Volume 79, Number 17 | Sept. 30 - Oct 6, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Rumors of a proposal to bring a version of the London Eye, above, to Pier 40 are being called unfounded.

Looking at Pier 40 with a fresh eye, group seeks uses

By Lincoln Anderson

A new ad hoc committee on Pier 40 has been formed at the Hudson River Park Trust to come up with ideas to renovate and redevelop the critical but crumbling 14-acre pier.

Two prior request-for-proposals, or R.F.P., processes that sought developers to fix up and program the Lower West Side pier have sunk like stones.

The most pressing concern about the two-story Pier 40, at W. Houston St., is its roof, which needs $20 million in repairs. Also calling for an overhaul are the pier’s rusting support piles.

The 5-mile-long Hudson River Park is supposed to be financially self-supporting, and Pier 40 is a big part of that equation: Parking — currently Pier 40’s main commercial use — brings in about $7.5 million gross ($5.5 million net) in rent for the Trust, or about 40 percent of the park’s annual operating budget. Parking on the pier is staunchly defended by a strong local constituency of car owners. 

With improvements, the parking could probably bring in several million dollars more in annual revenue. However, as the pier’s roof deteriorates, sections of the parking are being progressively closed off, not only putting the pier at risk, but reducing the pier’s revenue. 

In order for the pier to be renovated, significantly more money is needed, which means bringing in at least one more commercial use — hence the committee’s search.

The ad hoc Pier 40 committee includes four Trust board members — Pam Frederick and Lawrence B. Goldberg, who are appointees of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Paul Ullman, a gubernatorial appointee; and Joe Rose, the city’s former Planning commissioner — as well as Connie Fishman and Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s president and vice president, respectively.

Roughly one day each week, the committee has been meeting with different stakeholders and possible interested development groups. At this point, Ullman and Frederick are the two most active members and the ones doing the outreach and most consistently attending the meetings.

The idea is for the committee to be open to hearing all ideas and not rule out any possibilities — including modifying the Hudson River Park Act, if necessary, to allow certain kinds of uses currently not permitted.

However, that’s not to say the committee is looking to explore ideas that megadevelop the pier: Ullman, for one, got involved with the Trust over his opposition to The Related Companies’ “Las Vegas on the Hudson” plan, which was in the second R.F.P. round and would have featured a Cirque du Soleil and movie theaters for the Tribeca Film Festival. Ullman, who lives in the Village, and Frederick, a Tribeca resident, both have young children that play in local sports leagues that use Pier 40’s playing fields.

A page from the 1990 planning report for the then-future Hudson River Park discussing residential scenarios for Pier 40, the illustration above depicting a “highest density option,” with 85-foot-tall buildings. In 2009, there is word that some think allowing a limited number of high-end residential condos and co-ops on the pier could help provide funds for its repair.

Broad Range of Ideas
Some ideas that have reportedly been raised, so far, are generally in the nonglamorous, low-impact mold: a warehouse facility for paper products for local restaurants; and a telecom hotel to house Internet data centers and Web servers. The latter, though, was determined to be too heavy for the pier.

At the other end of the spectrum, another group — with past ties to Hudson River Park — is said to have mentioned a plan to bring a giant Ferris wheel to Pier 40, along the lines of the London Eye, London’s top tourist attraction.

However, Ben Korman of C&K Properties, which used to run the parking on Pier 40, denied any involvement in the scheme.

“I really know literally nothing about that idea,” he said. “That has nothing to do with me. … I heard that there is a group that is exploring something along those lines — but I think they’re looking at alternative sites all over the city; I didn’t hear anything about the Hudson waterfront.

“I don’t think this is something that would work at Pier 40,” Korman said of a hypothetical “Lower West Side Eye.” “No matter what, it will be controversial wherever it goes — but it is a success in London and, I think, it is in Paris, too.”

Still another idea that has been floating around is for residential use on Pier 40 — specifically for a small number of very high-end condos or co-ops. For residential use to be allowed on Pier 40, however, the park act would have to be changed.

Interest has dwindled
Particularly before the recession, developers had been expressing interest in Pier 40. Fairway’s owners were said to have been eyeing the pier for a supermarket, though the Trust doesn’t back big-box stores on the pier. Another pitch was for a 200,000-square-foot aquarium, which is small, relatively speaking, compared to Coney Island Aquarium. 

Although it was hoped the city would be interested in putting public schools on Pier 40, and there was support for this idea from the Trust, word now has it that the School Construction Authority recently said it had serious reservations about the idea: Having students cross a highway was reportedly an issue, plus because of the real estate dive, spaces on land are now more affordable, making the pier less attractive.

In addition, after the two failed R.F.P.’s, the Trust is now said to be considering crafting its own a master development plan for the pier, and then contracting out the job to different developers or groups.

Open-ended process
Fishman, the Trust’s president, said of the committee’s efforts, “The idea is to cast as wide a net for research as possible — to reach into the corners...a broader section of conversation. They’re trying to be open-minded.”

Fishman said she didn’t feel the committee had the objective of trying to change the park’s legislation without first having a clear idea of what should be done at the pier.

In the past, she said, discussion about the pier was “geared to the R.F.P. responses,” adding that, while those two R.F.P. processes didn’t pan out, they were educational. “We know a lot of stuff from what happened before,” she said.

As for how long the ad hoc Pier 40 committee will continue its work, Fishman responded that, as of now, the process is open-ended.

“There’s no determined schedule,” she said.

She confirmed there had been ongoing interest in the W. Houston St. pier — from “national to international” groups — but that “it kind of dried up when the economy went on the skids. ... And because the economy is so bad, this is a good time to do research,” she noted.

Asked if the Trust itself will design a master plan for Pier 40’s development, or issue a third R.F.P. for developers, Fishman indicated it’s yet to be determined, replying, “Don’t know enough yet.”

Stymied on stimulus
Doyle, the Trust’s V.P., gave The Villager an update on the state-city park authority’s efforts to get federal stimulus funds for Pier 40. She said staff members for Council Speaker Christine Quinn helped identify a grant application they thought might possibly work — under transportation-related uses. In the end, though, the Trust didn’t apply for the grant, given that the application would have been a major effort to do, and since it was a stretch to shoehorn Pier 40 into the transportation category.

“We would have been going up against port authorities, like Los Angeles and Boston,” Doyle noted. 

The Trust made some earlier applications for stimulus funds, but these haven’t netted anything yet, Doyle said, adding that competition for these monies is fierce.

“We’re now looking at ‘green’ ideas,” she said of Pier 40. “If it’s ‘green,’ maybe that will make it attractive to get a grant.”

Doyle agreed with Fishman that now is a time to get ideas on Pier 40.

“With economic disarray — it’s a time for creative thinking,” she said. Borrowing from Eastern wisdom, she noted, “The Chinese symbol for ‘opportunity’ is ‘chaos.’”

1990 report recalled
Arthur Schwartz, head of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and also of the recently reconstituted Pier 40 Working Group, said residential use on Pier 40 would never fly.

“That will create huge opposition,” he told The Villager. “That was a proposal for Pier 40 back in the late 1980s or early ’90s,” he said, recalling there was a report on it.

Currently the president of New York Water Taxi, Tom Fox was a member of the West Side Waterfront Panel, which created that 1990 report. He still has a copy of it, kept among what he called his “70 boxes” of Hudson River Park-related material in his office out in Red Hook, Brooklyn. 

Called “A Vision for the Hudson River Waterfront Park,” the document essentially laid out the “bare bones” of what would one day become the Hudson River Park, Fox recalled.

Indeed, the part of the report on the park’s Greenwich Village section did offer a proposal for housing at Pier 40 — though Fox personally did not support that concept, preferring recreational use. The so-called “highest density option” called for 1,500 residential units on the pier, with the structure rising 85 feet high in some areas.

“I don’t think it makes any sense at all,” Fox said of having people living on the pier, calling it “privatizing of the river.” 

“People don’t want people playing in their front yard,” he explained. “If you have an office building, hotel or residential, you don’t want people playing on your front lawn. The waterfront is precious and should be kept for the public.”

Recreation not profitable
On the other hand, Fox said of Pier 40’s current focus on sports uses, “The problem with recreation is it’s not a big moneymaker.” 

Of Pier 40’s other main use, he added, “You can’t underestimate the demand for parking.”

Fox — who from 1992-’95 was president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the Trust’s predecessor — and the Friends of Hudson River Park, of which Fox is a board member, are still pushing their plan for a business improvement district-like body to raise funds for the park. The BID would assess a small annual tax on property owners bordering the park between Chambers and W. 59th Sts.

Despite the rough reception the Friends of the High Line received for its proposed High Line Improvement District, which led to that park group shelving the idea, Fox is still bullish on a Hudson River Park funding district.

“It’s moving along,” Fox said. “We’re meeting with the property owners, elected officials. Slow and steady wins the race.”

Tobi Bergman, president of P3, a nonprofit group based on Pier 40 that runs baseball clinics and promotes sports uses of the waterfront, said he agrees with the idea of looking into the viability of any and all uses for Pier 40. The focus right now should be to brainstorm and investigate all options, he said, and to avoid knee-jerk condemnations of possible concepts before all their pros and cons have been fully assessed.

‘Avoid entertainment’
Bergman, for one, said residential might be a use that could work, since it brings in money for the pier but with a relatively low impact in terms of people going to and from the pier, when compared with entertainment uses, such as a London Eye-type Ferris wheel, movie theaters or restaurants, for example. And some people might not mind having ball fields on one side of their homes, if they have “spectacular views” of the river on the other side, he added.

“What I think would create opposition no matter what is high-intensity use that brings a lot of people crossing the bike path,” Bergman said. “I think an entertainment- and a tourism-based approach to the pier is problematic.”

Bergman said he didn’t see why residential use of part of the pier is any more a privatization of the space than some of the commercial uses currently leasing space on the pier, such as a sign-making company on its second floor.

Also, to address Pier 40’s immediate problem — its roof — Bergman recommended that the Trust stop building out new sections of the park, and instead redirect those funds to fixing the pier’s roof.

“They have to drop the idea that they can’t put money into Pier 40,” Bergman said of the Trust. “The pier is deteriorating, which is also reducing the revenue the pier is providing for the park. That’s the first priority — fix that roof.”

Under the park act, space equivalent to 50 percent of Pier 40’s footprint must be open, public-use space — which can include active recreation, like sports — while the rest of the pier can be developed commercially. Bergman and local parents would like to see the pier’s sports uses actually increase, if feasible.

“The challenge is how is it possible to keep the good stuff — and expand the good stuff?” he said. “That’s not easy.” 

A London Eye, on the other hand, would change the neighborhood, Bergman said, bringing with it things local families and youth sports leagues that use the pier don’t want, like “boat rides, restaurants and clubs,” he noted.

One thing is for sure: Whatever does happen at Pier 40, it won’t be done overnight. With all the reviews, vetting and approvals that are needed, after a plan is decided on, it could take a few years to be put into effect.

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