City balking on rec field for East River’s Pier 15


By Skye H. McFarlane

Ordinarily, it’s a good sign when a preview leaves the audience hungry for more. Unfortunately, the city’s preview of its latest plan for the East River waterfront left an audience of community members demanding more information and greater assurances that recreational space will not be sacrificed for commercial interests.

“Once you invite the community to have input, we jump right in,” C.B. 1 Waterfront Committee chairperson Julie Nadel told the harried team of city representatives after the Jan. 23 meeting. “Don’t look so tired.”

Though the substance of the city’s plan for the waterfront park, which will stretch from the Battery up to the entrance of East River Park, has not changed, the board expressed concern over the Economic Development Corporation’s upcoming request to “dispose” of 6,000 square feet of space on Pier 15.

The disposition, as it is technically called, would allow the city to lease space on the pier to a commercial tenant — possibly a retailer or a concessions vendor. Under current zoning, the commercial building could be 30 feet high with a setback up to 40 feet. If the request is approved through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the city could put the 6,000 square feet of commercial space anywhere within a 21,500 square foot “envelope” on the pier. The city is asking for seven such envelopes throughout the park, most of which would be located in pavilions under the F.D.R. Drive.

The E.D.C. added that the city may ask for more dispositions in the future, prompting committee member Joe Lerner to retort, “You mean that if it makes you money, you’ll come back for more land.”

The commercial leases would bring in revenue to support the maintenance of the park, but some committee members fear that economic interests will trump community needs. In particular, residents are eager for more active recreation space on the east side of the island. Many would like to see a small playing field on the reconstructed Pier 15, which will sit at the end of Maiden Lane. Similar pier-top fields exist in the Greenwich Village section of Hudson River Park and another one will be constructed on the new Pier 25 in Tribeca.

Committee members worried aloud that the commercial space on the pier might squeeze out the soccer players and that board support for the disposition now might lock the community into an unfavorable design later.

“If we approve this, what’s to say that you won’t come back later and say, ‘Look, you already approved this as commercial space,’” George Olsen asked the city team. “After the ULURP, we have no power.”

Although Chris Sharples of SHoP Architects said that the firm, which is designing the park, would be happy to insert a playing field into its working project model, the E.D.C. representatives said that those types of decisions would have to wait until the next design phase. The city reps assured the board that the upcoming land use request would give the city the right, but not the obligation, to use the pier space for commercial leasing. They also said the community will have input during the 2007 design process, which will take the park’s current conceptual design and turn it into a detailed space-by-space layout in time for the start of construction in mid-2008. The park planners added that some commercial uses, such as a concession stand, might enhance active recreation on the pier.

“There’s still plenty of time before we enter into final arrangements or leases with anyone,” said William Kelly, E.D.C. special projects director.

Despite the assurances, the committee decided to hold a special meeting to discuss the details of the ULURP application with the board’s newly hired land use expert, City Planning veteran Mike Levine. C.B.1 and other members of the public will have 60 days to comment once the city submits its application on Feb. 26. The board will get a formal presentation of the plan in March.

The committee also asked the city for the complete data of a recent economic study, which examined the pros and cons of different management structures for the park. The city hopes to pick a management agency by fall 2007, but it must first decide whether to turn the park over to a public agency such as the E.D.C., an existing non-profit such as the Downtown Alliance, or a new non-profit created just for the East River Waterfront, similar to the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy.