At meeting, pier housing idea is in eye of the storm
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | More than 250 people packed St. Paul’s Chapel near City Hall last Thursday to hear Hudson River Park Trust President Madelyn Wils present a recent study’s finding that market-rate residential housing on Pier 40 could offer the best hope for saving both the cash-starved park and the crumbling pier within it. Housing would raise the most revenue for the park while offering the least traffic impact, according to the study.
However, to allow residential use, the Hudson River Park Act would need to be modified by the state Legislature, whose current session ends soon, on June 21.
At the meeting’s outset, Arthur Schwartz, head of the task force that has been studying how to improve the park’s finances, explained the pessimistic picture. The park is only 70 percent finished, and needs more than $200 million to complete the job — not counting Pier 40, at W. Houston St., which is expected to be redeveloped by a private group that would pay rent to the park, and Pier 57, at W. 17th St., which also will be redeveloped privately, but doesn’t have Pier 40’s revenue-generating potential, since it’s smaller.
“The park’s capital needs are outstripping the park’s revenues,” Schwartz said, “the biggest problem being at Pier 40, where $9 million is going into repairs this year just to keep the roof from collapsing. It’s in a general climate where government funding for parks has fallen off.”
Hudson River Park is intended to be financially self-sustaining, at least in terms of its operations and maintenance. The current parking at Pier 40 has been the park’s main economic engine. Meanwhile, the 14.5-acre pier is also home to a sprawling courtyard ball field heavily used by youth sports leagues, plus teams from Stuyvesant High School and other schools.
Over the next 10 years, the park is expected to bring in $200 million in revenue but have expenses of $280 million — a deficit of at least $80 million. Pier 40 needs about $100 million in repairs.
Opponents of the proposed Spectra pipeline at Gansevoort Peninsula also made their presence known, though the meeting wasn’t about that issue. As Wils began to speak, a banner reading “Keep Your Fracking Pipeline” was unfurled from the chapel’s upstairs gallery.
Wils said the park faces unique problems. For example, marine borers have been chewing the piles at Pier 54, at W. 13th St., forcing the Trust to close off most of its main event pier.
“Times have changed,” Wils said. “We now have these marine borers that eat the wood because the river is cleaner. Hudson River Park is the first park to be built in the river.”
Pier 40 has metal pilings, many of which are badly corroded and need to be encapsulated in concrete.
Like others who spoke at the meeting, Wils said a proposed “park improvement district” extending a few blocks inland that would raise revenue for Hudson River Park is warranted, given the 5-mile-long park’s impact on property values.
“The park has brought people over to the West Side,” she said. “All that development of property down the West Side is now the ‘Gold Coast’ — 94 new buildings, it’s quite extraordinary.”
A PowerPoint presentation of the study’s scenarios was given — including some massing studies, showing generally how residential buildings could be situated on Pier 40 while preserving the sports fields.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the first person from the audience to speak at the microphone, said she appreciated the Trust letting the public in on the process and showing the massing studies. However, she stressed, it was never the park act’s intention for the Trust to have to finance the park’s construction.
Furthermore, with climate change and rising sea levels, luxury rental apartments on Pier 40 would be “putting the city and state on the hook for lawsuits for half-done developments damaged in a storm that will need bailouts,” she said to cheers from the audience. Glick indicated she backs a park improvement district, which would assess a small tax on nearby property owners.
Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, the second speaker, said that when he was crafting the park’s legislation in the mid-1990s, the hope was that the park would get $400 million for its construction. But while the park has gotten about $350 million in government funding so far, it now needs another $200 million to finish the job. The main fear before was that the park would be “a 5-mile wall of buildings like Co-op City in the Bronx,” he said. But the park that has emerged has been “extraordinarily successful,” and what’s there now — benches, trees, pathways — blocks any future development of buildings, he assured.
Gottfried zeroed in on Pier 40 and Pier 76 — the latter currently used as the Police Department tow pound at W. 36th St. — calling them the park’s “two big ugly monsters.” Both piers block people’s views to the water, he noted.
“A parking garage and a tow pound — I don’t think either one of these belongs in Hudson River Park,” he said, to some hisses from the crowd.
Gottfried said if the park act is changed, there is still a planning process, including ULURP, which would allow communities to have input on decisions affecting the park’s future, “so that things the community values could replace those two monsters.”
Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, noted the city recently announced it was giving $260 million to spruce up Governors Island while the East River esplanade is getting $30 million.
“We as West Siders have to ask, Where is the money for our park?” he asked, drawing cheers. “We’re talking about maintenance — but let’s finish the park,” he said. “Before we open up the park act…city and state government must be made aware that the West Side of Manhattan deserves a park that is completed.”
Similarly, Corey Johnson, chairperson of C.B. 4, said, “The city and state need to step up and complete the funding of the park. Governors Island is used five months a year. Hudson River Park is used 365 days a year.” However, he added, “Let’s look at opening up the act in a smart way that doesn’t hurt the park.”
Paul Gallay, president of the environmental group Riverkeeper, said, “The park act says, ‘The state and the city will put money into the park as necessary.’ Clearly, it’s necessary.” He supported a park improvement district.
John Doswell, who founded Friends of Hudson River Park as the park’s main advocacy group, said of the grim financial picture, “This was not manufactured. … It will become a crisis, and we need to decide what to do. Eighty percent of the park is free and open to the public. It’s supported by the other 20 percent. It doesn’t get paid for magically.”
Tobi Bergman, president of P3, a commercial youth sports group at Pier 40, noted community opposition sunk two past requests for proposals (R.F.P.’s) for Pier 40. He said the permissible uses must be expanded beyond big-box stores or “Las Vegas on the Hudson”-type extravaganzas.
“We rejected retail the first time around,” Bergman said. “We rejected entertainment the second time around. We rejected everything that’s legal. We have to open up the act to get more ideas.”
Andrew Scruton of Downtown United Soccer Club said, “Our home field is Pier 40. We think options are needed. We support the Trust seeking options, searching for solutions.”
Marcy Benstock, director of the Clean Air Campaign, who battled Westway in the 1980s, which was sunk because of its potential impact on striped bass, also spoke.
“We strongly oppose opening up the Hudson River Park Act in this session,” she said. Like Glick, Benstock said the pier is a bad spot for housing since it’s battered by powerful winds and corrosive tides. She added that housing would also “destroy fisheries.”
Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates told the Trust representatives, “You said that operating expenses exceeded revenues — that’s exactly what a public park is supposed to do.”
No legislative changes will get passed if Glick opposes them, particularly concerning Pier 40, which is in her district. Some proposed changes to the park act are less contentious, such as the Trust moving up its southern border to Chambers St. so that it doesn’t have to pay for the maintenance of an inland park strip along the bike path south of there. In addition, the Trust wants to get any future commercial revenue from Pier 76, which is in Gottfried’s district — whereas the park act currently says the city would get this money.
This Tuesday, reached in Albany during a break in session, Glick said, “the spirit of the law” of the park act requires a more formal public hearing with 30 days’ notice before major changes affecting the park. Some of the Trust’s proposed changes are “minor” and might not require a hearing, she said, but major changes would need more public input.
Asked if the Trust’s desire to get bonding authority, for example, was minor, she replied, “No, no, no — that is a major change — as are terms,” referring to extending the permitted lease terms for Pier 40 and other “commercial nodes” in the park beyond the current 30 years.
As for whether allowing residential use was a major change, Glick said, “Of course,” before saying she had to get off the phone and head back into session.
The Spectra pipeline at Gansevoort, according to Glick, would only need an easement to pass 4 feet under the park, not a legislative change.