Cipriani may be sinking fast, but Witkoff says Pier 57 plan still afloat

By Albert Amateau

Steve Witkoff assured a July 20 public forum in Chelsea that his organization was ready to transform Pier 57 into a major feature of Hudson River Park with public and commercial components despite the Cipriani Organization’s withdrawal from the project at the end of April.

“We’re completely committed to making the project happen,” Witkoff said.

Connie Fishman, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, the city-state agency building the 5-mile-long riverfront park on the Lower West Side, told the forum that Witkoff’s current plan is “98 percent what it was” when Witkoff and Cipriani were tentatively designated last year as joint developers of the pier between 15th and 17th Sts.

The approval process for the $200 million project is to begin in September and will eventually include an environmental impact statement, a city uniform land use review procedure and approvals by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the State Historic Preservation Office and the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

Leonardo at Pier 57 (the name has not changed despite Cipriani’s withdrawal) could hold its grand opening in late 2009 or the spring of 2010.

For Chelsea residents, the main concern at the June 20 forum was the traffic impact of the project, which is to include a public event space to be known as the Grand Hall with a capacity for 1,800 to 2,000 people, an auditorium with capacity for more than 500 and a smaller theater.

But in private conversation, the common topic was the indictment last week of Dennis Pappas, a Cipriani vice president, for defrauding insurance companies of more than $1 million, and for falsifying a city Department of Consumer Affairs application in 2005 as manager of the Rainbow Room, a Cipriani franchise. Pappas pleaded not guilty and the case is still being investigated.

Witkoff’s Pier 57 project differs from the original plan in that the Great Hall event space will be smaller, a change welcomed by neighbor anxious about traffic.

“We want the event space to impact as little as possible on the community,” Witkoff told the forum last week. The plan also guarantees 46,000 square feet of landscaped public space on the roof of the pier.

A bridge to the High Line is another feature of the project. Witkoff said he has held several conversations with Friends of the High Line about the bridge, which would eventually lead from the pier to the High Line Park at 10th Ave. and 15th St.

“If we can get it approved, we’ll spend the money to build it,” said Witkoff, but he acknowledged that the High Line bridge was not yet a done deal.

Pier 57 will also include a marina and a Hudson River Museum. The pier will provide berths for the tall ships when they visit New York Harbor, said Jon Ostrow, a Witkoff associate. The tall ships berths and the provision of a Hudson River Museum on the pier were ideas taken from Discover Pier 57, a community-based development group led by John Doswell, a longtime Community Board 4 member and currently a consultant on the Witkoff project.

The project will also include an open market with both indoor and outdoor areas totaling 9,000 square feet to be known as the Grace Line Market.

“The market will have stalls like a Moroccan souk or a Parisian flea market,” Ostrow said.

The pier was built between 1950 and 1954 by Grace Line to replace a pier that burned in 1947. In recent years, it served as a city bus depot and during the 2004 Republican National Convention the pier became a detention center for people arrested during demonstrations.

Regarding the Great Hall event space, Witkoff said his organization has been “besieged” by event operators since Cipriani’s withdrawal was announced. An operator of the space will be chosen in two or three months, Witkoff added.

The Pier 57 traffic management plan by Philip Habib Associates calls for a vehicle entrance to the pier on 15th St. and an exit on 16th St. Cabs and cars will be able to drop off and pick up passengers at a covered porte-cochere at the main-floor entrance. Parking for the private events will be in the three caissons, the hollow concrete chambers on which the pier rests on a gravel foundation on the riverbed.

The Pier 57 Great Hall is expected to have about 20 events annually when 2,000 people are likely to attend. Chelsea Piers, which has an event space on Pier 60, submitted a traffic report by Sam Schwartz in 2005 that concluded that traffic from events at Pier 57 would have an overwhelming impact on Chelsea Piers operations and on the neighborhood.

Pappas indictment

Dennis Pappas, 59, of 55 W. 26th St., is a vice president of Cipriani U.S.A., which operates seven restaurants in Manhattan, including the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.

The day of his indictment, Pappas was taken to the hospital with a heart condition but was released July 21 and pleaded not guilty to defrauding three insurance companies of a total of nearly $1.5 million and the federal Social Security Administration of $90,000.

The indictment charges that Pappas applied for and received disability insurance from June 2000 through July of this year claiming he was disabled because of a heart condition and could not work. While receiving the insurance, Pappas also received a total of $891,855 from Cipriani for his work. The payment included the use of an apartment that rents for $5,086 per month and a Humvee that he drove to work.

He was also charged with concealing his employment and fraudulently receiving $90,000 from Social Security.

Regarding the false statement to Consumer Affairs in 2005, the indictment says that in his application as Rainbow Room manager, Pappas said that he had never been convicted of a felony, when in reality he had pleaded guilty in 1998 to federal charges of extortion, pension fund fraud and income tax evasion involving the Colombo crime organization.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said last week that the investigation was continuing. An attorney for Cipriani, Stanley Arkin, was quoted in the New York Post on July 22 as saying that “a dozen and a half” Cipriani employees were issued subpoenas recently and the company is cooperating.

The investigation began shortly after Giuseppe Cipriani was mentioned in two recent organized crime trials by a turncoat witness who said he took $120,000 from Cipriani for underworld help in quelling union protests at the Rainbow Room.