By Arthur Z. Schwartz
On October 22, we all opened The New York Times and found out what only a select few knew up to that point. Two possible scenarios are on the table for the St John’s building, the massive, hulking structure sitting across the street from Pier 40 (which, if you don’t know, is at the foot of West Houston Street). One would see a 48-story hotel built “as of right,” and the other a massive development of apartments, perhaps 15-20 stories tall, with 1,586 residential units. It is not clear whether it will be all rentals, or a portion rentals and a portion condos, but what is clear is that 30% of those apartments will be “affordable.”
According to the Mayor’s Office, that will include moderate income, low income and senior housing. In return for getting the zoning changes they need, the developers would “buy Pier 40’s air rights” for $100 million (which would be used only to repair Pier 40), commit to a perpetual contribution to the Hudson River Park, and would open up the tunnel-like end of West Houston Street by creating a publicly accessible garden which light can filter through.
Let me get one thing out of the way first. Once upon a time everything related to Pier 40 was open and transparent. In fact, everything related to the Park was open and transparent. Then around December 2013–January 2014 we heard about a secret deal involving St. John’s and Pier 40. We heard about it only because someone blabbed to the Times. The public outcry led to its demise.
Not long thereafter we heard about an even bigger secret deal, the one to build “Pier 55,” just north of 14th Street. Intricate plans had been negotiated for a year or more with entertainment millionaire Barry Diller to build, with over $100 million of his own money, an island for the performing arts. We were told that if the negotiations had been made public, the deal would not have come to fruition. Now, as the deal goes through a public review process involving the Army Corps of Engineers, with very limited public input, only a few cosmetic details will change. (It may still be killed in court.) The Hudson River Park Trust once again withstood a barrage of criticism for the secrecy, but has forged ahead.
This St. John’s deal had a little more input. Council Member Corey Johnson played a major role in negotiations, as did CB2 Chair Tobi Bergman and possibly other CB2 leaders, but the plan has been shaped, thus far, by a small group. I actually think that public projects can be shaped with public input and knowledge, and that having a community learn about a major development through the morning newspaper is not a way to build genuine community support.
That being said, the “Affordable Apartment Plan” (my name) looks to me like a winner, but it is likely to come under attack. Notice that other local elected officials, most especially Assembly Member Deborah Glick, have not signed on to the plan, and do not appear to have been part of the negotiations, which centered around the application of City zoning laws. But the lack of a supportive announcement about the plan from Glick could foretell a public fight.
One key player in the plan is Mayor de Blasio, and a second is City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod, who not long ago was heading up an effort to figure out how to get more funding for Hudson River Park. Those are important friends to have, in part because they have a major role in the final decision, but also because the Mayor wants to be re-elected and wants us voters to be happy. So we have to look at this plan, figure out why it is good, and then figure out how to make it better. And we have been promised that the ULURP process (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), which sees zoning changes move from Community Board Hearings, to City Planning Commission Hearings, to City Council hearings and debate, will be open to genuine community input, unlike so many other ULURP proceedings (like those about the St. Vincent’s Hospital site).
First, it is great because it will pump $100 million into Pier 40, a key to the recreational needs of Westsiders—young and old—from Midtown to Battery Park. The Pier is deteriorating and Governor Cuomo seems to have no interest in putting State funds into it. Perhaps this money will also save the Hudson River Park Trust from ever having to turn to the private sector to make Pier 40 work. But that’s a big perhaps, and we have seen some horrific proposals for the pier come out of the private sector because the Trust wants to make a huge amount of money from the Pier 40 operation. Those efforts have failed a number of times since 2003. So Community Demand Numbers One and Two need to be that there be genuine public input into shaping the Pier’s future, and that those plans not be centered around commercial uses or developers who will generate large profits for the Park.
Second, we need to make sure that this doesn’t become the beginning of a South Village real estate boom, which envelopes the existing historic district just to the east. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has had an application pending for years to landmark the whole South Village. That needs to be accomplished as part of this deal. Not only will it prevent the destruction of buildings east of Greenwich Street and north of Houston, it will preserve existing affordable housing stock which will become more vulnerable as the St. John’s development comes to fruition.
Third, it is great that there will be “affordable” housing in the Village, something that has largely disappeared, and even better that there will be “senior” housing. Linked together with West Village Houses, which still remains largely affordable, the far west side of the Village could provide an oasis of middle class living lacking west of 1st Avenue.
But how will those people eat, clean their clothes, and where will they send their kids to school? Community Demand Three has to be for space made available at reasonable rents to an “affordable” grocery chain (like Trader Joes or Fairway), the provision of reasonable rental spaces for amenities like a cleaners, a shoe repair shop, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a bakery, a pizzeria, and some fair priced eateries.
Demand Four has to be for additional elementary school classroom space. The 1500 apartments at St John’s will generate a lot of kids who won’t be able to pay $44,000 per year to attend Village Community School, Little Red or Avenues. And there needs to be subsidized nursery school space and a new elementary school (since PS 3 and PS 41 are exploding, each with waiting lists for pre-k and kindergarten).
Demand Five has to be for a health care facility. We won’t get a hospital out of this deal (but why not on Pier 40?) but there will need to be an “affordable” place for folks to see a doctor, a dentist, and an optometrist. At least a large Managed Care facility which takes all sorts of insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare, and which specializes in signing children up for Children’s Health Plus.
Demand Six? How about the long desired Gay and Lesbian Youth Center being sited on Pier 40, now that the Pier has money. As long ago as 2003, a Pier 40 Working Group I chaired recommended that such a Center be created on the Pier, as an alternative to gay and lesbian youth wandering up and down Christopher Street.
And Demand Seven needs to be the creation of the long-promised dog run on the water tunnel lot at Clarkson and Hudson, a sliver of land which is not particularly amenable to “affordable housing,” and which now is no longer needed. West Village dog owners have waited a decade for that site to be made available. It is an ideal spot, and will serve the hundreds of dog owners who will move to the St. John’s housing only two blocks away.
Neighbors, we need to unite behind this plan, whether it is to keep your child playing soccer at Pier 40, to restore some economic balance to our community (perhaps even some racial balance,) to bring some affordable stores back to the West Village, and to expand educational options for parents who make less than $250,000 per year. Do not let the nay-sayers have their day. But tell the Mayor and the City Planning Commission that there are things that need to be done to make this work and to restore some semblance of economic sanity to the West Village. Someone is going to make a lot of money out of this, and we need to get everything we can as a community!
Watch for Community Board 2 Hearings, coming to some public space soon!
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader for the Village.