Cirque Soleil tries to swing theater deal for Pier 40

By Lincoln Anderson

Not too long ago, when people spoke about swingers on the Lower West Side waterfront, they were probably referring to the gay cruising scene on the crumbling former shipping piers. But a new proposal to redevelop Pier 40 at Houston St., if successful, would bring a new kind of swinger to the waterfront — namely tights-clad trapeze artists with Cirque du Soleil, speaking a strange gibberish called Cirquish, no less.

Or, if another proposal is picked, the swingers might be basketball players — hanging from basketball hoops after throwing down rim-rattling dunks.

The deadline for the Hudson River Park Trust’s request for proposals for developers for Pier 40 recently passed, and a handful of proposals were submitted.

“We are currently in receipt of four responses to the Pier 40 R.F.P., and the Trust has just begun its initial review of them,” Christopher Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, said on Tuesday. “We are committed to working closely with the Advisory Council’s [Pier 40] Working Group throughout the review process and expect our first meeting with the Working Group to take place soon. Given the importance of Pier 40 to both the park and the community, we expect this process to take a minimum of several months. We have also committed to posting brief summaries of the proposals on our Web site, and these will be posted shortly.”

Martin would not provide specifics on the proposals or who submitted them. However, Arthur Schwartz and Tobi Bergman, two local Hudson River Park activists, said they had heard there were four responses and that one was by Cirque du Soleil, partnering with The Related Companies, and the other by a sports group seeking to enhance the pier’s current sports uses.

Under the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, 50 percent of the sprawling 14-acre pier’s footprint must be devoted to public park use. The rest of the pier is permitted to be developed commercially to provide revenue for the 5-mile-long park, which is intended to be self-supporting. The long-term car parking on the pier currently generates about $5 million annually for the park.

Bergman, president of the Pier Park and Playground Association, or P3, and a member of Community Board 2, said he’d heard from a reliable source that the Cirque du Soleil/Related Companies plan would entail completely taking down the pier’s existing two-story “doughnut” shed structure in order to construct a new permanent theater. Under this plan, the pier’s existing, heavily used youth sports fields — currently located in the pier’s ground-level courtyard — presumably would be relocated to the structure’s rooftop.

Bergman said P3 supports the sports-centric plan, which he said he has been told would add eight high school-regulation-size basketball courts, three swimming pools (including one outdoor pool) and summer camp uses. The basketball courts would operate similarly to Basketball City, but not be run by Basketball City, he said. Due to the R.F.P. process’s proprietary nature, Bergman said he was not comfortable divulging the name of this development team — but he said P3 was not involved in the proposal.

“We like it because it would bring more of the uses that we like now,” Bergman explained.

Bergman further said he feels the construction of a new Cirque du Soleil theater from the ground — or, rather, pier — up, would negatively impact the pier’s current youth sports and parking uses because the whole pier would have to be cleared for possibly up to a few years. The parkers certainly would not be pleased, he was sure. On the other hand, he said, the sports proposal would have “incremental development,” allowing existing uses to keep functioning at spots on the pier.

Also, the P3 president said, Cirque du Soleil would undoubtedly be a traffic nightmare, since the nearest subway station is four blocks away at W. Houston and Varick Sts. The car traffic flowing to Pier 40 each evening for the Cirque show would just exacerbate the current rush-hour and evening traffic bottlenecks, he predicted.

“I think it’s a couple of thousand seats, and it’s year-round,” he said of the proposed theater. “Look at West and Canal Sts. now — it’s a complete mess.”

Also, Bergman was against removing the pier’s shed, because, he said, it provides some shade for the sports fields as well as blocking the wind from off the Hudson. Contrarily, rooftop sports fields would be boiling hot in summer, while in cooler weather in the fall, baseball players would have a hard time trying to catch fly balls caught up in the wind currents.

Bergman said he’d also heard the Whitney Museum had been interested in Pier 40, but that now appears to be moot, since the Whitney now has a tentative deal with the city to build a new museum on the High Line at Gansevoort St.

Schwartz, chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council, said he was told that the Trust wants to spend four months looking over the R.F.P. submissions.

A Pier 40 Cirque du Soleil theater would not be Related Companies’ first waterfront project. One of the city’s most active developers, Related recently got its feet wet in Hudson River Park by partnering with the Witkoff Organization to redevelop Pier 57 at W. 15th St. into a banquet hall after Cipriani dropped out of the partnership. Jeff Blau, Related’s president, did not return a call by press time regarding the Pier 40 proposal.

On Tuesday, Julie Nadel, a member of the Trust’s board of directors, said she had not heard about the four R.F.P. proposals.

“Board members have not been briefed on the proposals,” she said. “I think they’re sitting on it at the staff level.”

The Trust’s 13-member board is appointed by the governor, mayor and borough president — the governor and mayor have five appointments each, the B.P., three. The board hires the Trust’s staff, but the board ultimately would make the decision on which Pier 40 proposal to pick, if any.

An incentive for the Trust’s picking a developer for a 30-year or possibly even 49-year long-term lease is that Pier 40 needs repairs. Under the R.F.P.’s conditions, any developer chosen would have to pay for the pier’s repairs and ongoing maintenance.

Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun), based in Montreal, Quebec, was founded in 1984 by two former street performers. It has touring and resident troupes, with its main resident troupe currently based in Las Vegas. Performances combine busking, circus, opera and ballet, and feature contortionists, jugglers, clowns, trapeze artists and rock music. No animals are used. All music is live. In many performances, spoken parts are done in Cirquish, an imaginary gibberish.