Hudson Park air rights up for debate

Downtown Express photo by Lincoln Anderson Trapeze swingers on top of Pier 40, just across from the St. John’s Center Building.
Downtown Express photo by Lincoln Anderson
Trapeze swingers on top of Pier 40, just across from the St. John’s Center Building.

By LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Four months ago, a bill allowing the transfer of unused development rights from Hudson River Park one block inland of the West Side Highway was suddenly and quietly introduced at the end of the Albany legislative session. The Assembly passed the bill on June 15 by a vote of 96 to 5. Then, after a marathon all-night session, the State Senate brought the bill up for a vote on Sat., June 17, and passed it unanimously at 5:18 a.m. by a vote of 57 to 0.

Yet today, the bill — an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 — still has not gone into effect because it hasn’t been signed by Governor Cuomo.

Coincidentally or not, the legislation had not even been submitted to Cuomo’s desk until last week, after a version of this article was published in The Villager, a sister publication of Downtown Express.

Cuomo’s press office did not respond to requests for comment, but Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who co-sponsored the legislation, said that the governor had requested the bill and has not expressed any concerns with it.

At the time the Legislature passed the bill, there were many unanswered questions about exactly how the transfer of development rights — also known as air rights — would work. For example, how many available air rights does the park actually have? Where can and can’t these air rights be transferred?

For the most part, these questions still remain unanswered. About the only thing that was and is clear is that the 5-mile-long Hudson River Park — which is supposed to be financially self-sustaining — is facing a daunting financial crisis and needs to find ways to generate revenue. To that end, the air-rights scheme could be a lucrative solution for the Hudson River Park Trust, which operates the park.

“The provision allowing the Trust to sell unused development rights of the park to adjoining properties can potentially provide considerable revenue for the park,” Gottfried said in June. Exactly how much that amount would be is still unclear, Gottfried said, since the real estate market is always fluctuating.

About $250 million is still needed to complete the park’s construction. That amount doesn’t include Pier 40, for which the Trust has previously twice sought a private developer, the thinking being the developer would both foot the cost of the pier’s repairs and redevelop the huge, aging structure with some new commercial uses to help increase the park’s revenue flow.

One thing the amendment passed in June does clearly state is that any profits from the sale of air rights specifically from Pier 40 be funneled back into maintenance of the massive, 14-acre W. Houston St. “sports pier,” which is in desperate need of repairs.

According to Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, there are 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights in the park. The park’s upland portion — the part of the park on land — doesn’t have any air rights. And only piers that are designated for commercial use have air rights, namely, Chelsea Piers, and Piers 40, 57 and 76.

In July, developer Douglas Durst — who had pitched a plan to convert Pier 40’s existing pier shed into a high-tech office campus — said based on his own analysis. the pier has 600,000 square feet of unused air rights, while the pier’s current three-story shed structure encloses 740,000 square feet. So, according to Durst’s figures, if the pier shed were torn down, Pier 40 by itself would have more than 1.3 million square feet of unused air rights for potential sale across the highway.


Community organizes

Now, seeking to bring some clarity to the issue and also to strategize on how to protect the neighborhoods along the park’s eastern edge from overdevelopment due to the park air rights transfers, community groups plan to meet on Wed., Nov. 13, at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard’s Church, at 328 W. 14th St., starting at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is sponsored by more than a dozen groups, ranging from block associations to political clubs.

Andrew Berman, executive director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, one of the meeting’s organizers, said he wants to know to what extent the air rights can be used to “make big sites even bigger.” This issue is no more clearly embodied than by the five-block-long St. John’s Center, located just east of Pier 40.

“There’s obviously been a lot of discussion about the possibility of that site [receiving air-rights transfers],” Berman said.

If, on the other hand, the St. John’s Center’s zoning is modified to allow residential use, perhaps only partially, Berman added, that is not a problem. What is a concern to him is whether this site becomes overdeveloped.

“Allowing for a larger development on that site is pretty scary,” he said. Under current zoning, according to Berman, the St. John’s site has up to 1.5 million square feet of development rights, which could allow a structure up to 900 feet tall.

By comparison, he noted, the Chrysler Building, enclosing 1.2 million square feet, stands slightly more than 1,000 feet tall, and has 77 floors.

Tobi Bergman, a leading advocate for the youth sports leagues that make heavy use of Pier 40’s artificial-turf playing fields, said whatever happens at the St. John’s Center, it doesn’t have to be as massive as Berman fears.

“I think the question of how air rights are transferred, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about that,” he said. “Whoever develops the St. John’s Center is going to want to develop it at least partially for residential purposes. There are ways to restrict the total amount of development that can happen [there]. Andrew knows that — I think he’s sounding alarm bells.”

So there won’t be a new tower the size of the Chrysler Building looming over Pier 40 across West St. someday?

“That’s not going to happen,” stated Bergman, who also chairs C.B. 2’s Land Use Committee. “I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.”

Last year, Bergman led the youth sports leagues, under the name Pier 40 Champions, in pitching their plan for two luxury towers to be built at the foot of Pier 40, which would generate revenue for the pier’s repair and maintenance. But their proposal, which would have required an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act to allow residential use in the park, failed due to lack of political support.

“There’s only so many strikes when it comes to Pier 40,” Bergman noted. “There have been a number of swings. People need to ask themselves if they want to give up on the park and the pier.”


Green opposition

Meanwhile, environmental groups like Sierra Club’s New York chapter, NYPIRG, the Clean Air Campaign and Friends of the Earth are opposing the legislation.

One provision they oppose allows for “entertainment barges” to be moored in the park for up to six months at a time. Another calls for the W. 30th St. heliport to be moved 1,000 feet away from shore out into the river.

These environmental groups oppose the air-rights transfers, in general, since they are against development in coastal areas.

“It’s awaiting his veto — we hope,” Marcy Benstock, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign, said of the governor. Benstock helped defeat Westway in the 1980s. Like these other environmental groups, she opposed the Hudson River Park, except for its upland portion.

“There are so many things wrong with it,” she said of building more structures on piers or even development one block inland. “The Hudson River estuary is a wild system with wind, tides and storm going every which way. The first priority for the next mayor should not be putting more people in harm’s way along the water.”

As for why the current bill is still unsigned by Cuomo, Benstock said, she’s not sure, but suspects powerful real estate developers may well be fighting the air-rights transfers.

“They don’t want their views to the river blocked,” she noted. “The big developers own sites inland. The single biggest thing that increases real estate values is not park views, but river views. I’ve read it in the real estate sections of newspapers for decades.”

Gottfried said, “Nothing will happen with the air rights until the city adopts a plan on what to do and how to do it. It all has to be done subject to local zoning. Because the air rights would have to cross a street, that would require special zoning by the city.”

A special zoning district would need to be created to receive the air rights.

Gottfried also dismissed Berman’s claim that a 900-foot-tall building could be built at the St. John’s Center site, implying it was unrealistic.

“I suppose you could build a 900-foot flagpole,” he said.

Asked how much unused air rights the park currently has, Gottfried said, “It’s still imprecise,” but that it’s more than a million square feet.

According to a spokesperson for Wils, it is actually the land use process known as ULURP that will determine how many air rights the park has that are available for sale.

As for the environmental groups’ concerns, Gottfried said, anything involving barges or pier footprint expansion will need reviews by and permits from state and federal environmental agencies.

“If an environmental review shows that putting a barge out in the river for six months is going to hurt the striped bass, then they’re not going to get a permit,” he noted.

And what about the environmentalists saying there should be no more building in what, after Sandy, is clearly a proven flood zone?

“Obviously, people who design buildings are going to have to design them to sustain future flooding,” Gottfried said, “maybe raise buildings one story on 11th Ave. Maybe some people would argue that the condos that have been built along the West Side Highway should all be evacuated. I haven’t heard that suggestion yet.”