By Barry Benepe
“Save the pier,” pleaded a group urging the City Council to save Pier 40 with its hulking four-story 3500-space parking garage enclosing a hidden soccer field.
“Don’t sell the Hudson River only to build towers on its edge,” pleaded others on the other side of the aisle.
At the core of the conflict is the passage of a little-understood provision of an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act, allowing for the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). The amendment was passed by the State Legislature in 2013, under considerable pressure from the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) to provide a financial nest egg for the repair of its piers and bulkhead.
As Madelyn Wils, President and CEO of the Trust, said, “We are left with the awesome responsibility of protecting four miles of West Side Manhattan from falling into the river.”
To better understand development or air rights, we must understand what zoning—i.e., the control of uses and bulk on private property—is intended for. The uses permitted in the Hudson River Park—mostly land under water in an M2-3 zoning district—include piers on piles intended for docking ships. One is now being proposed at the foot of Little West 12th Street at a newly-numbered Pier 55. It is intended for recreation and entertainment, but not shipping.
Most buildings are controlled by a maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR), the ratio of built floor area to the area of the lot on which the building sits. The maximum FAR set by the City Council is an arbitrary number meant to create value for the owner and generally reflects building bulk in the affected community; but it can vary widely. The allowable FAR in the Hudson River Park is two. The unbuilt floor area referred to in the State law has not been defined.
When I asked State Senator Brad Hoylman (D) how much “unbuilt floor area” existed in the park, he responded, “The HRPT has been estimating 1.6 million square feet, but I can’t give a firm answer.”
Many speakers at the public hearing, including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, urged that the TDR from the Hudson River Park not be allowed. Evelyn Konrad, a land use and zoning litigator, asked, “Who inside NYC’s government is pushing this project, and who profits?”
The firm answer should come from the City Council. The legislature authorized TDR from the park to off-site upland lots one block east of West Street “to the extent designated and permitted under local law.”
The public should participate in shaping this law based on a comprehensive plan. There should be no more piecemeal spot zoning until we have the entire picture of the whole TDR area. Additionally, the potential impacts on the local communities to the east and on the waterfront park to the west should be clearly articulated.
In short, the NYC Planning Department should begin to plan and not just react to the pressures of the real estate industry.