, Rich Caccappolo, an influential past president of Greenwich Village Little League, who now chairs the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, has finally broken his silence on the issue of residential use at Pier 40. In short, he said, residential use has become “contentious” and is already “creating division in the community.”
“In all honesty, I don’t think most people want residential in the park, and would like to see all other options exhausted first,” he told The Villager this week. “Personally, I don’t believe that residential in the park is good public policy, and I believe it is very unlikely that a developer will be able to solve the challenges of the pier and the park — fixing the pier and contributing significantly to the park each year.
“More importantly, I don’t think this is a battle worth waging in this post-Sandy environment — not until new building codes for flood zones are clarified, new insurance rates become clear, etc. — and I don’t believe the legislation is going to be changed this year.
“So, fighting a contentious battle that creates division in the community, pits groups against elected officials and elected officials against each other, over a false choice is, in my opinion, detrimental to the leagues — to whom I have dedicated years of service — and the schools and the neighborhood as a whole.”
Instead, Caccappolo said, he’s now working “to tone down the contentious claims, and realign toward progress that can be achieved.”
Sandy’s lasting impact
Getting back to Derr, she told The Villager this week, “I’m looking to start a coalition against residential use in the park.”
Derr owns a condo at nearby Morton Square, which she said she someday plans to retire to, and doesn’t relish the idea of two new towers fronting on nearby Pier 40.
“We’re still repairing the lobby of Morton Square, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “These two buildings are going to work as a seawall and divert the water right to Morton Square. I think it’s impractical to build on the water right now.”
Asked by an audience member at last week’s forum about Sandy’s impacts on building in the flood zone, Bergman answered that the Champions aren’t “trying to solve the world’s problems — we’re trying to save Pier 40.” It will be up to the city, he said, to figure out what needs to be done to build safely in Zone A.
The Pier 40 forum in fact had been planned for last year, but had to be rescheduled. David Gruber, C.B. 2’s chairperson, had set it for Oct. 29, but it was canceled — due to Hurricane Sandy.