Community confronts park air rights issue as Cuomo O.K.’s bill

Preservationist Andrew Berman spoke at Wednesday’s meeting about the Hudson River Park air rights bill. Minutes later, he informed the crowd the bill had been signed into law.   Photo by Sam Spokony
Preservationist Andrew Berman spoke at Wednesday’s meeting about the Hudson River Park air rights bill. Minutes later, he informed the crowd the bill had been signed into law. Photo by Sam Spokony

By SAM SPOKONY  and LINCOLN ANDERSON | On the same day that around 200 Lower West Side residents gathered to discuss their fears about a bill that would allow the transfer and sale of Hudson River Park’s air rights, Governor Andrew Cuomo finally signed the bill into law.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, had just finished his introductory speech at Wednesday’s meeting, around 7 p.m., when word came that Cuomo had signed the bill.

(It was The Villager that alerted Berman by e-mail after having been informed by a spokesperson for the Hudson River Park Trust that the governor had approved the bill. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried also confirmed to The Villager that the governor had O.K.’d the legislation.)

Berman took the news with a smile — he never gave a hint of frustration or defeat — and informed the crowd.

Most people at that meeting — at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on W. 14th St. between Eighth and Ninth Aves. — had understood that Cuomo probably wasn’t going to veto the bill, which in fact would have become law even if the governor had simply not taken any action on it by midnight that evening.

But there were still plenty of groans throughout the room.

“We need transparency,” said Bill Borock, president of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations. “We don’t need legislation passed without appropriate input and feedback from the impacted communities.”

Many residents in Tribeca, the West Village and Chelsea have been opposed to the legislation ever since it passed the state Senate and Assembly at the very end of the Legislative session in June. The legislation would allow an estimated 1.6 million square feet of Hudson River Park’s air rights to be transferred one block east the park.

Madelyn Wils, C.E.O. of the Trust, attended part of Wednesday’s community meeting, but neither she nor anyone else from the Trust chose to contribute to the evening’s discussion.

Wils has supported the transfer of air rights, claiming that it is the best way to save the park and keep it financially stable.

Minutes after it was learned that the legislation had been signed into law, this newspaper asked Wils for a comment while she was leaving the room, but she declined.

“We’re going to put out a press release on it,” was all she said.

And although nearly everyone else in the room had been against the transfer of air rights, some were already looking on the bright side of the situation.

“I’m optimistic about the future,” said Arthur Schwartz, the Village Democratic district leader and a Community Board 2 member, who cited the upcoming shift in city government that will be led by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

Schwartz explained his belief that Community Boards 1, 2 and 4 — all of which border parts of Hudson River Park — will actually have significant advisory input on a future ULURP or some other development process, since he thinks the city’s elected officials will at some point be open to negotiating with the community boards.

“There’s a lot that’s going to change on this issue, and there’s also the fact that de Blasio is going to put five new people on the [Hudson River Park Trust] board, and [Borough President-elect] Gale Brewer is going to put three new people on that board,” said Schwartz. “I trust de Blasio and Brewer on this, and even though I know some people here don’t agree with me on it, I trust Madelyn Wils, too. She’s going to be committed to working with the community boards.”

But after Wednesday’s meeting had finished, Berman stressed that while he, too, respects the city’s progressive politicians, he puts his faith in the neighborhood first.

“Any elected official, no matter how great they might be, won’t be around forever,” he said. “We can’t take anything for granted, and this is really just the beginning of this process. What’s most important now is for residents to stay involved in the issue, because the real work on this begins within the community.”

Other elected officials and politicos at the meeting included Assemblymembers Gottfried and Deborah Glick, Councilmember-elect Corey Johnson and Community Board 2 Chairperson David Gruber.

In related news, Village activist Jean-Louis Bourgeois, the son of renowned sculptor Louise Bourgeois, has retained attorney Norman Siegel to challenge the air rights legislation. (See Scoopy’s Notebook, on Page 3, for more on Bourgeois.)

On Wednesday, Siegel, in a phone interview, confirmed that he had been retained by Bourgeois.

“We will be looking at the issue,” Siegel said. “And our position will be that, for city-owned air rights, the transfer must include ULURP. If they don’t do that, it would be the first challenge.”

ULURP, or the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, is generally a seven-month-long public process, involving reviews by the affected community boards, as well as the borough president and City Planning Commission, followed by a vote by the full City Council.

Siegel said his understanding is that part of the 5-mile-long park is city-owned and part is state-owned.

“We will have architects review city maps” to determine exactly who owns what, he stated.

“The city-owned air rights require ULURP,” Siegel said. Regardless of whether the state has a similar required public review process or not, it should have one, Siegel stated.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re talking about huge consequences for the West Side. The principles and values of ULURP should be applied statewide, as well.”

It was not immediately clear who has ultimate jurisdiction over the Hudson River Park’s property — and, hence, its air rights. In terms of which parts of the park are — or were — owned by the state and city, it’s the state south of about 34th St. and the city above that. Asked if Pier 40 is owned by the city or state, Tobi Bergman, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Land Use Committee, told The Villager the massive West Houston St. pier is state-owned. However, he then added, “It’s been a long time since that mattered because the Park Act turned everything over to the Trust.”

Over all, Siegel said, the way the legislation was passed — at 5 a.m. on the legislative session’s last day, with no prior community notification or opportunity for public comment — is plain wrong.

“What smells here is the process,” he said. “Government officials have learned by now that secrecy breeds mistrust. And this process is and has been fraught with mistrust.”

The attorney said he anticipates that local community groups will join Bourgeois in the challenge. He said he’s calling it a challenge rather than a lawsuit at this point, because there are ways to achieve ends that don’t involve litigation, at least as a first step.

Siegel had a prior speaking engagement Wednesday night, but did have two representatives at the organizing meeting at Our Lady of Guadalupe.