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

Talking Point

Villager file photo

Soccer players on Pier 40 at W. Houston St.

The time is right for a Pier 40 park conservancy

By Tobi Bergman

Thirty years ago, Central Park, a treasure of the city and a symbol of our civic pride, had fallen into ruin. The lawns were dust. Every bench had broken slats. Swings hung on one chain. Large flooded areas blocked paths because the drains were clogged while the real ponds were choked with algae and weeds. A cycle of fear, disuse and misuse set in. A demoralized staff picked up litter here and there while piles of trash accumulated behind every wall. Around the city, the same was true in almost every park.

The Central Park Conservancy took over the rescue effort in 1980. Supporters of other major parks followed suit, each group finding a model appropriate to the needs of the particular park and the capabilities of its constituency — always with the goal of proper management and restoration of the park. Private investment and leadership inspired better public management. It helped the public sector upgrade citywide standards and helped us uplift our pride in our city. A sad chapter ended and people came back to the parks in droves.

Not every park should have a conservancy and the city should not cede control of the public sphere each time a group steps forward with an offer. But when a difficult challenge cannot be met by government alone, and when the extraordinary qualities of a site inspire passionate support, there may be reasons for nonprofit stewardship. In these special cases, an appropriately structured conservancy can make an extraordinary contribution to our city.

Pier 40 is made to order for a conservancy. The Hudson River Park Trust cannot develop the pier independently because bond financing unavailable to the Trust is needed to pay for expensive repairs. A conservancy at Pier 40 would not privatize the pier. On the contrary, a conservancy is the only alternative to turning the pier over to a private developer who would inevitably be compelled to serve investors by maximizing the intensity of commercial uses.

Pier 40 is the largest site in the park and one of the park’s best opportunities. But the pier’s redevelopment, needed to secure its use for future generations, has proven a difficult challenge. In 2003, a request for proposals, or R.F.P., to find a developer ended in failure because the four proposals, all dependent on large retail uses, were deemed unworthy of the site. During that first R.F.P., a small group had breakfast at the Noho Star restaurant on Lafayette St. with the head of one of New York’s biggest developers; the developer had just refused to revise its bid to remove a big-box store from its Pier 40 proposal. In less than five minutes, using a paper napkin as a spreadsheet, he explained why a big-box store would be the only viable legal use for a project that would pay for expensive repairs to the pier and provide the required public open space based on the maximum 30-year lease allowed by the Hudson River Park Act. The developer mused that maybe the pier should be redeveloped by a nonprofit group. A new R.F.P. process, begun in August 2006, attracted only two proposals.

Fourteen months have passed since The Related Companies submitted its proposal to put Cirque du Soleil, a concert hall, a banquet hall, movie theaters, restaurants, retail and more at Pier 40. After several attempts at improvement, the plan remains unacceptable. The proposal is unpopular because it would spoil the quality of current recreation at the pier and interfere with those who run, bike, skate and walk along the Hudson River Park greenway. Related’s plan would threaten to infect the adjacent neighborhood with a contagion of hotels and large-venue nightlife development. The uses Related proposes, while technically within the law, are by dint of scale and intensity incompatible with park use. But even setting aside the lack of support for the project, the proposal cannot be selected because it depends upon a 49-year lease, and because there is no way to mitigate the traffic gridlock it would cause or its disruption to the recreational right of way, the bike path.

Hudson River Park was born a decade ago in a hard-fought compromise between those who wanted a waterfront park built quickly and those who wanted to prevent its commercialization. The vision of one side is seen in the completed parts of the park: bikeways and walkways, lawns and gardens, ball fields and docks for small boats. The serious worry of the other is seen in the ill-conceived and outsized proposal by Related Companies for an entertainment mall at Pier 40.

The Hudson River Park Act forbids leases of more than 30 years. This severely limits opportunities for commercial development. That was the intention; it was a key part of the compromise. Amendment of the act to allow a longer lease should not be considered except for a project of unusual public value that has the support of the most affected communities. A proposal for a large-venue entertainment mall will never meet that bar. 

In the year and a half since the current request for proposals was issued, many people and many groups have spent substantial time, effort and funds. This expense has not been wasted because it has helped people focus on the importance of finding the right way to redevelop the pier and has created opportunities for a unified effort. But this process now has run its course. Reluctance to end the second R.F.P. without a selection is understandable, but the Trust should not extend this process again. It’s time for a fresh start.

Instead, the Hudson River Park Trust should move the Pier 40 project forward by working with elected officials, city and state agencies and the community to create an appropriately structured conservancy to steward the redevelopment and management of the pier.

A recent study prepared by HR&A Advisors for the Pier 40 Partnership has confirmed the likely viability of nonprofit redevelopment of the pier using tax-free bonds to finance the expensive repairs the structure requires, and relying on revenues from long-term parking and other low-impact commercial uses. The study does not provide all the answers. There will be challenges ahead to achieve success. But the community and our elected officials are ready to embrace the right kind of commercial uses at the pier, and the prospect of a conservancy leading the redevelopment will offer a unique opportunity to work together and secure the pier for generations of New Yorkers.

The Pier 40 Partnership has stated its willingness to begin immediately, upon closing of the current R.F.P., to aggressively pursue the “next steps,” including raising private donations of millions of dollars needed to fund planning and design work until a conservancy is created to take over.

The Related Companies proposal will never be palatable enough to win an amendment to the park act to allow a 49-year lease. The Trust should now give leadership to the efforts of all concerned to meet the challenge and move forward in a practical way to upgrade the pier and enhance its public spaces. The Trust should engage the passion and energy of our community to secure the future of Pier 40 and enhance the prestige of Hudson River Park.

The Trust should not miss this opportunity. It should clear the path needed to form the right kind of organization to be the Pier 40 Conservancy.

Bergman is chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee and president of Pier Pier & Playground Association (P3), a local group that advocates for new spaces for youth sports and runs youth sports programs on Pier 40 at W. Houston St. He was chief of operations for Central Park from 1987 through 1995.

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