Cirque appears out as Pier 40 rivals talk partnership


By Lincoln Anderson

With another benchmark date in the Pier 40 redevelopment process occurring this week, the Hudson River Park Trust appears to have radically changed its thinking on the critical Lower West Side pier.

The Trust — the state-city authority building and operating the 5-mile waterfront park — is now encouraging a partnership between the Pier 40 Partnership (P40P) and CampGroup/Urban Dove, and asking that this new team submit a new proposal for the W. Houston St. pier.

Meanwhile, it appears The Related Companies may be folding its circus tent for its hotly opposed plan for a Cirque du Soleil entertainment megacomplex on the pier, since Related cannot get a long-term, 49-year lease, which is the only way it is willing to proceed.

At the end of January, tension had peaked over Pier 40’s redevelopment as the Trust’s board of directors was set to vote on a plan for the 14-acre pier. The community was gripped with anxiety that the Trust’s board would pick Related. But Diana Taylor, the Trust board’s chairperson — saying all three plans for the pier were flawed — announced the Trust would put off the vote until at least its next meeting, on March 27, to allow time for the proposals to be improved. She said the approved plan would have to comply with the law, thus ruling out a 49-year lease. She encouraged the groups to talk with each other about combining private and tax-exempt financing.

In recent weeks, the Trust has apparently been pushing for the Partnership and CampGroup/Urban Dove to team up.

At Community Board 2’s full board meeting last Thursday night, Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of the community board’s Waterfront Committee, announced the new merger in a “late breaking news” attachment on his committee report: “Pier 40 Partnership and CampGroup/Urban Dove have agreed to work together and submit a joint proposal to the Trust that would include both a public school and a New School expansion (and a camp and the Urban Dove basketball facility). It is unlikely that any action will be taken by the Trust board until May.”

Indeed, Pier 40 observers note there’s no mention of a vote concerning the pier on the agenda for the Trust’s Thurs., March 27, meeting.

“It’s not on the agenda and I haven’t heard anything else,” Julie Nadel, a Trust board member who has been highly critical of Trust leadership, said on Tuesday. Of the new purported partnership the Trust is said to be pushing, Nadel, said, “I know nothing about it. It must all be being done in the back room, at least not in the presence of this board member.”

In the past, Trust officials have said “The People’s Pier” — the name of the CampGroup/Urban Dove plan — is not financially viable. Yet, Schwartz said, the Trust now wants CampGroup/Urban Dove to partner with the Pier 40 Partnership because the former team would bring “$35 million” guaranteed to the plan, easing the Trust’s concerns about the Partnership plan’s viability.

Taylor has been skeptical that the Partnership could get tax-exempt financing tied to parking revenues in an ever tightening bond market.

At the Board 2 meeting, Schwartz perfunctorily sketched out a flow chart for Downtown Express showing how the various nonprofit and for-profit entities in the plans would interrelate and operate beneath a nonprofit Pier 40 conservancy that would, in turn, function beneath the Trust.

The two plans share much in common. A central feature of both the CampGroup/Urban Dove and P40P plans is that they each preserve the pier’s central courtyard “donut.” Blanketed with FieldTurf artificial grass, this courtyard is fiercely guarded by the many local parents whose children participate in soccer and baseball leagues that use the pier. In addition, both CampGroup/Urban Dove and P40P have made creating school space on Pier 40 a key part of their plans. Finally, both proposals are relatively low impact and not geared toward making huge profits from the pier. CampGroup/Urban Dove’s proposal is mildly for-profit, while P40P’s plan is nonprofit.

Connie Fishman, the Trust’s president, sent a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn Feb. 26 saying the two plans were “somewhat comparable” and that the Trust gave CampGroup/Urban Dove permission to turn its confidential financial documents over to the Partnership. Fishman also said Related did not think it could do the project with a 30-year lease even if it got tax exempt financing.

Related’s Cirque-and-Tribeca Film Festival plan is opposed by many Down­towners because it would annually draw 2.5 million visitors to Pier 40. Also, raising red flags for local soccer moms and dads, Related would move the 3.2-acre courtyard field up to the pier’s windblown roof.

Speaking last Friday, Rich Caccappolo, a leading P40P member and president of the Greenwich Village Little League, was careful not to “get ahead” of the Trust in terms of announcing any sort of partnership between P40P and CampGroup/Urban Dove.

“That’s way, way too early to say that,” he said. “The Trust indicated that possibility — that CampGroup/Urban Dove and the Partnership would somehow be merged. But there’s nothing definite. We still feel the conservancy approach is the way to go. The Trust seems to be encouraging of further exploring the development of the pier under the stewardship of a nonprofit organization — and that CampGroup and Urban Dove would somehow be a part of that.

“Related’s out,” Caccappolo stated. “We all know Related’s out because they said they can’t do it with a 30-year lease. I think Diana Taylor really was hoping that Related could be given the designation, and — unfortunately, in her mind — that’s not possible. She just thought Related was the best choice. And I think, without Related, the Trust has renewed interest in CampGroup.”

Following the Trust’s postponement of its vote at its January meeting, a meeting between P40P and Related was convened at which Stephen Ross, Related’s C.E.O., reportedly said without an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act to allow a 49-year lease, they were dropping out. All the local politicians have stated their opposition to amending the park act for a 49-year lease.

Speaking on Tuesday, Joanna Rose, Related’s spokesperson, said, “We’re not saying anything on the record. There’s nothing to say — I guess we’re declining comment.” On whether the Trust has moved on and left Related behind, and is now focusing on pushing together P40P and CampGroup/Urban Dove, Rose said, “I don’t know what they’re up to….

“We’ve always maintained that we need a 49-year lease. … There’s nothing new to say.”

Following the meeting with Related were a series of meetings between P40P and CampGroup/Urban Dove. The first was attended by Trust officials. Schwartz, who is also chairperson of the Pier 40 Working Group, said he knows the new partnership is a reality, “because I was at all the meetings.” But Caccappolo stressed they have to now first report back to the Trust about what was discussed at the meetings.

Caccappolo said he likes the Benerofes of CampGroup and feels that Jai Nanda, head of Urban Dove, “does good work for our community, our city.”

However, Caccappolo and the Partnership feel strongly that their Pier 40

conservancy, not CampGroup, must be the entity in charge on the pier. Because CampGroup is a for-profit entity, having it run the pier would clash with the idea of a nonprofit conservancy raising money from the community. The Partnership has pledged to raise $30 million from the community for Pier 40. But people wouldn’t want to give donations to a for-profit business, Cacccappolo stressed.

Urban Dove is a non-profit and Nanda has said previously the People’s Pier group would be open to tax exempt financing.

Tobi Bergman, president of Pier Park & Playground, a youth sports-advocacy group based on Pier 40, agreed with Caccappolo.

“For me, I can’t see it working with the conservancy underneath the CampGroup,” Bergman said.

Nanda, who grew up in the Village, said on Tuesday, “We’re definitely exploring how we create the best possible Pier 40. And the Trust has been supportive of that.”

Nanda said bringing together the two proposals would benefit all parties.

“I think the more stakeholders you can get the better,” he said. “I think that there’s financial strength, community strength, usage strength, networking and who you know, political connections and things like that.”

Asked who would be top dog at Pier 40 — a nonprofit conservancy as envisioned by P40P, or CampGroup/Urban Dove, Nanda said, “There’s no deal in place. I think the Trust has some responsibility on their part to do some things on their end. We’re going to need their support, we can’t be banging heads with them,” he added, declining to be more specific.

“We have no issue with the conservancy model at Pier 40,” Nanda stated. “From the first time hearing about it, we had no problem with it. I think we heard about it first from the Partnership.”

The Pier 40 proposals by Related and CampGroup/Urban Dove were responses to a request for proposals, or R.F.P., issued by the Trust. P40P’s community-initiated proposal came about only within the last half year as a direct counterproposal to Related’s megaplan.

Interestingly, Nanda said, while CampGroup/Urban Dove has submitted paperwork for a 30-year lease, “We’re going to push very hard for a 49-year lease.” However, he added, “If you can’t work with the 30, I don’t think you’re in the running anymore.”

Finally, Nanda dismissed concerns that a CampGroup eight-to-10-week day camp at Pier 40, charging $1,000 a week per child, would cut into the same pool served by Manhattan Youth’s day camp in Tribeca run by Bob Townley.

“There’s lots of kids to go around,” Nanda said. “There’s going to be even more kids with the residential boom Downtown.”

Townley said a camp won’t work as the pier’s economic engine. “A camp can’t support Pier 40,” he said. “You just have to look at Chelsea Piers to see that.”

Townley said his camp’s 250 slots are mostly filled in the summer and he does not turn many children away. He said since CampGroup would charge over twice as much as the Downtown Day Camp, he thinks it will compete more with higher priced sports camps than with his program. “It’s five years away,” he added. “I’m not overly concerned about that.”

A component of the CampGroup/Urban Dove plan is to build a shed on the pier’s southern rooftop to house basketball courts for Urban Dove. A 10-year-old nonprofit group, Urban Dove serves 1,000 city public school students, including 450 who are on basketball teams whose schools lack basketball courts. Urban Dove provides sports, as well as college-prep and life-skills courses, to help at-risk youth realize their potential.

The CampGroup/Urban Dove plan also includes 65,000 square feet of small, boutique-sized retail, such as sports stores or “marina”-related uses, according to Nanda. On the other hand, the P40P proposal includes space for a 240,000-square-foot Visual Arts Market.

Schwartz said his understanding is that P40P would be the lead on the pier.

“The two groups agreed that Camp-Group is willing to be a tenant and that they’re willing to collaborate on a conservancy model,” he said. “How that works remains to be worked out.”

Schwartz added that the Trust has retained a consultant, National Development Corporation, which assists government and agencies in putting together proposals that are eligible for bonds. Tax-exempt bonding is a cornerstone of the Partnership plan.

Schwartz said more details on the CampGroup/Urban Dove-and-P40P partnership will emerge in the next few weeks.

“The Trust wants all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted,” he said. “It won’t happen by this Thursday [at the Trust’s board meeting], but I think it can be accomplished by the next meeting on May 29.

“It’s a development that, if it works out, means we’re not going to have to deal with Related,” added Schwartz. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel that you can see here that makes everybody happy.”

With reporting by Josh Rogers