Sellout at Pier 40 and St. John’s Terminal!

By Arthur Schwartz

An eight-story (or higher) office tower on Pier 40? A million-square-foot Google hub across the street? In case you blinked, that’s what the West Village is in for at the western border of West Houston Street. And what are our elected leaders doing about it? NOTHING?

First, some background. Back in 1996 there was no Hudson River Park. Pier 40, which had once been a major cruise ship terminal, had become one big parking lot with buses parked in its squared-off center courtyard. I was a Little League team manager and Greenwich Village Democratic District Leader. Several of the other parents (some, in the Downtown United Soccer Club) came up with the idea of building a ball field in the center courtyard. We got an appointment in Albany with an aide to Governor Pataki and walked out of the meeting with a promise to give us the courtyard if we could raise money for a field.

Ecstatic, we went to work to raise the money. A month or so later we got a call from a “mole” at the Hudson River Park Conservancy about Pier 40 being leased to a parking lot operator. We went to court, sued the governor, and won. We settled for a rooftop field which would be built at government expense.

Flash forward a year later. The Hudson River Park Act is being debated. Assembly Member Deborah Glick is an opponent. The bill, which creates a park, allows no commercial activity at Pier 40, except for parking—and bans it from the courtyard after 2003. Glick votes “No,” but the bill passes. Glick says it will lead to commercial development along the river, which she opposes. Park construction begins in 1998.

In 2003 the Greenwich Village section of the Hudson River Park opens. The Hudson River Park Trust has no law-conforming use for the Pier 40 courtyard, and in settlement of a second lawsuit they agree to build ball fields in the center courtyard. A major public youth and adult athletic center has been created! With no help from politicians.

In 2005, an RFP (request for proposal) brings in numerous proposals to rebuild Pier 40, which is, supposedly, collapsing. The Trust, now headed by Diana Taylor, Mayor Bloomberg’s consort, wants to allow an entertainment/residential project to be built—proposed by Related Properties (i.e., Hudson Yards). 1,500 people attend a Community Board 2 public hearing to say NO! Assembly Member Glick opposes a bill to allow Related Properties a 49-year lease and the proposal dies.

In 2015, in a deal negotiated by City Council Member Corey Johnson, the state legislature permits HRPT to sell air rights for $100 million to the owners of St. John’s Terminal, an aging commercial building across the street from the park. The deal is: St. John’s owners will build 1,500 units of housing—500 will be “affordable” and 200 of those will be for seniors, and a residential community will be built between West and Greenwich Streets, with supermarkets, etc., where apartments will not be priced just for the super-wealthy.

In 2019 Google announces a deal to buy the St. John’s Terminal and build a 1,000,000 sq. ft. hub. The Pier 40 air rights will be used. No more 1,500 housing units. No more 500 Affordable Apartments. Maybe a lonely island of 200 senior residences blocks from supermarkets, etc. Not a squeak from elected officials, including Johnson. The HRPT, which is still headed by Bloomberg’s consort, Diana Taylor, starts drooling. “My goodness, we can build commercial office space on Pier 40 and make millions for the park.” The HRPT and Friends of Hudson River Park (now headed by major real estate and commercial leaders) do something unique: they launch a “grassroots” movement to support amending the Hudson River Park Act to allow up to eight stories of commercial office development on Pier 40 and to allow 99-year leases. Community board leaders are appalled. But our local “anti-development in the park” Assembly Member Deborah Glick sponsors the bill! And with her support it passes. But before the governor signs it, HRPT says “No! We want more. Why limit it to eight stories?” As WestView goes to press, we don’t know what the governor is going to do.

And where are our local elected leaders? Glick says, “Eight stories is my limit.” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson says NOTHING. State Senator Hoylman? “It’s not in my district,” he explains (his district ends across the street).

Eight-story office towers don’t belong in Hudson River Park. They have no relationship to the river or to the park. They have no water-related or park-related utility. In 2015 I lauded Council Member Johnson for helping create an affordable residential space across from one of the city’s major recreational centers—one that reflected both the power of a community and the need for recreational space. But the Hudson River Park Trust, led by billionaire Bloomberg’s Upper East Side companion, waving the flag of “we need more money or the pier will collapse,” won—leading “anti-park development” Glick around by the nose; instead of fighting for park money in the budget, she now holds the position of the real estate lobbyists. There are plenty of legal problems with this approach, and I make a pledge to take the fight for Pier 40 back to court. Anyone doubt my word?

PIER 40 Now. Credit: Pier 40 Champions.

PIER 40 “Before.” Credit: Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.


Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village.

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