By Michael Gruen
Opinions vary as to whether Pier 55 (a.k.a. Diller Island) is a desirable project. Does it benefit the public, and if so, do the benefits outweigh the harms? Many of us at The City Club of New York (City Club) have strong, negative feelings about the design and location of Pier 55.
However, something different has motivated the City Club to become involved as an organization. Primarily, we have objected to processes that cut corners, minimize public participation, brush aside environmental impacts (e.g., interference with views and recreational boating), and fail to provide full transparency. Although these concerns may sound abstract, they are actually essential for creating a project that is truly responsive to the public interest.
The City Club has also objected to financial and operating provisions that could impair public access to the site by, for example, barring access during private fundraising affairs, or charging access fees for performances at a level which would preclude much of the public from attending. We have also objected to financial arrangements that give the Hudson River Park Trust (Park Trust) insufficient assurance that it will actually receive more than the annual $1.00 rent provided for in the lease.
Ultimately, our concern about process was vindicated by the decision of the Manhattan Federal District Court in March 2017, which voided the Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) permit for construction. The Court did this on process grounds. It ruled that the Corps had failed to recognize that the entire water area of the Hudson River Park (Park) is designated by the State as an “estuarine sanctuary”—an area intended to be managed primarily for the protection of fish and wildlife, and other conservation purposes. The Court ruled that the Corps, consequently, did not recognize that the water area of the Park is a “special aquatic site” under the Clean Water Act. This status requires exceptional effort to avoid permitting the project in the water if land sites are available (even though the design may have to change).
Following the March decision, the Park Trust quickly changed the construction method to avoid the Clean Water Act, and the Corps issued a revised permit. We believe that this approach to evading the high sensitivity to environmental damage contemplated by the site’s status as part of an “estuarine sanctuary” and “special aquatic site” will again fail. But that is yet to be confirmed.
Michael Gruen is the President of The City Club of New York—an independent nonprofit devoted to civic advocacy. Its members have advocated for New Yorkers on various issues including preventing the construction of a shopping mall in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and downsizing the up-zoning of East Midtown.