Volume 77 / Number 30 - Dec. 27 - Jan.2, 2007
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A rendering of the Witkoff/Cipriani redevelopment plan for Pier 57 from two and a half years ago. Cipriani dropped out of the plan a year ago.

Pier 57 process is barely afloat three years later

By Lincoln Anderson
Although there has been intense focus on Pier 40 at W. Houston St. lately as the process to pick a possible developer for it is nearing completion, another Hudson River Park pier, Pier 57 at W. 16th St., is also drawing renewed attention.

Several weeks ago, the Manhattan district attorney’s ongoing investigation into the Pier 57 redevelopment process concluded as James Ortenzio, former chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors, pleaded guilty to a felony tax violation and a failure to make a financial disclosure under the state’s Public Officers Law. Both incidents occurred after Ortenzio had stepped down as the Trust’s chairperson to head the Manhattan Republican County Committee.

The affair’s conclusion seemed to affirm the adage that when an investigation basically comes up empty, then, so as not to be a total loss, “they get you on taxes.”

Previously the investigation nailed heads of the Cipriani restaurant empire on tax violations and a Cipriani associate for insurance fraud. The investigation was triggered by an anonymous letter sent to the Manhattan D.A. that raised doubts about the integrity of the Pier 57 redevelopment bid process.

Close to three years ago, in April 2005, a partnership of the Witkoff Group and Cipriani won the bid for Pier 57. Chelsea Piers also responded to the Trust’s request for proposals, or R.F.P., for Pier 57, but lost out on the bid.

The widespread suspicion was that Chelsea Piers sent the letter to head off major competition just a few blocks to its south, but Chelsea Piers’ principals deny the letter came from them.

Cipriani — which would have run a major banquet hall at Pier 57 — subsequently dropped out of the Pier 57 project in September 2006. The Related Companies reportedly then stepped into the picture, replacing Cipriani as Witkoff’s partner. But with the process so long in limbo, it’s unclear if Related’s even still involved at this point.

Now, with Ortenzio’s pleas, the investigation over and nothing found in connection with Pier 57, the question is whether the pier’s development finally can start moving.

At the Trust’s board of directors meeting at the end of November, Julie Nadel, a board member, expressed frustration with the Pier 57 gridlock.

“It’s been three years since the request for proposals was put out,” Nadel said, adding that she wasn’t asking for the project to be rebid. “I think that the time is now to put that to bed. It was kind of a tainted pier because of the Republican National Convention,” Nadel added.

A former bus depot, the Chelsea pier — its floor still smeared with antifreeze and other toxic chemicals — infamously was used as a holding pen for hundreds of arrested protesters during the 2004 convention.

“I could not agree with you more,” Diana Taylor, the Trust’s chairperson, told Nadel. “It is so frustrating having that pier sit there.” Taylor noted that the Trust was talking with attorneys and the city’s Department of Investigation about kick-starting the pier’s redevelopment.

Former State Senator Franz Leichter, also a Trust board member, explained that while the D.A.’s Pier 57 investigation had been going on, under a parallel review, D.O.I. “refused to clear the developer.”

“Now that the D.A. has concluded his investigation, we ought to see if the city Department of Investigation will give us the Vendex clearance,” Leichter said. “If they’re not going to give the clearance, we’re going to have to look at it and consider starting it all over again.”

“Those conversations are going on right now,” Taylor assured, though adding, “It’s tricky.”

Every person or company that contracts with the city must fill out a comprehensive disclosure form known as Vendex that is vetted by D.O.I.

With Taylor making a reference to “litigation” in connection with Pier 57, she then convened a closed-door executive session of the Trust’s board at the end of the public meeting. Speculation was that the session concerned how the Trust might defend itself from litigation if it tried to sever its relationship with Witkoff at Pier 57.

A source connected with Witkoff who requested anonymity said everything regarding Pier 57 was put on hold during the investigation, so the entire process is literally at square one.

“There is no conversation that litigation is in the works,” the source maintained. He said that it could take several years before the pier’s redevelopment begins. A full environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., must be conducted, followed by a uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP.

“If everything was a green light tomorrow, we’re talking years,” he predicted. “It’s clearly north of three.”

There is speculation that Steve Witkoff’s name’s appearance in the Bernard Kerik probe is a factor in the stalled Pier 57 Vendex approval. Witkoff provided Kerik with an Upper East Side apartment from December 2001 to December 2003, paying the $9,650 monthly rent — a total of more than $236,000. Kerik asked for Witkoff’s help with the apartment while he was still New York City police commissioner, and the developer made the payments because the two “anticipated doing business in the future,” according to the D.A.

Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, said he could not reveal if Pier 57 was discussed in the Trust board’s November executive session.

“The point of the executive session is for the Trust and its board members to discuss confidential matters pertaining to litigation. As such, I cannot comment on what was discussed,” he said.

Martin said the D.O.I. Vendex review of Witkoff’s plan to redevelop Pier 57 is “still ongoing.”

“After D.O.I. issues its Vendex clearance, the next step in the process would be the entering of a memo of understanding, M.O.U., between the Trust and the Witkoff Group,” Martin said. “During the M.O.U. time period, an E.I.S. and ULURP reviews would be conducted. Based on prior E.I.S. and ULURP review completion times, the Trust is hopeful that construction could begin 18 to 24 months after the reviews begin.”

Asked if the Trust is looking to jettison Witkoff and start fresh, Martin said, “At this point we are waiting for D.O.I. to complete their Vendex so that we may move forward with the Pier 57 project with Witkoff as the developer.”

Asked if The Related Companies is indeed still partnering with Witkoff at Pier 57, Martin responded: “Related was never part of their proposal.”

Asked if the Witkoff Group plans to bring in any partner to run the banquet hall, Martin said: “Yes, but you should speak to Witkoff directly in regard to their progress.”

Steve Witkoff did not return calls for comment.

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