By Bruce Trigg, MD
A new generation of Robert Moses-style power brokers plan to privatize the last major public space in Lower Manhattan—if we let them. That’s right, they will push for last minute legislation in Albany to amend the Hudson River Park Act to permit the building of 700,000 square feet of commercial office space on Pier 40. And that’s only the most modest of the plans being proposed!
At a sparsely attended neighborhood hearing the day after Memorial Day the draft legislation (unsigned!) was presented to the audience by a panel of elected officials. Assemblymember Deborah Glick, State Senators Brad Hoylman and Brian Kavanagh and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer heard the public testimony. Congressmember Jerrold Nadler and City Council President Corey Johnson were not present. So, why so little apparent interest from the community? Perhaps its proponents wish to avoid public and media scrutiny. The only publicity for the event seemed to be articles in two local newspapers. I didn’t see a single announcement about the meeting in Hudson River Park, nothing was visible around Pier 40, nor anywhere else in the West Village. This is not the way to receive public input and discussion.
The explanation offered for why this amendment is needed is that state legislation passed in 1998 required that Hudson River Park be operated and maintained by revenue generated within the Park. What a strange law. Since when does a public park have to generate it’s own money? What the heck do we pay taxes for? Whatever sense this may have made 1998, it is no longer rational, nor necessary. The west side has been built up over the past 21 years and property tax revenues have greatly expanded. Besides, if the city and state could find $3 billion to give to the richest man in the world ( Bezos and Amazon) and $6 billion to subsidize the Hudson River Yards development, then surely they can come up with the funds necessary to run Hudson River Park. How much can it cost to run the park?
A number of those who spoke at the community meeting were obviously connected to the real estate developers, hedge fund owners, Wall St. bankers and lawyers who control the Hudson River Park Trust authority (HRPT) and their closely linked Hudson River Park Friends. The members of these two organizations’ Boards of Trustees read like an invitation list to a billionaire’s party in the Hamptons. The Mayor and Governor appoint the Trust members so one question is why is it so dominated by Wall Street insiders?
Lower Manhattan doesn’t need more office towers. And certainly not on an ecologically sensitive river, in a major flood zone, and in OUR public park. The unsigned draft legislation that was presented would limit the new office building to 88 ft (the height of the rafters on Pier 40) which will absolutely destroy the magnificent views of lower Manhattan from Pier 45 at the end of Christopher St. Pier 45 is used by many thousands of local residents and visitors. And this is just their minimal plan. It seems likely that the unknown authors of this legislation will likely be pressured to compromise on the 88 foot height restriction and will go even higher. The westside building boom free-for-all has already destroyed the stunning views from the High Line in Chelsea. The Hudson Railyards that could have provided affordable housing for thousands have been turned into an ugly luxury shopping mall and housing complex for the uber-rich. Enough! We must protect what’s left of our diminishing land, public parks, riverviews and quality of life.
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to figure out who is behind this bizarre scheme. Google and their parent company Alphabet are already spending $1 billion on developing a lower Manhattan campus in the old St. John’s Building on Houston St. This campus is directly across the street from Pier 40. Google’s actions in Chelsea tell us what to expect in the Village. First Google occupied the largest office space in the city; on 9th Ave. Then they bought the Chelsea Market building across the street to expand their office space. And then they purchased space on Pier 57. Google apparently craves river views for their executives and the fact that the Park and its Piers are owned by the public is not going to stand in their way.
Pier 40 is an old and rather ugly industrial building that was built in the 1960’s on the waterfront. Now it contains large playing fields that are used day and night, a huge income generating parking garage and docking space for tour boats and ferries, a kayak program, sailing classes and so forth. Using a pier that is part of a public park for parking cars is bizarre and also contradicts the City and State’s efforts to decrease driving in Manhattan. It needs to go. The space taken up for parked cars can be used to expand sport fields. Let the community decide democratically how to use the rest of the pier. There could be a farmer’s market, a food market, like Essex Street, and small locally owned shops, restaurants, cafes, food stalls, bars, music venues, art studios and workshops, centers for senior citizens and children. This is what a public park should be used for.
Local environmental leaders from Friends of the Earth and the Clean Air Campaign spoke at the hearing urging more protection for the river and its fisheries habitats. They highlighted the risk from the inevitable next major hurricane to the thousands of people who would be employed in the proposed offices. Both organizations oppose the proposed legislation.
A new generation of citizen activists must learn to channel the wisdom and courage of Jane Jacobs and our Village foremothers and forefathers who defeated the power brokers of the past. We can save Pier 40 and work to improve the quality of life for the many. Stay tuned.
It is urgent that concerned citizens contact: Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, City Council President Corey Johnson, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senators Brad Hoylman and Brian Kavanagh, Mayor Bill De Blasio, and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
They need to hear from us to let them know that the word is getting out. Tell them to stop privatizing our public treasures. The voters will remember what they do.