Volume 77 / Number 36 - Feb. 06 - 12, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

From left, Adrian Benepe, city Parks Department commissioner; Diana Taylor, chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors; and Carol Ash, state Parks Department commissioner, at the Trust’s board meeting last Thursday. At the meeting’s start, Taylor donned a Giants hard hat in a show of support before the Super Bowl.

Trust can’t swing pier vote; Cirque du Soleil still afloat

By Lincoln Anderson

Everyone loves a circus, or so they say. That adage seems to go double for current and former New York City Parks Department commissioners, a pair of whom made the strongest arguments yet for a Cirque du Soleil on Pier 40 at last week's Hudson River Park Trust board of directors meeting. Cirque is needed at the W. Houston St. pier to help pay for its repairs and support the rest of the 5-mile-long Hudson River Park, they said. As one of them put it, Pier 40 will have moneymaking uses - “whether it's movies or a stag show.”

With tension over Pier 40 reaching an all-time high, about 200 people packed The Museum of Jewish Heritage's Safra Hall in Battery Park City last Thursday afternoon. They anxiously came to see if the Trust's directors would really vote to transform the pier into a glitzy Downtown entertainment center or, instead, heed the community's pleas to preserve the pier as a safe space for young kids to play soccer and baseball.

“There are a lot of people who are extremely passionate about this pier,” Diana Taylor, the Trust's chairperson, acknowledged to the audience. “This pier - it's incredibly important that we get it right. It's important for this park, it's important for this community, and it's important for this city.

Taylor expressed faith in the Trust's efforts to find the best way to repair the massive but crumbling W. Houston St. pier - and then program its use for at least the next three decades.

“I feel confident that it's going to come out with something we all can live with,” she said.

Ultimately, the Trust did not vote, with Taylor saying Pier 40 would be on the agenda again for a possible vote in two months at the board's next meeting at the end of March. But many of the Trust's 13 board of directors members did air their thoughts at the meeting about the challenges facing Pier 40 - providing new insight into where they stand on the contentious issue.

The day before the Trust meeting, five local elected officials who were involved in crafting the 1998 Hudson River Park Act sent a joint letter to Taylor, stating what they feel are critical issues that should guide the Trust's actions on Pier 40.

The officials - Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, State Senators Tom Duane and Martin Connor and Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried - explained that the park act should not be amended to give The Related Companies a long-term, 49-year lease for its plan.

Related is proposing to put an 1,800-seat, 50,000-square-foot Cirque du Soleil theater, a 12-screen cinema, a music hall and restaurants on the pier as part of a $618 million redevelopment scheme.

The legislators stressed that the act prohibits leases of more than 30 years, and that the request for proposals, or R.F.P., for Pier 40 that the Trust released in August 2006 stated that the state-city authority was seeking a master lease of 30 years “consistent with the Hudson River Park Act” for the 14-acre pier.

“Yet, a year and a half later, Related still has not presented H.R.P.T. with a feasible 30-year-lease scenario, thereby making Related's proposal nonresponsive to H.R.P.T.'s R.F.P,” the politicians said.

On the other hand, the politicians said they do support the idea - as proposed in a feasibility study by the new Pier 40 Partnership group - for a nonprofit conservancy to repair and upgrade the pier in a low-impact manner.

The R.F.P. requires the pier's master lease holder to pay a minimum annual rent to the Trust of $5 million - which is what the pier's current parking operation, with about 2,000, spaces pays. The Partnership's plan would slightly increase the amount of parking and add a school and Visual Arts Market to the pier, while keeping the 3.5-acre courtyard sports field.

On Thursday, just hours before the Trust was to meet, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn wrote Taylor separately, echoing the state legislators' opposition to a 49-year lease and support for a Pier 40 nonprofit conservancy.

At the meeting's start, Marc Ameruso, president of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, read the group's resolution on Pier 40, voicing similar themes to those in the politicians' letters; Related has not presented a plan for a 30-year lease, he stressed.

“The Related plan would be destructive to the fabric and character of the West Village, Lower West Side and Tribeca and would bear no relationship to rational urban planning,” Ameruso read from the lengthy resolution. “It would bear no relationship to the park to the north and south of Pier 40 and would require youth athletics to occur in an intensely developed entertainment complex.”

Mocks 'manifesto'

Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, an appointee of Mayor Bloomberg's to the Trust's board, scoffed at Ameruso's remarks, stating, “It's like a manifesto. You have to come to the real world.”

At a board meeting last year, Stern derided as “socialism” a suggestion in a report by the Pier 40 Working Group that the state and city should help finance the pier's repair.

Connie Fishman, the Trust's president, who heads the authority's paid staff, in her report to the board members, stated that the second proposal submitted for the Pier 40 R.F.P. - The People's Pier plan by Urban Dove and CampGroup - “has not documented the adequacy of their capital investment [and] understated their proposal's development costs.”

The People's Pier plan has been dogged by reports that the Trust does not consider it financially viable. Fishman also noted that Related still hasn't demonstrated it can make its proposal work within a 30-year lease.

(Despite Fishman's comments, speaking the following day, Jai Nanda of Urban Dove said he didn't feel like their proposal had been singled out as financially unviable. “I didn't get that impression at all from the meeting,” he said. “In fact, we were quite encouraged by it.”)

Mentioning the Pier 40 Partnership's plan, Fishman said, “We applaud their initiative. And while we would like to continue their concept, there are a number of questions.”

Fishman apparently was referring to a financial analysis of the Partnership's Pier 40 feasibility study that the Trust had commissioned only a few days earlier. The analysis was done by Daniel Kurtz, an attorney in private practice who previously worked in former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams's Office.

However, in the Partnership's defense, Kurtz noted in his report that the Partnership so far has only been asked to produce a feasibility study - not a full-fledged proposal.

Fishman said the Trust has lots of leeway in terms of the R.F.P process, seeming to indicate that it could select to use parts of the proposals.

“It's my understanding that legally we can accept, reject, parse, pare, any of those options,” she said.

Though Fishman didn't specifically say whether parts from competing proposals could be combined, that could well be the implication.

Will pier survive?

Fishman was asked about Pier 40's role in generating revenue for the whole 5-mile-long waterfront park between Chambers and W. 59th Sts. - and if the pier would have to be shut down if it doesn't generate more money to pay for critical repairs to its 40-plus-years-old structure.

Parking at Pier 40 is one of Hudson River Park's main income generators, Fishman said. She stressed the urgent need to repair the pier.

“The first and most important issue is the roof of Pier 40,” she said. “We do have areas where concrete has fallen. Luckily, it has not fallen when anyone was there, just on cars.”

In the worst-case scenario, the Trust would have to start closing sections of Pier 40 as they become unsafe, she said.

“You wouldn't take the whole pier and wrap it in yellow tape,” she explained. Rather, areas above where the metal support piles had weakened beneath would be selectively roped off, she said. On the rooftop, cars would be restricted from driving over dangerously deteriorated sections.

Fishman said the piles are in worse shape around the pier's perimeter, the areas that support the two-story pier-shed building, as opposed to beneath the central courtyard, where the artificial-turf sports field is. While that's good news for the field and the kids and families that use it, if the pier's parking has to be cut because of the pier's condition, it will mean less money for the pier and park, she noted.

Flying in the face of his previous “socialism” comment, Stern asked if the state and city could chip in funding for the pier's repairs. Fellow Trust board member Carol Ash, the state Department of Parks commissioner, answered, “I understand the premise, and [repairing Pier 40] is a huge cost. I don't think the state will immediately come to the rescue here.”

HR&A, the Pier 40 Partnership's consultants, have determined the pier needs up to $125 million in repairs to its substructure - though a good chunk of this would be for a $43 million seismic upgrade that not all believe is legally required. For its part, Related Companies has said it would spend $30 million to repair the pier's metal support pilings. But the HR&A report says the piles need $50 million worth of repairs. The pier's roof needs a $21 million fix, HR&A concluded.

Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber, who replaces former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff on the Trust's board as its most powerful city appointee, said the city doesn't have the cash to help fix Pier 40, either.

“There's an excess of needs and a shortage of funds throughout the city,” he said. “So there's no surplus of funds to use for this type of activity.”

Why not a circus?

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, a mayoral appointee to the Trust's board, then made the meeting's most deflating comments in the view of local park activists and community members. Benepe started talking about uses in other city parks that draw great numbers of people. Related's Pier 40 plan would attract 2.5 million people annually to Pier 40. (Initially, Related had cited an even higher number of 2.7 million per year, before making some slight modifications to its plan.)

“I know it sounds like a lot, 2.7 million,” Benepe said, “but it's roughly half the number of annual visitors that go to the Met [which is technically located in Central Park].” The Central Park Zoo is another major in-park attraction, he said.

“I think closing your mind to the idea of things that are not traditionally park-like - like a circus - is a bit hasty,” Benepe said.

However, speaking after Benepe, Julie Nadel, one of three “community” members appointed to the board by Borough President Scott Stringer, drew a sustained ovation from the audience when she said Pier 40's park character should not be compromised by commercialism.

“Pier 40 should be integrated into the neighborhood it abuts,” she said. “People talk about world-class parks - it's also a community park. Whatever goes into the park should mainly benefit the community; that was one of the main fears about Related.”

But Stern countered that Hudson River Park doesn't belong only to the local community. Evoking Villagers' historic fighting spirit, he cited legendary activist Jane Jacobs and the community's successful past battles against “powerbroker” Robert Moses - which only made Stern's next comments seem all the more like a non sequitur.

“The Village is not a world separate from the rest of the world,” he stated. “And everything cannot be done for its comfort and convenience.” He mentioned the example of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has luxury towers in its southern section to help finance it.

“If you want to have revenue, you've got to have people,” Stern said. “Each person leaves a few dollars [after visiting the park]. If you want to have a park, you have to pay for it. You have to have some activity there that will cause them to part with their money - whether it's movies or a stag show.”

Stern added Pier 40 is no pristine park preserve: “There are no redwoods on Pier 40,” he said.

'One plan is viable'

Paul Ullman, a new Trust board director - whose wife was until recently a member of the Pier 40 Partnership - then spoke. In a no-nonsense manner, he described a plan for the pier that is basically the Partnership proposal, though he did not mention the Partnership by name.

“There is a viable plan, in the $200 million to $300 million range,” he said. “It would have tax-free financing that would be secured by parking, at a minimum, and very possibly other nonprofit uses.” There would be $30 million to $40 million in private financing, he continued, and an educational space for a public school or college. There would be some for-profit athletic uses, too. Ullman later clarified that this for-profit sports space would only be some tennis bubbles on the pier's rooftop, and that he wasn't referring to the pier's sports fields.

Ullman told the board to “keep the pressure going and build upon that” and urged them to set a deadline for a decision on the pier.

Although the community wants the Trust to close the R.F.P. and move ahead with the Partnership's idea, Taylor kept the R.F.P. process alive for at least two more months.

“We're not going to get any money from any other government agency,” she said. “We've been at this for a very long time. … We're very limited in the alternatives we actually have,” she said, referring to the two flawed R.F.P. responses and the Partnership's new idea. “Doing nothing is not an option,” Taylor said. She said the board should continue to “work through” the issues during the next two months.

Afterward, reactions among elected officials and community members ranged from frustration and surprise - especially over Parks Commissioner Benepe's remarks - to guarded optimism.

Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of the Pier 40 Working Group and chairperson of Community Board 2's Waterfront Committee, said he was dismayed to see Bloomberg's appointees defending the idea of turning Pier 40 into a major entertainment hub.

“I was pretty disappointed at what Benepe had to say,” Schwartz noted. “It looks like the mayor's appointees are really walking in lockstep.”

Speaking on Monday, he sounded even more upset: “People are really pissed the way the community was described at the board meeting,” he said. He added that the Pier 40 Working Group had drafted resolutions to write one letter requesting that, not just the Trust's staff, but its directors too, meet with the chairpersons of Community Boards 1, 2 and 3 and the Working Group, and another letter to the governor and borough president, requesting that they get actively involved in the Pier 40 debate.

'Zoo's O.K., not Related'

Tobi Bergman, president of Pier, Park & Playground Association and chairperson of C.B. 2's Parks Committee, said: “I was surprised that Adrian Benepe was not more concerned about the idea of placing a massive entertainment district in the midst of a park. He pointed to examples around the city where there are uses that bring millions of visitors to city parks. But the examples he gave were uses our community would love to see at Pier 40, including entirely appropriate public uses, such as museums and zoos with minimal nighttime visits and none of the park and neighborhood impacts of the Related proposal.”

Chris McGinnis, a Partnership member, said they wished the Trust had closed the R.F.P. because that would open up the process and make it easier to negotiate about financial details and move forward. Because of the confidentiality agreement the developers must sign for the R.F.P., much about the Related and People's Pier proposals - such as critical financial information - is shrouded in secrecy.

For a while now, Taylor has nudged the Partnership to work with Related, apparently hoping some synthesis of the two plans would emerge and be acceptable to the community. But the Partnership's low-impact alternative plan was a direct response to Related's high-impact plan, so it's unclear how the two could possibly mesh.

Said Trust board member Nadel, “I think that maybe the idea is to get the Partnership and Related to come together - but I don't see how that's going to happen. This is a unique situation.”

Rich Caccappolo, another Partnership member, said the Partnership was at least glad that the Trust didn't agree to back a 49-year lease for Related.

“We're slightly disappointed, but not surprised, that they didn't close out the R.F.P.,” he said. As for what happens next, he said, “We really don't know. We're trying to figure that out. We want to keep the momentum. We hope to look to the community board to organize more discussions with the community. We are still very committed. We are very pleased with the elected officials that have written to the Trust to offer their support” for the Partnership's approach, he said.

Caccappolo said it's clear that the Trust feels “Related is the easiest way to go forward,” and also that the state-city park authority would like the Partnership to synergize somehow with Related. Only because the Trust asked them to, the Partnership previously met several times with Related, but there was no progress.

Just can't relate

“Very difficult,” Caccappolo said of those meetings. “They were discussions geared toward getting Related to reduce some of the intense, high-impact uses. At the end of the day, they said they couldn't really change any part of the plan - that is, the circus, the movie theaters, the banquet hall, the music hall; we went one by one.”

Caccappolo said the Partnership members remain hopeful that they can use the time between now and March 27, the Trust's next board meeting, to “work productively” with the park authority.

Caccappolo didn't buy Benepe's analogy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art being in a park yet having a huge attendance.

“Yeah, they come at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., throughout the day,” he said. “It's not the whole crowd arriving at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. for a circus show. I thought that was rather simplistic,” he said.

Caccappolo said the Trust's springing Kurtz's analysis on them right before the Jan. 31 meeting was “very difficult” to respond to given the short turnaround time. He said they'd like an “independent review” of their plan's viability.

Asked if Related wants to work with the Partnership, Joanna Rose, a Related spokesperson, said, “We continue to believe that this is an important project for the city, the park and the community and we've agreed to continue discussions with the Trust and other interested parties.”

Asked if the Trust would like to see the Partnership and Related work together on some sort of hybrid plan, Chris Martin, the Trust's spokesperson, responded: “The Trust and its board are focused on finding a development solution for Pier 40 that will save the pier or substantial parts thereof from being condemned, serve the community's needs and generate sufficient funds to help maintain the park as a whole.”_

'An alternative path'

Assemblymember Glick said she wished the Trust had closed the R.F.P. last week.

“It's somewhat disappointing,” she said. “I'd rather have a clear-cut direction. But we at least have additional time for a review of an alternative path.” Glick said if the Trust insists on pushing a hybrid Partnership/Related plan, this will cause problems in terms of raising money from the community: Partnership members and supporters won't contribute money if Related is still involved, she assured.

A high-powered parents group, including wealthy venture capitalists and Internet entrepreneurs, the Partnerhip members all have children who play on Pier 40. They have pledged to raise up to $40 million for Pier 40 through private contributions from the community.

But if Related was still part of the equation, Glick said, “Why would they contribute to a plan that has significant elements that they strongly oppose? People are not going to put up money that could potentially result in half of Related's proposal going forward.

“I'm an optimist,” Glick said. “I'm hopeful that we will have a productive two months and that the level of comfort will be raised and the Trust will have a new path along which to proceed.”

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