By Barry Benepe
Addressing a public meeting held by Community Board 2 on June 6, Madelyn Wils, CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust stated, “We need to make Pier 40 more park-like.” These were indeed welcome words. Pier 40 is not a park by any stretch of the imagination. It is a four level commercial parking garage (Indoor Level 1, Indoor Level 2, Mezzanine and Roof with a capacity for 3500 cars, a use prohibited elsewhere in the park, as well as innumerable trucks, cars and other mechanical equipment operated by the Trust at many levels). In addition, the building platform contains the indoor River Project, Village Community Boathouse, Pier Playground, Revolution Graphics, a commercial firm, the Pier 40 lobby, offices and waiting room for the Hornblower riverboats shared with the outdoor 3.8 acre hidden and fenced Courtyard Athletic Fields. On the second floor are administration offices for the Trust and its consultants, CH2M Hill, the River Project, Route 9A Field Office, toilet rooms, Operations and Maintenance and other miscellaneous uses, some vacant. Pier 40 could indeed be more “park-like.” Ms. Wils suggested removing the head house, possibly opening up a view corridor down West Houston Street to the water as required by the Waterfront Zoning Law. Such a move would bring the pier more into conformity with the Hudson River Park Act, which states that, “no less than the equivalent of 50% of the footprint of the pier shall be passive and active public open space.” It is less than 25% now. There is not one tree, shrub, flower or blade of grass in this “park”. It is a virtual four-block long 60-foot high wall blocking all views of the waterfront. Some “park”!
The Hudson River Park Act allows the Trust to sell fictitious, but legal, amounts of “unused” development or “air” rights to raise money for capital improvements to the 4-mile long park, “to the extent designated and permitted under local zoning ordinances”. Not one state legislator that I spoke to after this provision was passed under the sponsorship of assembly member Dick Gottfried at the last midnight minute, June 16, 2013, knew where and how many of these “unused” air rights there were. City Planning Department spokesperson, Mike Marvilli, didn’t know either and directed me to the Trust. The Municipal Arts Society, which has mapped unused air rights throughout the city, did not know. The Community Board does not know. The Planning Department has not yet provided the text of the zoning ordinance permitting this transfer. My own calculation shows that Pier 40 contains around 1.5 million sf of floor area on a platform permitting around 1.3 msf. Yet the Trust says it has 0.2 msf to sell to St. John’s Center at 550 Washington Street across West Street, whose permitted maximum floor area ratio has crept up from 4 to 8.7, with a complex of telescoping towers reaching up to 480 feet high, three times higher than the Richard Meier buildings to the north.
There is a better solution. The trust could sell all its rights, move the income producing parking and its administrative offices onto the St. John site, and create a true green open 15-acre park built upon the newly reinforced 3500 piles along with a boathouse for the much loved Village Community Boat Club and river boat Hornblower, as well as a landing for the water taxi. The St. John’s Center could bridge over West Street across its upper level park to the new Pier 40 Park, playing fields and boat landings. There would be enough left from the $650 million sale to begin completion of the park and promenade all the way to 59th Street where there is now only a 5 foot wide sidewalk. What a magnificent possibility! Then this poorly conceived method of self-supporting park improvements and maintenance should be shifted to a municipal budget, like all other parks in the city.