Volume 79, Number 03 | June 24 - 30, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Former state Senator Franz Leichter

Leichter loses vote, defends Pier 40 lease maneuver

By Lincoln Anderson

“Not happy” at all that an appointee of his on the Hudson River Park Trust led the state-city authority’s surprise move to seek a longer lease for Pier 40, Borough President Scott Stringer responded strongly during the past week — both with words and action.

“That’s on my watch. I’m not happy about it,” Stringer said, addressing Community Board 2’s full-board meeting last week. “That’s on my watch — It will not happen again. It was unacceptable.”

On Tuesday, Stringer went even further, taking disciplinary action, stripping the appointee, former state Senator Franz Leichter, of his voting privileges on the Trust’s board of directors. The borough president appoints three of the board’s 13 members, and the governor and mayor appoint the rest. Under the Hudson River Park Act, only two of the B.P.’s appointees are allowed to vote on a rotating, annual basis. Lawrence Goldberg will retain his voting privileges and Pam Frederick, not Leichter, will now be allowed to vote during this current rotation, Stringer said in a brief e-mail letter yesterday to Diana Taylor, the Trust’s chairperson.

Critics accused Leichter of trying to get an amendment slipped into the park’s governing law during the busy period right before the end of the legislative session. But the whole issue became moot earlier this month when a coup disrupted the state Senate, bringing business to a halt. There is currently no bill to extend Pier 40’s lease, much less any sponsors of the bill in either the Assembly or state Senate. And yet, the Trust’s resolution to seek a longer Pier 40 lease remains active.

Leichter, for his part, says he doesn’t understand what all the upset is about and that a longer lease is needed, or the deteriorating pier — a third of whose metal support piles are badly corroded — may be lost entirely. In an interview on Sunday, he told The Villager he’d support adding restrictions in an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act pertaining to Pier 40’s lease, such as that the pier couldn’t be an entertainment-based complex or “a South Street Seaport” or have big-box stores. But Leichter said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to add language to the act stipulating that the pier’s sprawling, heavily used courtyard sports field must be retained exactly where it is, since that would be “legislating design.”

Leichter is considered a veritable “Father of Hudson River Park” for having co-authored the park’s founding legislation in 1998 along with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; in fact, it was originally called the Leichter-Gottfried Act. But the Trust’s recent Pier 40 lease resolution — and, more than anything else, the behind-the-scenes way in which it was approved — has sparked a furor among park activists.

At the Trust’s May 28 board meeting, Leichter brought up a piece of “new business” that had not been listed on the meeting’s agenda: He urged the Trust to ask the state Legislature to lengthen Pier 40’s lease from 30 years to 49 years, saying it’s the only way to attract a developer to repair the crumbling 14-acre pier. Two requests for proposals, or R.F.P.’s, issued in the past five years by the Trust to find a developer for the pier both collapsed.

The board passed the resolution unanimously — but community members were outraged, fearing a longer lease would reopen the door for The Related Companies to put a glitzy “Las Vegas on the Hudson”-style entertainment complex on the W. Houston St. pier. The resolution, at the very least, should have been discussed first with the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, park activists say.

Speaking at C.B. 2 last Thursday night, Stringer expressed concern, if not outright anger, at the process by which the resolution was approved. The issue isn’t the length of the lease, but the lack of community review, Stringer said.

“That may be good, or that may not be good,” he said of a 49-year lease at Pier 40. “That may be acceptable on Pier 57 [at W. 16th St.].” But the lack of public review of the proposal was “unacceptable,” he said.

The day before the community board meeting, Stringer had made his feelings known to the Trust in a lengthy and sharply worded letter to Taylor, which he concluded by urging the Trust to “rescind” the resolution.

“The long history of R.F.P. processes for Pier 40 shows that a careful re-evaluation of how best to develop the pier is warranted,” Stringer wrote. “While a longer lease term is likely to increase interest in future R.F.P.’s, the Trust board should only move forward after the community has been notified and given an opportunity to provide input. … The Advisory Council was established by the Hudson River Park Act to provide advice and recommendations to the Trust board on all matters regarding the planning, design, construction and operation of Hudson River Park. … Consequently, the lack of open dialogue with the Advisory Council is contrary to the spirit and the intent of the Hudson River Park Act. Furthermore, the discussion of the resolution at the Trust board meeting in May — a public meeting — should have been on the meeting agenda to inform the public that the Trust board would be discussing a resolution on the lease extension. I urge the Trust board to rescind its resolution and work with the Advisory Council, local community board and community groups to better understand and seek to address community concerns before it engages the state Legislature in changing or amending the Hudson River Park Act.”

Leichter told The Villager he disagrees that the Trust’s voting on the resolution without the advisory council’s prior review violated the park act. Plus, he said, he talked about his idea with many individuals, interested parties and the affected politicians.

“I discussed it with all the elected officials — including Stringer,” he said. “It was in the air. This didn’t come out of left field.” Leichter noted he had discussed the idea in a meeting with Stringer and his two other appointees to the board, Frederick and Goldberg.

“I would say there was generally a sense that this wasn’t a big deal and it needed to be done,” Leichter said. “Nobody said, ‘I’m totally against it.’ I spoke to all the legislators. No one said it was a terrible idea, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

He said he sent Taylor an e-mail a few weeks before the meeting, saying he thought the lease should be modified.

Yet, Leichter — and some of those he spoke with — said that in their talks together, he never indicated if he would actually ask the board to pass the resolution. Hence, why the Trust’s vote caught so many off guard. As for why the resolution wasn’t listed on the meeting agenda, Leichter said that was the Trust staff’s decision, and that they would have to explain that.

“It should have been [on the agenda],” he said. “The staff didn’t want to put it on the agenda. They thought it was more appropriate to do it this way.”

A Trust spokesperson said the staff does not add suggested items of board members to the agenda because that would give the false impression to other board members that the item was a recommendation by the staff.

Leichter also said the park advisory council would be able to lobby the Legislature, too. Asked if he thought the Legislature would weigh the advisory council’s views as heavily as those of the Trust board, Leichter said yes, and then some.

“You think [Assemblymember] Deborah Glick and the Legislature will take the opinion of the Trust board more seriously than the advisory council and their constituents? I don’t think so. We weren’t trying to sneak anything in,” he said.

“I don’t know what the big fuss is about,” Leichter continued. “We have a 49-year lease for Pier 57. We have a 49-year lease for Chelsea Piers. You can’t get financing for a 30-year lease. We’re going to keep the field, and the community wants to kept the parking.”

While Leichter said he felt keeping the sports field in the pier’s courtyard “tends probably to be the preferable place,” he said he didn’t feel the park act should be amended to mandate that.

“I don’t think the legislation should define the design of Pier 40,” he said. “It can lay down principles.”

He admitted if the Trust issues a third R.F.P. that Related could well come back with its Cirque du Soleil mega-entertainment complex plan. Last year, Related was disqualified from the running when it said it couldn’t make its financials work within the pier’s 30-year lease restriction and needed a longer lease.

However, Leichter denied there’s any ulterior motive to cater to Related by changing the lease term. And he said the idea to ask the Legislature to change the lease length was his own idea, strongly denying that he was “a stalking horse for anybody.”

“The idea that this is to pave the way for Related is totally absurd,” he said. “I don’t like the Related proposal. … Everybody agrees an educational institution would be appropriate.”

Leichter said he personally is not a big fan of the parking on the pier, but understands that the community wants it. The pier, in his view, would then need “one other use” to help generate revenue for the park. Of what that other use might be, he said, “Whatever we do, we want something that’s acceptable to the community.” Prodded a bit for his view, he said a waterfront or maritime museum would be “great,” adding that the best uses would have some relation to the river.

Schools on the pier are not a sure bet anymore, either, he pointed out, since with the real estate slump, more locations are available.

Leichter offered that a longer lease, as opposed to just helping Related, would actually aid “smaller groups, more innovative,” who would have a better chance at landing the lease.

“It wasn’t just Related that wanted a 50-year lease,” he noted, adding that developers behind another contending plan, The People’s Pier, had also preferred a longer lease.

He revealed that the Trust is also contemplating developing its own plan for the pier. He didn’t provide details, but from the sound of it, the Trust would come up with the plan, but not build it on its own, instead enlisting an outside developer.

“I want to see this park get built — hopefully before I die,” Leichter stressed. “We’ve come a long way. It’s exceeded my expectations. Pier 40 has been a stumbling block. The pier’s in deteriorating condition. We’re losing parking spaces.”

Tobi Bergman, president of P3, a group advocating for youth sports in Greenwich Village, took issue with Leichter’s saying the advisory council can now lobby the Legislature after the Trust has passed the resolution.

“It’s basically ridiculous to say the advisory council can weigh in later,” Bergman said. “The advisory council was created as part of the Hudson River Park Act as an advisory body to the Trust, not a lobbying group to the Legislature.”

As for Leichter saying the park act shouldn’t dictate that the field stay as is, Bergman said, “Thousands of happy users of Pier 40 want the courtyard fields protected. Protecting the courtyard fields also defends the park and the community from mega-development of the pier while leaving plenty of space for park-compatible, income-generating uses. It’s not about legislating design. It’s about working with the community to find a unified way to move forward. As a borough president appointee to the Trust, Senator Leichter should be listening more to park users and the community.”

Arthur Schwartz, the advisory council’s president, forwarded to The Villager an e-mail he sent to Leichter, which said, in part: “Franz, there was no more of an emergency now than at any time in the last year. This just seems like a way to get a quick end-of-session, middle-of-the-night bill from the Legislature. You know that you got the Hudson River Park Act passed by building support and consensus; in fact, an affirmative vote from C.B. 2 was key to getting Assembly Speaker Silver’s blessing. What everyone objects to is an open-ended 49-year lease that would allow a Related-type project, as opposed to one like The People’s Pier.”

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