Volume 77 / Number 35 Jan. 30 - Feb. 05, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Speaking at Sunday’s rally, Mario Batali said a “strip mall” is O.K. for the suburbs, but not for the Lower West Side waterfront.

More than 1,000 pack pier rally against Related plan

By Lincoln Anderson

More than 1,000 kids and parents, one celebrity chef, local politicians and community leaders, L.G.B.T. waterfront activists and a rockin’ band of 12-year-old guitar heroes packed Pier 40 last Sunday afternoon. The occasion was a mass rally to celebrate the pier’s playing fields and call on the Hudson River Park Trust to reject a megadevelopment plan for the W. Houston St. pier at its expected vote this Thursday.

As the crowd gathered, rubber mini-footballs flew — “Go long!” a young girl shouted as a boy sprinted out for a pass — and soccer balls bounded as kids scurried and fell everywhere on the glistening, green artificial turf. The exuberant scene of youthful activity was the polar opposite of kids as couch potatoes watching Sunday morning TV cartoons.

The youths and parents coalesced in the 14-acre pier’s northeastern corner, completely filling a quarter of the massive courtyard sports field.

Signs on wooden posts bobbed above their heads in various spots with the names of local public and independent schools written in magic marker: P.S. 234, P.S. 41, Village Community School, Grace Church School, City and Country School, P.S. 3, L.R.E.I. — all of whose students make heavy use of the pier, many of them through local sports leagues, such as Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club.

At 3.2-acres, the plastic-grass-covered space is variously referred to as one field or even fields, since it is big enough to host numerous games at once. The courtyard playing space opened almost three years ago. At the time, the Trust had just scrapped its first request for proposals, or R.F.P., process to find a developer for the pier, and settled on creating the field as an interim plan. But for local families in a park-starved community, the field fast became a treasured asset in a park-starved community and a “safe space” for local children to play, and they don’t want to lose it.

Chef Mario Batali, a Village resident whose Babbo on Waverly Pl. is hailed as one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city, kicked things off. Standing beneath a yellow banner reading, “Rebuild It Together — A Park Forever — Pier 40,” he made a plea for the spell not to be broken at the four-decades-old former cargo-ship pier now transformed into a vibrant community hub.

“The pier and these fields are a magical space for our neighborhood and for all New Yorkers who need open space,” Batali said. “And we don’t want this magic to be replaced by a private developer’s idea of what their magic might be — which would be a strip mall, movie theaters and mediocre restaurants.

“If we wanted strip malls and private space, we would live in the suburbs,” he said. “Development is good — but not here. The Pier 40 Partnership has presented a study to the Trust that will solve the problem of how to repair and rebuild the pier without turning the entire 1.2 million square feet over to a developer with a few strings attached. The H.R.P.T. should listen to us, the neighborhood and all these people to renew a park for this generation and the next,” he said to the crowd’s cheers.

On Thursday, the Trust is expected to vote on whether to select either of two proposals for the pier that resulted from a second, more recent, R.F.P. process. The proposal by The Related Companies is the more feared and strongly opposed by the community; Related’s plan would turn the pier into a Downtown entertainment destination, sporting a Cirque du Soleil and independent film movieplex for the Tribeca Film Festival. Related’s development scheme would draw millions of people annually to the Lower West Side pier.

The Hudson River Park Act allows Pier 40 to be developed partially commercially to provide revenue for the whole 5-mile-long park between Chambers and 59th Sts. But space equivalent to 50 percent of the pier’s footprint must be maintained as public open space.

The Partnership’s novel proposal — by an ad hoc group of parents whose children all play on Pier 40 — was developed as a countermeasure to Related’s megaplan. The Partnership’s idea relies on tax-exempt bond financing to renovate the pier, which would be run by a nonprofit conservancy.

On Sunday, predicted snow flurries held off and the sun was beaming down, warming the protected courtyard during the rally. Assemblymember Deborah Glick noted she had been all bundled up and wearing earmuffs on her way over to Pier 40, but found, once safely inside the courtyard “doughnut,” that she was overdressed.

“Here in the doughnut, I don’t need that,” she said of her winter gear. “It clearly demonstrates that this is where the fields should be — not in the shadow of Cirque du Soleil on the rooftop in a corner.”

Related’s plan would move the fields to the pier’s roof, which parents and the sports leagues say is too exposed to the elements and the gusts off the Hudson River.

Glick stressed that park space in Hudson River Park is at a premium.

“We fought very hard to have a park along the waterfront because we had so little park,” she said. “They keep saying the park is 550 acres — 330 to 400 acres is on water. I think you are going to find it a little hard to throw a picnic blanket on that,” Glick quipped, adding, “Now there may be a few people in office who think they can walk on water.”

Instead of revenue from a huge development project, Glick called for more public funding to shore up the pier, the support piles and roof of which are badly deteriorated and in need of fixing after 40 years without a renovation.

“There always seems to be $100 million here or $100 million there to provide tax abatements to major developers,” she noted, leaving the unstated question hanging in the air: Why don’t the city and state help finance the pier’s renovation?

Chris McGinnis, a leading member of the Pier 40 Partnership, touted the benefits of their proposal versus Related’s: “Not a lot of traffic or vehicular traffic [in the Partnership plan]. [Related’s] plan is for 3 million people to descend upon this pier every year.”

McGinnis noted that the Partnership plan would include space for a school and artists, as well as a 24-hour center for gay and lesbian youth who hang out on the Village waterfront.

“This is not just about sports,” he stressed. “This is about the whole community.”

Pier 40 is in Glick’s district and also in the district of State Senator Martin Connor. Connor, a strong supporter of the Pier 40 field, noted he had hoped his son could play there when he was on the Stuyvesant High School football team, but unfortunately he graduated before it was built. The field is an important practice facility for Stuyvesant, which has the nation’s oldest high school football program, Connor noted, yet lacks a home field.

“I’m delighted that your kids get to play here,” he told the parents. “It’s important to our community. It’s important to our youth. … No to Related,” he said. “We don’t need Disney World here. This is our space.”

Tobi Bergman, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee and head of P3, which runs youth sports programs on the pier, recounted the long effort to get sports facilities on the pier.

“Twelve years ago, there was one field at J.J. Walker Park, and it just wasn’t enough,” he recalled. “But we found this place, at the time it was a parking lot for trucks and buses. It’s been a long road. As you can see, we won.”

Going along with the day’s sports theme, Bergman said, “We won as a…” letting the crowd fill in the “team!”

Arthur Schwartz, C.B. 2 Waterfront Committee chairperson, recalled how Bergman came to him 13 years ago, when Schwartz was a Democratic district leader and G.V.L.L. coach, asking for the attorney’s help in getting an athletic field on the pier. After lawsuits, first came a smaller field on the roof, then in 2005, the courtyard field.

“We can win, no matter how much power and money is arrayed against us,” Schwartz vowed. He asked for a special round of applause for the local elected officials who, as he put it, have “stood with us all the way” — Glick, Connor and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. The three politicians, along with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, all signed a recommendation paper by the Pier 40 Working Group, which Schwartz chairs, condemning the Related plan and calling for the Trust to work with the Partnership to redevelop the pier. As he was giving kudos to local politicians, Schwartz pointedly failed to mention City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane, both of whom declined to sign the Working Group’s letter to the great chagrin and puzzlement of local park advocates.

Some speculate Quinn doesn’t want to cross Mayor Bloomberg, whom she seldom disagrees with publicly, since she covets his endorsement for her mayoral run. Another theory is that both Duane and Quinn may be deferring to Chelsea waterfront park activists who feel too much attention is being paid to Pier 40 to the detriment of the park’s Chelsea section.

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the rally was “sending out an incredibly powerful message. … This pier is a precious resource — the front yard of our community,” he said.

Local kids were no less adamant in their comments after the speakers were done.

“I like the pier because you have a lot of space,” said Benno Batali, chef Mario’s son, cradling a football from a pickup game he had broken away from. “It’s open in here and it’s a lot of fun. I’d rather be playing outside than in a Cirque du Soleil.”

NAAJJ, a power-guitar blues-rock band of local school kids, selected fitting songs from their repertoire — “I’m Still Here” and “Lost Its Soul” — to match the occasion.

“Pier 40 rocks my socks!” their lead singer declared in between tunes. “I want to say we all grew up playing at Pier 40, and I made a lot of friends here.”

The Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors will hold a public meeting on Thurs., Jan. 31, at 4 p.m. at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place in Battery Park City, Edmond J. Safra Hall. Partnership members and park advocates plan to turn out in force.

“See you Thursday” were the parting words of many after Sunday’s rally.

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