Developer Douglas Durst recently resigned from the steering committee trying to create a Hudson River Park Neighborhood Improvement District.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The Friends of Hudson River Park say that reports of the park NID’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
However, Douglas Durst, the Friends former chairperson, assured the NID’s definitely not happening — at least not for now.
Scott Lawin, the Friends’ vice chairperson, who is also the chairperson of the NID Steering Committee, told The Villager on Tuesday that the effort to create the city’s first park-focused neighborhood improvement district is indeed now taking a step back, but that this had been the plan even before the State Legislature recently passed a bill allowing the Hudson River Park Trust to sell off the park’s unused air rights.
“Prior to the legislation being passed, we had already decided we weren’t going to get the NID passed this year,” Lawin said.
The initial plan had been to introduce the NID application with the city’s Department of Small Business Services in June or July and to have it passed before the upcoming elections. But opposition had been building in the community, causing the Friends to feel more outreach was needed.
“More time was needed with the community and the community board,” Lawin said.
But, in interviews with The Villager this week, Durst said the approval of air-rights transfers from the park was effectively the nail in the NID’s coffin, at least for the time being.
“For this year, there’s no question it can’t go forward,” he said. “The [NID’s] economic plan is based on an evaluation of the amount of development.”
In short, the air-rights transfers alter the equation of the development in the district, so all the plan’s financials have to be recalculated.
Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, last week said the Trust believes the park has 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights on its commercial piers.
According to figures Durst provided to The Villager, Pier 40 alone has 600,000 square feet of unused air rights, while the pier’s three-story shed structure encloses 740,000 square feet. So, if Pier 40’s shed structure were torn down, the pier would have more than 1.3 million square feet of unused air rights.
Opposition getting louder As Lawin noted, resistance to the NID had already been ratcheting up among local residents — particularly in Tribeca — some of whom object to being forced to pay a fairly small tax to fund the park, and disagree with the siting of its eastern border, calling it arbitrary.
“As you’re well aware, there was building opposition,” Durst said. “And based on what just happened, it will be very hard to defend” asking people to pay into a special taxing district.
“It’s not going to happen this year,” he reiterated, “so that means you’re going to have a whole new administration to take the temperature of. It was set to happen [be approved] next year. Now you have to factor in the new development, and you have to overcome a lot more opposition — which I don’t see happening.”
Durst said the Friends had set a revised timeline, under which the NID plan was to be submitted to the Department of Small Business Services in November, then sent for review to the City Planning Commission in December, and then come back for final approval early in the new year under a new city administration.
But the park’s new ability to sell air rights has undercut the argument that the NID is needed, Durst said.
Separate funding streams Lawin noted that the money from the air-rights sales are intended to go toward the park’s capital needs — infrastructure repairs to piers and for finishing the park’s construction — while the NID money would go toward the park’s and the highway median’s general maintenance needs. The park needs about $250 million more to complete its construction, he said. As more of the park is built, its maintenance needs will only grow, creating a greater need for the NID, Lawin pointed out.
The idea that the NID and the air-rights sales would be two separate funding streams earmarked for different purposes is something the Friends will strive to educate the public on, Lawin said.
“It’s literally, simply, directing people to the legislation. People just read the headlines,” he said of how people may be confused on the distinctions. “All you need to do is read the legislation. … The passing of this legislation is a big win for the park, but it doesn’t obviate the need to raise funds for the park’s ongoing maintenance.”
(However, the legislation’s language actually isn’t that cut and dry. It only states that revenue from transfers of air rights specifically from Pier 40 must go back into that pier’s infrastructure repairs, “after which any excess revenues may be used by the Trust for other uses permitted by this act.” There are no conditions put on how revenue from air-rights sales from the park’s other commercial piers must be spent.)
But Durst indicated that the initiative’s critics won’t be so easily dissuaded.
“They’ve given them tremendous ammunition to fight with,” Durst said, referring to how the NID’s opposition will surely latch onto the air-rights issue.
Durst also disapprovingly referred to the “stealth” nature of the legislative changes, saying that this, too, will fuel the NID’s critics.
Durst staying in NID mix Nevertheless, he said he plans to meet with the winner of the mayoral Democratic primary election — whom he assumes will be the city’s next mayor — after the primary and broach the issue of the NID.
“We’ll see what happens,” Durst said. “The new administration, we’ll have to see how they feel about it. We spent a lot of time with Christine Quinn. She never said yes, she never said no. She was getting a little more friendly to it toward the end.”
For right now, though, Durst has stopped pouring money into the NID initiative since the application to the city is on hold.
“We were spending $30,000 or $40,000 a month collecting petition signatures,” he noted. “But it just didn’t make sense if we weren’t going to introduce it for this year.”
Leaves NID Committee On Mon., June 24, just two days after the New York State Legislature approved sweeping changes to the Hudson River Park Act, it was reported that Durst had pulled out of the effort to create a first-of-its-kind NID — basically, set up along the lines of a BID, or business improvement district, but geared toward raising funds for the park. In short, he stepped down from the NID Steering Committee, which he had been leading.
Last year, Durst resigned from the Friends over differences with the Hudson River Park Trust on how to redevelop Pier 40, at West Houston St. Nevertheless, Durst — who is deeply committed to the park — had continued spearheading the Friends’ effort to create the special-tax district.
The improvement district’s boundaries were to include the Hudson River Park and several blocks inland, stretching the length of the park from 59th St. to Chambers St.
The Legislature’s modifications last week to the 1998 park act upheld the pre-existing ban on commercial office use, except for allowing incidental commercial office use at Pier 57 to support, for example, possibly artisanal food shops and the like at the W. 17th St. pier, which is to be redeveloped with retail and food shops.
Adaptive reuse slapped down So, at least for now, Durst’s hope of transforming Pier 40’s massive three-story, pier-shed structure with his proposed adaptive reuse plan for a high-tech commercial office campus, has been stymied.
What’s more, in another significant change to the park act, the Trust can now start selling off the park’s 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights (equal in total square footage to 5½ Trump Soho condo-hotels), which could be used up to one block inland from the park.
Under one possible scenario, part of Pier 40’s existing “donut”-shaped shed could even be torn down, freeing up air rights that could then, in turn, also be sold across the highway — making it even more unlikely that Durst, or anyone else for that matter, would be able to redevelop the air rights-depleted Lower West Side pier.
‘Only option: Teardown’ “Now, the only thing that can happen to it is to be torn down,” Durst said fatalistically of Pier 40’s shed, “which is, I suppose, the goal of the Trust — because they did so little to fix the pier. …
“It would be very expensive and take three or four years to demolish the shed and do environmental remediation. There’s oil. I’m sure there’s asbestos, led… Certainly, the playing fields would be shut down for a number of years.”
The demolition job would have to be done from barges since there’s not enough room on land in front of the pier, and it would constantly interrupt the heavily trafficked bicycle path, he noted. But water-based demolition would require getting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, a lengthy process, he added.
Speaking this week, Durst gave the impression that he wanted to repair and reuse Pier 40’s shed structure, more out of a sense of duty to the park than anything else. He’s got more than enough on his hands without it.
“We have the project at the World Trade Center,” he said, referring to One World Trade Center, a.k.a. the “Freedom Tower,” on which he is partnering with the Port Authority. “We have 57th St.,” he said, referring to an 800-unit, pyramid-shaped, residential project designed by Bjarke Ingels that he’s doing. He’s also doing a mixed-use residential and office building at 855 Sixth Ave., at 30th St.
“So, working on a reconstruction of Pier 40 is not really something I wanted to do,” Durst said. “But if the pier is to be saved, it’s the only solution I saw.”
‘Zoning will move too slowly’ Plus, the air-rights transfers won’t generate immediate income for the park, meaning Pier 40 will further deteriorate in the meantime, the developer warned.
“This is a huge zoning that will take years to be put into effect,” he said. “It’s not going to mean any immediate funds for the park.”
During that time lag, Pier 40 and its corroding, metal, support pilings will only further deteriorate, he warned.
“In the adaptive reuse we proposed, it would cost $30 million to rebuild the piles, as opposed to $100 million to replace them,” he said, the latter being the Trust’s figure. However, he added, “If you wait five years, it will cost $50 million to fix the piles to support just the playing fields.”
Durst also ran afoul with the Trust last year for lowballing the cost of fixing up the pier’s pilings — saying he could do it for $50 million less.
Arthur Schwartz, vice chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, said that at the group’s meeting on Mon., June 24, Matthew Washington, Durst’s special projects manager, announced the developer was pulling his energies — and, significantly, his funding — out of the NID effort.
“Durst is pissed,” Schwartz said, “major-pissed.”
Echoed a source with the Friends, “He didn’t get the adaptive reuse [at Pier 40] and he’s pissed. … He was helping with the [NID] cause — and now he’s not.”
‘Forced out of friends’ As for why he left the Friends last year, Durst told The Villager he had no choice, and was basically forced out.
Durst opposed plans for residential use at Pier 40 that were supported by the local youth sports leagues. Trust officials deny they backed residential use over other ideas at Pier 40, claiming it was just one of numerous options they wanted to make available for the pier, so as to make it more likely a viable development plan would be found. Yet, many believe that the Trust officials, in fact, favored residential use at the sprawling, 15-acre pier.
“I never understand why my proposing a different use at Pier 40 meant I could not remain on Friends,” Durst said. “But that’s what I was told — I agree with them, or resign — that’s what I was told…by Madelyn and Diana. They said I cannot have a different opinion from the Trust’s leadership as chairperson of Friends.”
He was referring to Trust President Wils and Diana Taylor, chairperson of the Trust’s board of directors.
Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Even without air-rights sales from the Hudson River Park, development pressure has been intense along the Lower West Side waterfront. A 10-story, super-luxury apartment building is planned along West St. between Leroy and Clarkson Sts. on a site including this former car wash.
Air rights equal hard cash How much money the development rights could actually generate for the park is still unknown, since, as Trust officials admit, no formal study of the air-rights transfers has been done. However, David Reck, former chairperson of Community Board 2’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, told The Villager that as recently as a few years ago, the going rate for air rights was $600 per square foot, which — if truly the case — would translate to $1 billion.
Reck added that a new special zoning district would need to be created to legally transfer air rights across the highway. And, in fact, the Trust has said this would be the plan — to create such a district similar to the ones in Grand Central, the Theater District, the South Street Seaport and around the High Line.
But Reck was leery of the air-rights transfer plan — which was approved, along with the rest of the park act changes, in complete “radio silence,” as one park watchdog put it, by the Assembly and state Senate, without any notification to the community beforehand, much less any opportunity for community review.
Son of Westway? “It’s Westway — massive development along the waterfront,” Reck said, recalling the controversial highway-in-a-tunnel mega-project with accompanying development. Villagers vehemently battled the hated highway scheme for more than a decade before it was finally defeated in 1985.
“This is Westway,” Reck declared of the park being allowed to make air-rights transfers. “This is what they always wanted. Now they’ve got it.”
However, Westway would have resulted in far more development than this latest park air-rights scheme potentially will. Westway would have added a total of 236 acres of landfill in the Hudson River — with new development on top of it — extending all the way out to the pierhead line, from Chambers St. to 36th St. Submerged under this landfill would have been an eight-lane highway.
Meanwhile, Tobi Bergman, a leader of the Pier 40 Champions coalition of youth sports leagues that has been fighting to preserve — and expand — the sports fields at Pier 40, disagreed with Durst on the likely future of Pier 40.
“I haven’t heard that anyone is talking about demo’ing the Pier 40 shed,” Bergman said. “In fact, they are repairing the pier’s roof.”
‘Razing shed shouldn’t be hard’ Responding to Durst’s claim that taking down the shed structure would take years, Bergman countered, “I don’t think he’s right. The shed is built mostly of assembled precast parts that could be disassembled from barge-mounted cranes. What harmful chemicals? Much more complicated demolitions, such as St. Vincent’s Hospital, occur in densely occupied areas of the city all the time.”
However, Durst countered, “I told Tobi I won’t tell him how to run his playing fields, and he shouldn’t tell me how to do construction.”
Regarding the NID’s seemingly running out of steam, Bergman said, “I think the NID is struggling, first, because it’s just a tough one to do. Remember, even the High Line [special-tax district] failed, and this one is more complicated. But also, very little enthusiasm has been generated by the effort. It was going downhill before the legislation, and I think Douglas is the only one who sees a connection [to the park’s new ability to sell air rights]. The NID still makes a lot of sense as a way to support the park. The ads for every condo that goes on the market anywhere near the park start with praise for the park. With more effective leadership, it may still have a chance.”
‘Super-luxury’ Leroy building Even without the use of park air-rights transfers, development is already booming around Pier 40. Bergman, who chairs the Community Board 2 Land Use and Business Development Committee, noted that this Wed., July 3, his committee will hear a developer’s application for a residential zoning variance for the square block bounded by Leroy, West, Clarkson and Washington Sts. The entire block is part of the development site except for the FedEx facility, according to Bergman. The application is to permit construction of a new “super-luxury” building, as Bergman described it, with retail use on the ground floor on Leroy St. and residences on the second through tenth floors. Apparently, this project would also include the site where Mystique, a new gentlemen’s club (topless strip club), is slated to open in several months.
Bergman said it would be inaccurate to say he thinks the new air-rights transfer provision is a slam dunk for saving Pier 40.
“It may be good for Pier 40,” he reflected. “We won’t know until we see how the air-rights transfer plays out. With the Clarkson/Leroy block going for a variance as we speak, the St. John’s Building [directly across from the pier] is the only possible receiving site for Pier 40.”
Asked why he assumes Pier 40’s air rights would be transferred to the St. John’s Building, Bergman said he feels it’s doubtful the City Planning Commission would transfer them a greater distance away.
‘Heart and soul of NID’ Meanwhile, Lawin said there’s no question that Durst has been the key figure in the Friends of Hudson River Park and the NID up to this date.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has been as dedicated and supportive with his energy and funding as Douglas Durst toward the park,” he said. “He’s been the heart and soul of the Friends and the NID Steering Committee.”
Lawin said the steering committee will meet this month to “reassess” where they stand in the process.
Asked to characterize the NID’s opposition, Lawin said, “As far as I can tell, it’s a relatively small but quite vocal and organized group. I think they do have legitimate concerns, but that we can address that.”
But Lawin said that, from what the NID group is seeing through its outreach efforts about the special-tax district idea, “the overwhelming number of people are vastly supportive.”