Park bill still up in the air, forum to consider air rights

pier 40, 1 copy 2
Fear of heights doesn’t seem to affect these trapeze acrobats on Pier 40. But if plans for the pier’s redevelopment include tall buildings, it’s bound to produce anxiety — and opposition — in the surrounding community. Villager file photo
Amid all the buzz about air-rights transfers from Hudson River Park, a couple of swingers at the New York Trapeze School on Pier 40’s rooftop caught some serious air last Sunday afternoon. Behind them, across West St., is the St. John’s Center building, which could receive unused air rights from Pier 40 under legislation awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature. At right is the Trump Soho Condo Hotel. By one estimation, Hudson River Park currently has enough unused air rights for five  Trump Soho's.  Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Amid all the buzz about air-rights transfers from Hudson River Park, a couple of swingers at the New York Trapeze School on Pier 40’s rooftop caught some serious air last Sunday afternoon. Behind them, across West St., is the St. John’s Center building, which could receive unused air rights from Pier 40 under legislation awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature. At right is the Trump Soho Condo Hotel. By one estimation, Hudson River Park currently has enough unused air rights for five Trump Soho’s. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

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 in the morning 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.

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,” Assembly member Richard Gottfried told The Villager in June. Exactly how much that amount would be is, again, still unclear, Gottfried said, since the real estate market is always fluctuating.

Again, as for what is known, 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 West 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. Once piers are designated as public space — such as the Christopher St. Pier, for instance — they apparently lose their air rights.

In July, developer Douglas Durst — who had pitched a plan to convert Pier 40’s existing pier shed into a high-tech office campus — told The Villager how many air rights he understood Pier 40 had, based on his own analysis. Durst said 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 just 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, including Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Save Chelsea, the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, Tribeca Trust, Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, Village Independent Democrats, Village Reform Democratic Club, Greenwich Village Community Task Force, Lower Chelsea Alliance, Charles St. Association, W. 13th St. 100 Block Association, Charlton St. Block Association, Vandam St. Block Association, Perry St. Block Association and the Perry St. Crusaders.

Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P., said local elected officials, as well as Trust representatives and community board members, have not expressly been invited to the meeting.

“We reached out to all of them to let them know we’re doing this, but it wasn’t set around their schedules,” he said. “It’s not geared so much toward the politicians or the Trust, but toward educating the public. If the governor signs this bill, it presents an enormous, enormous challenge and we want to educate people and get them organized, so that we can ensure that this provision isn’t used in a way that’s harmful to our neighborhood and doesn’t allow overdevelopment.

“They still don’t know how many air rights there are,” Berman said of the Trust and politicians. “They’re saying they think it’s 1.5 million or 1.6 million, but they’d be the first to say they don’t know. They still don’t know how the air rights will be used.”

What about ULURP?
Berman expressed concern that the air-rights sales won’t undergo an open review process, such as the city’s seven-month-long ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), but rather could happen suddenly without public input.

He also noted that Pier 57 in Chelsea was rezoned one year ago, which saw its F.A.R. (floor area ratio) increased from 2.0 to 5.0. Any of this new unused F.A.R. could be transferred across the highway for development, he noted.

Thanks to the efforts of G.V.S.H.P., much of the Greenwich Village waterfront today enjoys so-called contextual zoning, due to a downzoning in 2005. But another concern of Berman’s is if the air-rights transfers would override this contextual rezoning.

Also, he wants to know to what extent the air rights can be used to “make big sites even bigger.” This last 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 massively overdeveloped.

Supersized St. John’s?
“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. Berman didn’t explain exactly how a building would be massed over the five blocks to allow it to reach that height.

However, he said, “It is very easy to reach 900 feet.” 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. And the new New York Times building, at 40th St. and Eighth Ave., enclosing 1.5 million square feet, is also more than 1,000 square feet tall, and is 52 stories.

Since the money from Pier 40’s air rights sales must go back into Pier 40, Berman added, this pretty much guarantees these air rights would be used somewhere in Community Board 2, which stretches from Canal St. to 14th St. Why would C.B. 4, which extends north of 14th St., want these development rights added in its district when the revenue from them is earmarked for C.B. 2?

Berman said his reading of the amendment passed in June means the air rights from any pier can be transferred anywhere up and down the park — and don’t have to transfer to a block directly across from that particular pier — since there’s nothing in the bill stating otherwise.

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.”

As for potential “soft sites” for development in Chelsea to which air rights could be transferred, Bergman speculated they might include the post office on W. 25th St. and the Bayview Correctional Facility on W. 20th St.

‘Not the whole community’
Bergman noted that C.B. 2 only recently found out about Berman’s meeting.

“And it’s on a day that conflicts with the C.B. 2 Land Use Committee,” he added, “so the people most involved with this won’t be there. I’m not saying the community board’s the be-all and end-all. If it’s an organizing meeting of the historic preservation community, that’s O.K. — but it’s not the whole community.”

Bergman added there’s no historic preservation issue, as far as he sees it, with the long, relatively low St. John’s Center.

“It was a High Line terminus, but what is it now?” he asked. “A big monstrosity preventing people from getting to the water. … West Village Houses is not going to get built on. It can’t affect the Meat Market landmarked district,” he added of the air-rights transfers.

Green opposition
Meanwhile, some environmental groups are opposing the legislation — not just because of the air-rights transfers, but because of several other things it contains, as well — and are lobbying Cuomo not to sign it. Sierra Club’s New York chapter, NYPIRG, the Clean Air Campaign and Friends of the Earth signed onto a memo of opposition against the bill prior to its passage in the Assembly and state Senate, and another memo of opposition after its passage.

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. There is also a provision they oppose to allow Pier 54, at W. 13th St., to be rebuilt wider to better accommodate events. In addition, the amendment increases permitted commercial uses on some of the park’s piers, which they also are against, feeling it could potentially harm the river.

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

Laura Haight, NYPIRG senior environmental associate, said the air-rights transfers can’t be separated out from the other parts of the bill.

“This is the bill,” she said. “It’s basically all or nothing. Either the governor will sign it or he won’t.”

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

Benstock’s blowback
“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.”

‘Just a lot of delays’
Gottfried co-sponsored the current modifications to the Park Act in the Assembly with Deborah Glick. As for why Cuomo still hasn’t signed the bill, Gottfried said he’s not sure, but that the governor hasn’t indicated he has any problems with it. It’s just that the bills are seemingly being given rather slowly to the governor to authorize.

As for the Nov. 13 community meeting on air rights, Gottfried said, “I would have liked to be at it, simply because I think it’s important that elected officials hear what people have to say about it.”

How about if that had happened before the legislators actually approved the bill? he was asked. Gottfried countered that each community board adjacent to the park had a representative on the Trust’s task force that was looking into all the ways for the park to increase its revenue.

“Certainly, people from the community board were aware of the issue and could have raised it at a number of opportunities,” he said.

For his part, David Gruber, C.B. 2 chairperson, said, yes, he knew there had been discussions about air rights, but didn’t know the timing of when the Legislature would actually act on it.

“I didn’t know it was going to be in that legislative session,” Gruber told The Villager. “That’s the truth.”

‘Local zoning applies’
Gottfried took exception with Berman’s questioning whether the air-rights transfers would undergo ULURP and Berman’s saying that the air rights could be transferred basically anywhere from Chambers St. to 59th St. since the legislation doesn’t specify otherwise.

“The state Legislature doesn’t tell the city where the air rights are transferred to,” Gottfried stated. “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 ULURP process itself that will determine how many air rights the park has that are available for sale.

As for the environmental groups’ concerns, Gottfried said, first of all, 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.

As for making Pier 54 wider, he said, it would also have to be shorter, since the amendment says it must be built to the exact same square footage as it is now.

However, Gottfried said, “I find it very hard to believe that the fish care whether the pier is wide and short or long and thin.”

Environmentalists’ concern is that a wider pier — or barges — would shade the ecosystem below, negatively affecting aquatic wildlife. In fact, a finding that Westway did not sufficiently study this sort of impact on fish was part of what sunk the hated megaplan.

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.”