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Volume 77, Number 15 | September 12 - 18, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A Department of Correction bus used to transport arrested protesters to Pier 57 during the 2004 Republican Convention.

‘Guantanamo’suits vs. Hudson Park gain steam 3 years later

By Chris Lombardi

Three years ago last week, 550 people from all over the country were sleeping at Pier 57, located at W. 15th St. and the West Side Highway, and not because they wanted to.

Among them were Matthew Roth, a staff member of the Chelsea-based group Transportation Alternatives, who was there because he was fighting for the environment. Dennis Kyne, a San Jose writer, musician and Gulf War veteran, was there after protesting the start of the Iraq War. And Rebecca Stoneback, a jewelry designer, told newspapers she was just passing by Union Square when the police scooped her up and took her to the pier, where, she said, the floor was covered in grease and the air stank of chemicals.

All three are among dozens of plaintiffs now suing the city, the New York Police Department and the Mayor’s Office for the events of that week, during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Many are also suing the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that leased Pier 57 to the police during the convention.

The Trust is named as a defendant in at least five such lawsuits, most of which assert that the Trust should have prevented Pier 57 from being used to house anyone, since the agency had already known about documented unsafe conditions at he pier.

“They own the pier. They’re responsible,” said attorney Rose Weber, who has 120 clients in 13 different lawsuits, all concerning what was known for a brief time as “Guantanamo on the Hudson.”

More than 20 R.N.C. lawsuits, including the five naming the Trust, are now in the deposition phase, whereby testimony is taken from both plaintiffs and defendants. The first rounds of the battle so far have largely gone to the plaintiffs, including a Feb. 2, 2007, court order requiring the release of a flood of government documents related to the case. The city had tried to withhold the information on the basis of “national security.”

Meanwhile, the Trust had tried to withhold hazardous-materials reports about the pier, citing possible “enormous commercial harm” to their efforts to develop the pier. Court documents and the Trust’s own reports, obtained by Chelsea Now, The Villager’s sister newspaper, raise questions about how and why Pier 57 — which was formerly an M.T.A. bus depot — became the city’s choice for processing and holding hundreds of people during the 2004 R.N.C., most of whom have subsequently seen their charges thrown out of court. As depositions and competing exhibits flow before federal judges this fall, some of these questions may become clearer.

W.W. II technology Pier

Pier 57 first became famous in 1952, when The W.R. Grace Company’s 19th-century pier was rebuilt with a unique “floating” caisson design free of deep-water piles, designed by an architect who had made similar structures for the 1943 invasion of Normandy. But that was just as shipping in Manhattan began its long decline. In 1971, the 110,000-square-foot structure became a bus depot for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And so it remained throughout even the boom 1990s, as Chelsea Piers began to rise to its north. Then the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the Trust’s predecessor, began to move ahead with plans to develop the 5-mile-long Lower West Side riverfront park. The Conservancy’s 1998 environmental impact statement on the proposed park, conducted by the firm Allee, King, Rosen and Fleming (AKRF), noted the M.T.A. depot’s aging material, never cleared for asbestos, as reason for concern as its successor, the newly formed Trust, planned to move ahead with the park plans.

In 2002, the Trust began to tout Pier 57 for development, pointing out that it was “eligible for listing on the National and State Registers of Historic Places because of its unusual design,” and on Sept. 7, 2003, the M.T.A. buses were moved elsewhere.

The board of directors of the Trust — which is building and operating the park between Chambers and 59th Sts. — reflects the authority’s mission of ensuring that the park generates sufficient revenue to fund its own operation. Although the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 doesn’t explicitly state that the park must be financially self-supporting, this has always been the assumption.

Diana Taylor, the Trust’s newly appointed chairperson, is Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s girlfriend. The board also includes Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and a number of heavyweights in the development and financial communities, such as Joe Rose, of the Georgetown Company; and Theodore Roosevelt IV, a partner at Lehman Brothers, Doctoroff’s old firm.

Roosevelt’s great-great-grandfather, President Theodore Roosevelt, was the father of the national park system, a fact noted with great sadness by environmental attorney Joel Kupferman, who is coordinating many of the R.N.C. cases.

“He has dishonored his ancestor’s memory” by entering such a pro-development group, said Kupferman. The attorney charged that even the public servants on the Trust’s board, such as Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Doctoroff, were more interested in privatization than in ensuring that the park served all New Yorkers well. Other board members, such as the three public members appointed by Borough President Scott Stringer, and also Pete Grannis, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, “need to take more of a leadership role,” said Kupferman. “Otherwise, why have a Trust at all?”Betts boosted R.N.C.

In 2003, the big news in town was not the park but the Republican National Convention. Developer and leading New York Republican Roland Betts, a co-owner of Chelsea Piers — and former co-owner with then-Governor George W. Bush of the Texas Rangers baseball team — had succeeded in his campaign to bring the 2004 R.N.C. to New York. Bloomberg and Doctoroff celebrated the event’s anticipated tourist income, while the New York Police Department began to prepare for what they called a “national security event.”

As the Trust began to include Pier 57 on its list of “development opportunities,” it commissioned environmental assessments for the pier in 2003. Soho firm Ove Arup and Partners was hired to conduct a new “Pier 57 Report.” AKRF, the firm that had led the 1998 environmental impact statement for the pier, was hired to evaluate the facility for the presence of asbestos. Both reports were prepared for the Trust’s eventual Pier 57 development partners, and both gave the future tenants a lot of bad news.

The Arup report pointed to a “very poor, soiled and dilapidated” ventilation system; plumbing with split pipes and “puddles on the floor”; still-original 1953 wiring that violated all recent codes and came with completely inoperable emergency lighting; and drainage so poor that there was “oily waste visible throughout the street level of the facility.” The asbestos report found “friable ACMS [asbestos-containing materials]” throughout the pier. “Access to these areas must be limited until these materials can be removed,” said the report, dated “May 2004.”

As far as could be determined by press time, the cleanup of the pier was then left by the Trust to whatever development partner the agency would ultimately choose. It is also unclear if or when the environmental assessment reports were given to the unexpected, temporary 2004 suitor for the pier: the new York Police Department.

Police Added razor wire

A letter dated June 22, 2004, to the Trust from Charles De Rienzo, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner of administration and former head of the Port Authority Police Department, formally requested use of Pier 57 as a “secondary processing facility” for the duration of the R.N.C. The letter also listed what the police intended to do to prepare for the convention, based on inspection of the pier by commanders who would be responsible for the operation.

These “relatively minimal modifications” would be confined to: “installation of fencing with razor wire; surveying and replacing any first-floor lighting as needed; surveying and repairing ventilation fans on first floor; surveying electrical system and hooking up backup generator if possible; painting certain areas of first floor; and installation of many telephones.” Neither that letter nor published remarks from police officials at the time mentioned the asbestos, oil on the floor or broken exit signs contained in the environmental assessment reports.

Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s vice president, declined to comment about the events of 2004, citing the ongoing litigation.

“I’d love to, but I just can’t talk about it,” Doyle said.

But according to Julie Nadel, a Trust board member appointed by Borough President Stringer, neither Doyle nor Trust President Connie Fishman ever asked the board to approve the July 26, 2004, agreement allowing the Police Department to temporarily use the facility.

Nadel, a longtime parks advocate who has often opposed the Trust’s decisions, pointed out that no decision requires board approval “unless the Trust is spending more than $100,000.” A request like the one from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, she added, might have appeared routine, the sort of thing any city agency would grant.

“The way the memorandum was worded, it was only in case of some emergency [that the police would need to use Pier 57],” said Nadel. “I’m not surprised that I was never told.”

Besides, said Nadel, the board’s trying to address any concerns might have been futile anyway.

“They’re a city agency,” she said of the police. “Going against the cops is going against Doctoroff, going against Bloomberg.”

In retrospect, Nadel added, if the board had known about the Police Department’s plans for the pier, she thinks they would have done something very different.

“What the police did is un-American in the truest sense,” said Nadel.

In September 2004, Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, told The Villager that the Trust didn’t have the expertise to evaluate whether Pier 57 was a suitable location for a temporary holding pen for detainees.

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