NYU asked for space on Pier 40 – let them have it if they return a hospital.
During a tedious seven hour hospital stretch while my wife, Andromache, waited for and then received cataract surgery, I was electrified to read a Wall Street Journal article “Struggling Trust Seeks Funds for Hudson Shore”. It reported that the five mile long Hudson River Park was only 70% completed and needed $200 million to finish but was running out of money to even pay itself salaries. Furthermore, the Trust had dipped into the $25 million reserve fund to make impossible-to-put-off repairs, such as the leaking roof of Pier 40; it would be out of money in only 20 months.
My excitement was triggered by the fact that WestView News is proposing using the decaying 14 acre pier at the foot of West Houston Street to move most of the 30-year NYU expansion, along with a branch of NYU’s Langone hospital. In addition, it would invite the first rent-based-on- profit Mom and Pop center to house West Village restaurants and shops displaced by killer rents.
But first, back to Pier 40 and the WSJ article.
Way back in 1969, when the City and State was attempting to get big bucks from the Federal government to replace the then crumbling elevated West Side Highway, they came up with a grand sweeping plan to extend the shore out 500 ft. into the Hudson River and build a depressed highway so a park would be built over it (You could roll a carriage or push a walker from Washington Street to the water’s edge with only a muffled hum from the buried highway.). However, the hatred of anything big out of Washington brought on by Moses and the Vietnam War, infected those who find identify and comfort in collective anger and finally a lawsuit to protect the spawning ground of striped bass caused Washington to pick up their $2.1 billion and walk away.
Philip Lopate wrote the most crushing epitaph for this, the greatest ever example of militant kvetch power, “No unbuilt project has a greater impact on New York City’s recent history than Westway and it haunts every choice made in its stead.”
Now what? The City and State formed the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) and State Senator Lehman wrote rules that reflected the public protests – no big box stores, no high-rise apartment buildings, no gambling and no 50-year lease – which any developer would have to have, if the banks were going to lend serious money. The Trust was looking for a developer to fix up the decaying pier and do something nice that would not attract traffic, hence they only got amateur developers with non-bankable proposals.
The last serious offer of this now 15-year travail was from Related, to build a permanent theater for the then popular Cirque de Soleil which hinged on getting a 50-year lease. HRPT said no and Related walked away. (This last turn down was by approved by Diane Taylor, Mayor Bloomberg’s consort who still heads HRPT).
So OK, they have to close off sections of the upper indoor parking, but it is the single largest source of revenue i.e. $5 million to pay the salaries of the ever growing management group whose main achievement seems to be reporting the financial free fall of the Park. Following the free fall in 2011, the trust began to nibble into the $25 million reserve, and at the rate they are munching, by 2014 it will be all gone.
Early on, Chelsea Piers complained that they were going bankrupt and if HRPT did not reduce their rent they would have to walk away. HRPT did and now, like a rent-controlled tenant, Chelsea Piers is suing $37.5 million to fix the plumbing. It gets worse. The pier is constructed on hundreds of steel piles which once had an electric current flowing through them to prevent corrosion. However, to save money somebody flipped the switch and the corrosion was such, 15 years ago, that a Port Authority diver reported he could push his finger through it. So now, new HRPT president, Madelyn Wils, says it will take $100 million to keep the pier from crumbling and dropping into the Hudson.
So what to do? No developer and no hope of getting a new one for years – why – borrow. Go back to Albany and change the charter so HRPT can borrow by putting out bonds and while you are at it, allow for a 50 year lease to attract for-real developers.
Ahh, but there is hope. Pier 57 on 15th Street has been given to a developer who was going to do something cheap like use used shipping container to house little shops, but the mega success of the High Line (Chelsea Market sales up 40%) has changed all that and now the new pier has been given an up-scale design and may pull some of the tourist traffic to become really profitable. I am assuming that the lease HRPT signed with the developer will let them share in that success, but they say that is not enough, they need more money to pay salaries and maintain the park.
But back to that decaying Pier 40, trumpeted as the largest such pier in the US when it was built almost 50 years ago.
HRPT has no plans for another Request For Proposal and even with 285 new parking places, they cannot make up for the loss of spaces and the ever accelerating turnover from dissatisfied parkers who feel the cheaper cost (not by much) is no longer worth the long schlep. No, what is needed is a Deus ex Machina solution – a descending of the gods to offer an ah-haa epiphany suffused in a golden aura.
That solution is to let NYU do its 30-year expansion on Pier 40 and let it also build an extension of the NYU Langhorne teaching hospital on the pier. Not so crazy because NYU has in the recent past, submitted a proposal to take over as much as 105,000 sq. ft. for continuing education, professional studies, libraries and the Tisch School of the Arts; we have added an extension of the NYU Langone hospital.
Yet there is more. The fashion chains are in a hissy-fit competing for visibility on Bleecker and the Village and rents have gone up; in one case, from $10,000 a month to $120,000, so if you are an independent Mom or Pop shop your days are limited to those on your lease.
I propose that Pier 40 offer a refuge by offering rent-as-a-part-of profit spaces in the new NYU complex.
Certainly the restaurants and shops that served the thousands who worked and visited St. Vincent’s should be given priority, but if it is the intention of government to help small businesses then this rent-as-a-part-of-profit could offer a very practical experiment for the city and perhaps the country.
The thousands of students, faculty and the staff and visitors to the new hospital will form the core population, but the new waterfront restaurants served by high speed boats with fresh fish, a huge floating swimming pool, hydrocraft ferries to New Jersey and the Hamptons, an outdoor theater and a unique collection of startup innovative shops will attract West Villagers and the flood of tourists that have discovered the far west in visiting the High Line.
NYU needs space to expand to make itself attractive to students and prestige faculty around the world. What could be more spectacular than a gleaming glass water front dorm with views down to the Statue of Liberty and up to the George Washington Bridge.
So the hundreds of millions of dollars that NYU is proposing to build monstrous 15 story buildings on 4 acres of its campus can be used to start a new waterfront complex on the 14 acres of Pier 40 (no one will object to noise and it can even ferry construction materials to the site).
At last we can get the city to agree to get the M8 crosstown bus to end its run at Pier 40 to move students and kids playing on the field to the West and East Village and to subway and bus links.
But I invite our readers to add your thoughts – besides a gleaming new hospital, what would you like to see on the new Pier 40?