More than 400 people turned out for a major forum on Pier 40 last Thursday evening. David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2, convened the forum and did an admirable job moderating it, and is to be commended for his efforts.
Much information was shared, and we all learned a lot. The major stakeholders had their say, including the backers of two competing concept designs for the pier: Douglas Durst’s adaptive reuse plan and the Pier 40 Champions’ proposal for two 22-story residential towers to be sited at the foot of the massive West Houston St. pier.
But last week’s forum, in our view, is just the beginning of what must necessarily be a carefully considered and ongoing dialogue. In short, the issues confronting Pier 40 are not going to be solved overnight — and are not going to be solved, for that matter, in the next seven months or the next 10 months.
Residential use has been pushed by the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that is building and operating the 5-mile-long park. Yes, residential could be the so-called “quick fix” that the Trust is looking for. It is after all the “highest use” in New York — the type of project that generates the most revenue. And revenue is precisely what’s needed to repair the 50-year-old former Holland-America shipping pier. But the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 doesn’t allow housing in the park — and for a very good reason. This is a park: It’s about open air and unbroken vistas. The park act wasn’t created overnight, nor should it be modified overnight.
(And, honestly, how many people are really going to want to live right next to a major athletic venue, with kids cheering wildly early on weekend mornings and adult leagues playing into the night under the lights? Residents would soon be asking to restrict the pier’s hours, etc.)
The Trust has been lobbying aggressively to open up the park act to allow a wider range of uses — chief among them being residential. But once residential is allowed, the die will have been cast. The Trust will put out a request for proposals, R.F.P., and guess which proposal will win? Residential, of course, since it’s the highest use. And that will be that. We will have massive towers on the waterfront — with the threat of only more to come.
As Assemblymember Deborah Glick has stated repeatedly, development pressure on the waterfront will never abate — even, seemingly, in a post-Sandy environment. This despite serious questions about whether we should now even be building in the flood zone, which Pier 40 is definitely in.
Madelyn Wils was brought in as president of the Trust only about a year and a half ago — in other words, very late in the game. In 10 months, New York City will have a new mayor, and the Trust itself may very well be overhauled, as a result.
Wils comes from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, where she spearheaded major building projects, like the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area plan. SPURA was a major achievement and Wils did a tremendous job, along with Community Board 3, in pulling it off, painstakingly working to achieve community consensus. But Pier 40 and Hudson River Park are not SPURA, and there is hardly consensus in our community on residential use in the park — far from it.
Yes, without a doubt, the Lower West Side has experienced an amazing youth sports boom, and Pier 40, with its huge courtyard artificial-turf athletic field, is our youth sports mecca. The field was created on an interim basis after the first R.F.P. for Pier 40 failed in 2003. A second R.F.P. for the pier, in turn, failed in 2005. Meanwhile, the pier’s field has become an icon of the community, a family-centric safe zone where kids and parents congregate and experience a healthy, almost small town-like environment in the big city. It’s a wonderful thing, and it needs to be safeguarded.
All of Downtown and Lower Manhattan is starved for park space, in general. That’s a reality. We all want to save the sports field on Pier 40. But the pier — despite the Trust’s steady drumbeat of pronouncements — is not ready to sink into the river. In fact, as Durst has said, if repairs are started on Pier 40’s corroded piles now, the overall price of the repairs will be significantly less in the long run. And Durst’s cost estimates, in general, for the pier are far below the Trust’s. Durst is a pro, he’s not making up fantasy financials.
More to the point, there is simply no political will — really, almost zero — to allow residential in the park. Assemblymember Glick, new state Senator Brad Hoylman and state Senator Dan Squadron all have said they don’t support it.
And now, this week, in major news, Council Speaker Christine Quinn has added her voice to the mix, telling The Villager she also opposes residential use in Hudson River Park — though she does support saving Pier 40’s field, as well as creating more sports fields in the park.
For his part, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is simply not going to go up against Glick, a part of his trusted inner leadership team and whose district contains the pier.
With Quinn’s statement, reality finally seems to be setting in, at least for some people. Tobi Bergman, a leader of the Champions effort, appears to have accepted the reality.
In a statement to The Villager on Wednesday evening, Bergman said, “Champions was never about residential development. We are about public open space and fields. We see a big win in the Speaker’s statement. For the first time, part of Pier 40, about 25 percent, will be designated for park use, and there’s a commitment to build more fields to meet the needs of a growing community so every child can play. We still have to figure out how to pay for the repairs needed to keep the pier open, but Champions are eternal optimists and team players, and we are ready to join a bigger team to get it done.”
It’s now time for the Trust to join that “bigger team” — to work with the community to find a solution we all can live with. But when we asked the Trust if they will now drop the plan for high-rise towers at Pier 40, they sent us a statement that indicates that Wils will still push for a legislative change to allow residential use in the park. The Trust’s statement said, in part: “In order to protect the future of the pier and achieve long-term sustainability for the park as a whole, the legislation needs to allow for as many options as possible because the park cannot afford another failed R.F.P.”
The word “quixotic” comes to mind. Again, yes, residential could be the easy quick-fix — but it’s not right for the park for so many reasons. The Champions and Trust have worked hard toward this one solution, but it’s simply not the right fit. Worse, it would be a major mistake. SPURA was a win-win. Twenty-two-story towers at Pier 40, however, would be a disaster.
It’s now time for the community to come together, as a “bigger team,” as Bergman said. The Trust’s fear-mongering about the pier, the manipulative riling up of local parents against our elected officials, is simply not constructive. We agree with Glick and others that incremental fixes can be made in the meantime while some acceptable, sensible ideas are worked out.
One good idea, for example, that we support is for a charrette, as the Trust did a few years ago, soliciting design concepts for the pier. New York City is full of so many creative, dynamic people — we’ve got to be able to come up with more than two plans for Pier 40.
Also, people need to stop seeing Douglas Durst as some sort of obstacle to saving the pier. He’s one of the city’s top developers — and, most important, he’s deeply committed to this park. He was, until recently, chairperson of Friends of Hudson River Park and has done a tremendous amount for the park, in terms of projects and fundraising. He’s got good ideas on how to save Pier 40, so let’s take advantage of his deep expertise in construction and development projects. The city’s administration will be changing in 10 months, but we feel pretty confident that Durst’s interest in the park won’t be going away. His knowledge is valuable. He needs to be part of the “bigger team” that can save Pier 40 and Hudson River Park. We hope that the Trust will be part of that team, too.
So, again, let’s scale back on the crisis-mode fear-mongering, and let’s get back to thinking — as a community — about how we can solve Pier 40. And the park act must not be opened — and it won’t be opened — until there is consensus in our community and our elected officials are onboard. To try to fight that realty in the last 10 months of Bloomberg’s last, lame-duck term — we just don’t see the point. Tone down the panic, anger and the hype, and let’s calmly work toward a constructive solution that we all can live with.
Again, do we really want 22-story towers on our unspoiled, glorious waterfront, towers that will be there for 100 years looming over the pier and the park?
There’s no emergency other than that which the Trust is creating. We need to think this through a little more carefully — make that, a lot more carefully.