Hudson River Park’s crisis presents an opportunity
BY TOBI BERGMAN | The ball fields at Pier 40 are essential and irreplaceable infrastructure for our neighborhoods. The quality of this use cannot be allowed to diminish as a result of commercial development of the pier, but we also cannot ignore the deterioration of the pier and the risks that it poses: to our families, to our neighborhood and to the Hudson River Park. We need to be deeply committed to securing the pier’s future.
Fourteen years ago, our elected representatives came together to support a compromise called the Hudson River Park Act. The act allowed for limited commercial development to support park maintenance and it committed the city and state to covering the costs of building the waterfront park. From families with children who play sports to runners, cyclists, skaters, strollers, sunbathers, boaters, lovers, infants in strollers, centenarians, tourists…the city as a whole has been well served by the development of the park so far.
But now the park project is in trouble.
At least $250 million will be needed over the next eight years to complete the park project, with 8 more acres of park, not counting Pier 40, still to be built in the Greenwich Village section alone. But the city and state have reduced their annual funding commitments, delaying completion of the park and compromising the park’s mission. At the same time, income generated in Hudson River Park, already insufficient to maintain the park as its area and visitation grow, is in jeopardy. Pier 40, once the park’s major source of income, is now a financial burden, with diminished income and a roof requiring repairs that is draining the Trust’s reserve fund. The millions that will be needed each year for many years to repair and protect Pier 40’s support piles are unavailable. Without knowing whether it will happen in two years or 10, we do know that each year of neglect brings the loss of our fields one year closer.
The park’s financial needs can be met while the park continues to improve. Commercial development at Pier 40 can be an important part of the solution, but only if many developers are drawn to compete on a level playing field to offer good alternatives to choose from. Three things currently stand in the way:
First, residential, office and hotel uses are the bread, butter and jam of New York real estate development, but these and other potential uses are prohibited by the park act. Developers responding to two separate requests for proposals (R.F.P.’s) in 2003 and 2007 could only propose retail and entertainment megaprojects. Youth sports groups led community opposition to these proposals, which relegated recreation to rooftops and brought unacceptable impacts to the park and nearby neighborhoods. Well-planned projects with uses currently illegal under the park act would bring more income with a smaller development footprint and less traffic than retail or entertainment, more likelihood of uncommercialized waterfront access and ground-level fields, and a better chance to keep some fields open during construction. The park act needs to be changed to allow viable uses for projects that increase and improve public open space, access to the waterfront and community resources at the pier.
The second obstacle is that the park act limits lease terms to 30 years. A development of this size, other than a big-box store, cannot be financed on a 30-year lease. Developers know that if their project is selected they will still need to amend the park’s legislation. While the existing provision may give the community a way to stop a bad project, it also reduces the interest among potential developers and limits the number and quality of bids. The lease-term restriction should be lifted for projects that increase and improve public open space, access to the waterfront and community resources at the pier.
The third impediment is that, at 15-plus acres, Pier 40 is the single best opportunity for waterfront open space in the whole park. But the act allows commercial development of the entire pier’s footprint, requiring only that — however the project is configured — there be public open space “equivalent to 50 percent of the footprint of the pier.” At the same time, while the act does not specifically prohibit public funding at Pier 40, the Trust has sought to include the construction of public open space as part of the commercial development of the pier. This framework for park and commercial development is a mistake. The park becomes a burden for the project instead of an asset. The best riverside areas are used to attract tens of thousands of one-time visitors to a complex that is incompatible with the park, and park use is shifted to the roof, where it loses its public character. Developers are burdened with large extraneous costs, reducing their interest in the project and ultimately driving down long-term lease income to the park. Future R.F.P.’s need to anticipate public funding for the park areas of Pier 40 in exchange for reduction of the commercial footprint and higher annual income to Hudson River Park. The city and the state, as part of an agreement to change the park act, need to recommit to fully fund completion of the entire park, including funding for the park portions of Pier 40.
The Hudson River Park Trust has scheduled a public meeting on Thurs., May 31, to discuss the serious problems facing the park. Please consider taking the time to come: to listen, to ask, to speak — and to become part of a stronger community with a more secure future for our waterfront park. The crisis the park faces offers the opportunity for the Trust and our elected representatives to achieve needed changes to the park act in the context of recommitment to public funding of the park project.
Major League Soccer has asked for a stadium to be considered as a potential use for Pier 40. It is likely this project will eventually be rejected for the same kinds of reasons that the West Side Stadium for the Jets was rejected. For example, 25,000 fans leaving Pier 40 simultaneously would be a burden on our neighbors who live nearby. A professional sports team in the park also entails certain risks to community use of the ball fields and to waterfront access at the pier. If there are changes to the act to allow this use, the result must not reduce the availability of field time for public use or allow private control or commercial use of any fields. The definition in the park act of “public and passive open spaces” should not be amended to include “predominantly publicly accessible commercial athletic fields,” as MLS proposes. Use of public fields by MLS and its affiliates, including nonprofit groups with funding from MLS, should not be allowed. Government funding in the park should be for the park; it should not be diverted to transportation infrastructure needed only for a stadium. The worst outcome of current efforts to amend the Hudson River Park Act would be to open Pier 40 for stadium use without also opening the act for competing proposals for other kinds of projects, creating the prospect of a request for proposals with a single, unlikely-to-succeed response.
Bergman is president of Pier Park & Playground Association (P3) and chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee. He is a board member emeritus and former president of Greenwich Village Little League.