Can Douglas Durst and Sports Leagues Work It Out Before Pier 40 Sinks?
The advent of the New Year brings a new session of the legislature and new jockeying about the future of Hudson River Park is likely to be on the agenda, probably right after the budget is passed in April.
Although the legislature is the place where the Hudson River Park Act will have to be tweaked in order for any park plan to work, the puzzle pieces are being moved around here in NYC in a number of forums.
There are important pieces, some of which involve Pier 40 at West Houston Street and some of which don’t. They all have to work for the Park to be on a firm footing, since it is pie in the sky to believe that during this post-Hurricane Sandy age of political scarcity, Governor Cuomo will put Hudson River operating funds into the State budget.
The City is also a player, big time. When the Park was built, the passenger ship terminals were carved out of the Park. Some of the terminal revenue was supposed to go into the Park but hasn’t for many years. A deal could either restore the terminals or the money to the Park. Similarly, Pier 76, where towed cars are stored, is City controlled. It could be a revenue generator for the Park, sitting right across from the Javits Center and just up-river from Hudson Yards and the new No. 7 train stop, the new mega-development which is about to get underway, with thousands of apartments and lots of commercial space. The City, which knows that Hudson River Park increases property values and brings in higher real estate taxes, wants the Park to survive, but wants State Legislature to give its share.
One share would be greater capital contributions. The City, which only has to match the State, has been ready to give tens of millions in recent years, but the State has been stingy. That has to end. Furthermore, Pier 40 has to be put to maximal use.
There are two concept proposals on the table, both of which would require legislative changes. They have been showcased at recent meetings of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council (the community board for the Park) and the Hudson River Park Task Force (a smaller body selected by the Trust President, which includes all local elected officials).
- One proposal, thought up by developer Douglas Durst and parking lot magnate Ben Korman, involves reuse of the current Pier 40 structure, with the fields still at the center, but raised up to the second level. Below that level would be parking, plus retail (both food and shops which would face the bikeway, walkway) and ringing the field would be commercial office space. According to Durst and Korman, the project would take three years to build, could generate $10 million per year in income to the Park, increase recreational space, pay the debt service on the construction, and still return a 9.4% annual profit to the developer.
The second proposal, by the Village/Chelsea and Tribeca/Downtown youth sports leagues, calling themselves Pier 40 Champions (which has a Facebook site) has two parts. The first also involves adaptive reuse of the existing structure. This proposal, however, would only leave the north and south parts of the existing square building (which now has a square “donut hole” in the center) so that one could see the river from the bikeway/walkway when in the center of the building. There would be parking in the building to the south and commercial office space in the building to the north (or vice versa). A ¼ mile long running track would ring the interior side at the second floor. This plan would greatly increase the recreational field space.
- There is, however, a second component, because the Champions (with support of the Trust officials) don’t believe that the income from the Pier structure will pay the debt service on the construction, pay the park the $10 million per year that it needs in rent, and make the return on investment that would attract a developer. So, they propose building rental apartment towers in the space between Pier 40 and the West Side Highway (also known as Route 9a). They argue that the towers will only block the sightlines from the warehouse to the east of Pier 40 known as the St. John’s Building, and that it will be no more offensive than Morton Square or the Richard Meier glass towers at Perry and Charles Streets.
In presenting his proposal, Douglas Durst doesn’t argue that apartment towers are “wrong” or morally reprehensible. He simply asserts that his numbers show that they are unnecessary. The Champions believe that the cost of renovating the Pier will be greater than Durst does and have a less optimistic view of the revenue potential for the parking and the office space.
However, what some, like Trust Board member Paul Ullman seem to be saying, are that the two plans are really not contradictory. He says that if everything was made legal by the legislature (right now housing in the Park is not allowed and the 50 year lease Durst would want is not allowed) actual developers would step forward with numbers that they would live or die by. They could put forward those numbers in a real competition that would not be theoretical – because the winner would have to build and live with his/her proposal. It is the only way to see if the numbers work.
Hudson River Park Trust President Madelyn Wills points to the fact that under the current legislation, which allows parking, retail, and park related office space only, no one has made a proposal for Pier 40 which didn’t include big-box stores (Durst made such a proposal in 2002) or mega entertainment (an aquarium in 2002 and Cirque De Soleil/Tribeca Film Festival in 2005). With that in mind, she argues, it is hard to imagine someone making a proposal for the Pier reconstruction alone without one of those high impact uses.
Yet maybe the market for commercial office space (which the legislature would have to legalize for Pier 40) is intense enough these days to eliminate the need for residential construction. We won’t know until someone does a proper proposal and tries to line up potential tenants.
Broadening the uses – meaning legitimizing commercial office uses and residential rentals – so as to draw out the best proposals from the business world may be appropriate, so long as a measure of community control is created through the legislation as well. This sort of mechanism killed the Jets Stadium at Hudson Yards after it had gone through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure successfully. We are a community which was burned by the lack of input at the St. Vincent’s site, and by the lack of input at the NYU “campus.” We can try everything on, but we shouldn’t get fooled again.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the current Chair of the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council and the State Democratic Committee member for Greenwich Village, SoHo, Tribeca and Northern Battery Park City.