Corps Modifies Permit: Does Hope Float for Pier55?

A design rendering for Pier55, a $250 million “fantasy arts island” proposed for off of W. 13th St. in Hudson River Park. It would be situated on a new footprint between the old wooden-pile fields of the former Piers 54 and 56. Pier 54 formerly was the Hudson River Park Trust’s main entertainment pier, for movies, music, dances and more. But the Trust – wanting to do something new and spectacular and create a wider pier, as well, which would be better for events — removed the old Pier 54’s crumbling concrete deck as it moved ahead with ambitious plans for Pier55, whose construction would be mostly funded by media mogul Barry Diller. At lower left is the original arch for the historic Pier 54, which is where the Carpathia brought the Titanic’s survivors, among other notable events. File image courtesy The Villager.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Summer has officially started, and though it’s cool to hang out in the cooling breezes over in Hudson River Park, things are heating up once again — as is so often the case — in the waterfront park.

Earlier this month, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued a modified permit for the embattled Pier55 project, seemingly giving it new life.

On June 5, the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that is building and operating the 5-mile-long park, and Pier55, Inc., the Barry Diller-led nonprofit that would operate and program Pier55, slated for off of W. 13th St., issued a joint statement. They confidently said the project “will move ahead expeditiously,” and promptly floated out a veritable armada of politicians’ statements in support of the plan.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said Pier55 would ensure that people keep coming to Hudson River Park — not as if it isn’t already an extremely popular park.

“Hudson River Park is one of New York’s most cherished parks and valued resources,” Cuomo said. “The development of Pier55 will ensure that the park continues to attract millions of residents, tourists and travelers each year, while showing off the very best that New York has to offer. I applaud the Army Corps’ decision to issue a modified permit, which will keep this innovative project moving forward.”‎

Mayor Bill de Blasio added, “This is a major step forward for a new public park on our waterfront. It has been a bumpy road, but I look forward to the day when New Yorkers from across the city can come and enjoy this remarkable open space, and all the cultural and community programming it will offer. We are grateful for Mr. Diller’s generosity in making this largest-ever donation to a city park,” de Blasio said.

Chuck Schumer, the US Senate minority leader, said the city needs Pier55 and its arts programming to remain a cultural leader.

“The project envisioned by Hudson River Park Trust and Barry Diller will be another jewel in the crown for New York City,” he said, “making sure our cultural attractions and recreational spaces are second to none.”

Councilmemer Corey Johnson lauded the nature and arts that will be part of Pier55.

“Pier55 presents a unique opportunity for the creation of innovative public open space in a district starved of parks,” Johnson said. “The pier’s lush plant life will also provide refuge to native birds, butterflies and bees. The Village is known throughout the world as a source of groundbreaking theater, music, literature and dance, and the three performance spaces built into the park’s design will help us continue this artistic legacy. These are among the reasons why this project was approved overwhelmingly by Community Board 2 (CB2) and why I hope Pier55 is completed.”

Rich Caccappolo, chairperson of the CB2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, said the initial project proposal went through a lot of scrutiny during its review process at the community board.

“Questions, potential issues and concerns that were raised were addressed and the result was an improved plan for an amazing new space, including an incredible venue for performances, managed by an extraordinary team, in a public park under public control,” Caccappolo said. “We wanted it then and we want it even more now, because we know it will be a beautiful, unique new park that will be incredibly beneficial for a neighborhood, for the Hudson River Park, and for the entire city.”

Also hailing the issuance of the modified permit was Michael Novogratz, chairperson of Friends of Hudson River Park, the park’s main private fundraising wing. “What a great day for everyone who loves Hudson River Park!” he said. “It’s truly unfortunate the park has had to use precious resources fending off a misguided action to keep public parkland from being built, but we’re thrilled that the Army Corps’ has issued a modified permit and that a project with broad community support can now move forward.”

In March, however, in a ruling that hit the dazzling $250 million project like a tsunami, federal Judge Lorna Schofield ruled that the Army Corps had erred in issuing a permit for the 2.75-acre “arts island.” In Schofield’s opinion, the Corps had violated the Clean Water Act in determining that the entertainment-and-recreation-focused pier was “water dependent.”

The plaintiffs in the case are Tom Fox and Rob Buchanan, two members of The City Club of New York, who contend that the glitzy pier project, to be financed mostly by power couple Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, was originally cooked up in secret, out of the public’s view.

Judge Schofield said the Corps’ mistake was so “egregious” that she rescinded the permit, leaving the Pier55 plan “dead in the water,” according to the plaintiffs and their attorney, Richard Emery.

All that has been built, so far, is part of one of two pedestrian bridges that would lead out to the “island pier,” and a small ledge extending from the bulkhead (Village shoreline) a bit.

In late May, as the deadline to appeal the ruling was about to expire, the Corps and the Trust finally filed notices of appeal of Schofield’s ruling.

But the Trust, in late April, also modified the Pier55 design. The new design “involves no visible changes to the pier design itself,” according to a Trust spokesperson.

In turn, earlier this month, when the Corps issued the modified permit, the Trust scrapped its notice of appeal.

“We decided to drop the appeal after the issuance of the permit,” the spokesperson said.

The April design modification includes a couple of main changes to the plan. First, concrete “fill” — flowable concrete — which was to be poured into hollow “pot”-style support piles that are one of the project’s signature design elements, has been replaced in the plan by prefabricated concrete piles for any piles below the waterline. (The presence of the “fill” in the plan was what triggered the Clean Water Act review in the first place.)

Second, a barge included in the original plan, which was to contain dressing rooms for actors and be a sort of “staging area” for them, has been nixed. Instead, the actors’ dressing rooms are now designed to be in “interstitial spaces” in the pier, according to the Trust spokesperson.

As the spokesperson explained, “The interstitial spaces below the pier deck will serve the same function as the barge, but not be visible to parkgoers.”

According to the Trust spokesperson, the modified permit does not need to be reviewed or approved by the court, even though Schofield did sink the prior permit.

“The modified permit renders the judge’s objections irrelevant because of the elimination of the fill,” the spokesperson said. “The modified project eliminates the small amount of 280 square feet of flowable concrete fill below spring high tide within some hollow piles, and replaces them with prefabricated piles.

“With the Corps’ approval of this modified application, construction will move forward expeditiously,” the spokesperson stated. “We expect construction to start sometime this summer — largely on the two accessways — and continue through the fall.”

Fox and Emery say their understanding was that Diller’s investment in the construction of Pier55 is “capped” at $185 million, that he signed an agreement to that effect back in April when the design was modified. But now the project’s cost has ballooned to $250 million, they note.

But the Trust spokesperson said, “One hundred eighty-five million dollars was never a ‘cap.’ Instead, it is the amount that would come from the donor and is based on the detailed cost estimate that was developed for the project following the concept design phase. As previously noted, Mr. Diller/Pier 55 will be responsible for all [cost] overages. At the same time, the public contribution is capped at $20 million.”

Fox and Emery have also asked what the public’s commitment to the project is, to which the Trust spokesperson said, “The public funding cap is $20,232,000, $17.5 million of which has been committed since the project’s inception. The additional $2,732,000 was approved by the Hudson River Park Trust’s board in January.”

Some piles for the Pier55 project have already been pounded, specifically for a small platform along the shoreline and for one of two pedestrian bridges that would have led to the $250 million pier. Opponents are hoping it will be a bridge to nowhere, but the Hudson River Park Trust is getting set to restart work on the project now that it has received a permit modification from the US Army Corps of Engineers. File photo by Tequila Minsky.

Meanwhile, Fox and attorney Emery remained confident that the project still does not pass muster.

“We continue to evaluate all options,” Emery said. “We have not reached any final conclusion of where and how we proceed. But it is clear to me that the challenge will continue.”

He warned, “They start work at their peril.”

Emery noted one strategy they might take is to argue that Pier55 still is adding “fill” to the river — in that the old pile field of Pier54 remains in the river, but now the Trust also wants to add hundreds more concrete piles as part of the Pier55 project. The Trust decided to strip the decaying concrete decking off of Pier54 — the authority’s former main entertainment pier — leaving just its wooden support piles in the river, and instead build the new Pier55 on a completely new footprint just to the north.

Fox, who formerly ran New York Water Taxi, was an early leader of Hudson River Park during its planning stages as the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy (which completed the Hudson River Park’s concept and financial plan) from 1992-’95. He was also a member of the Hudson River Park Alliance (which supported the Hudson River Park’s founding legislation) from 1996-’98; and a board of directors member of Friends of Hudson River Park until 2011.

Asked his thoughts the Trust’s press release with all the political “big guns” supporting the Pier55 project, Fox said, “So that means they are all wrong. Would not be the first time!”

Fox, who cut his teeth in waterfront activism fighting the Westway highway-and-landfill megaproject back in the 1980s, is not cowed by political pronouncements of faits accomplis.

“Just like Jane Jacobs won so many battles versus Robert Moses, who always tried to make his projects sounds like done deals,” he said, “we beat three presidents, two governors and three mayors in court and Westway sleeps with the fishes. Same place Pier55 is going,” he declared, “Davy Jones’s locker.”