Pier 40 redux, redux: The waterfront Rubik’s Cube


By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Pier 40, Pier 40, Pier 40, Pier 40. …. Like a steady drumbeat for the past 15 years, residents in the Village, Soho and Tribeca (and sometimes the larger city around us) have heard about, have parked on, have played on Pier 40, the four-square-block, three-level pier at the western end of West Houston St. The Villager has carried numerous models and diagrams of simple plans for Pier 40, fancy plans for Pier 40 and spectacular plans for Pier 40. We have lived through proposals for an aquarium, Cirque de Soleil, French gardens, big-box stores, middle schools, high schools, swimming pools, a huge day camp and, most recently, a Major League Soccer stadium. 

Why does anyone care? First, we have a park, Hudson River Park, which is self-sustaining. This means that the park must raise its own revenue. When this concept was initially announced, some were critical. But, as it turns out, Hudson River Park is not subject to most of the problems associated with budget shortfalls either in Albany or City Hall. (Hudson River Park’s capital — or construction — budget, is held hostage to the state’s annual budget dance. So this year, while the city’s five-year capital budget has $11 million slotted for the park’s continued construction, the governor has only proposed $3 million for the state budget; the city only has to give what the state gives.) Pier 40 is a major revenue generator for Hudson River Park — accounting for maybe $5 million out of the park’s total $12 million budget. (Rumors that the pier provides the entire budget are wrong, and scuttlebutt that Chelsea Piers doesn’t pay rent are also false: Chelsea Piers pays almost $3 million per year in rent to the park.)

We have gone through two rounds of requests for proposals (R.F.P.’s) which have been responded to by numerous entities, some of whom, like The Related Companies, spent millions of dollars trying to capture the pier. Well, Pier 40 still belongs to the community. It still mainly serves as a below-market-rate parking garage and as the site of numerous ball field activities, on many days from sunup until well after midnight.

But Pier 40 has problems, and they are growing. Large sections of the roof are leaking, and those leaks seep into the concrete below, and cause concrete dust, and then chunks of concrete, to fall on the cars below. Because larger and larger sections have had to be cordoned off, the Hudson River Park Trust is losing $500,000 a year in parking revenue, and that figure is growing. Somewhere between $5 million and $15 million is needed to do the roof repairs, and the Trust does not have the money. (They do have some sort of contingency fund, but they are loath to use too much of it.) 

In the longer run (but not too long) the Trust must begin to repair the pier’s pilings, which have rusted. The cost of this is many millions more. (Rumors that the pier is about to fall into the sea are also false.) 

Lots of people are talking about Pier 40. It remains the last great swath of public “land” in the Village, Soho or Tribeca, and its future intrigues those who want more park space, those who dream of making money off of waterfront development and those who want the pier to provide more money for the park and more amenities for the surrounding community. Several Trust board members — led by Paul Ullman, former Governor Spitzer’s sole appointee, and Pam Frederick, one of Borough President Scott Stringer’s appointees — continue to meet with people with ideas, and promote the notion of thinking outside the box. There is a rumor that they may soon have a program to present to the board, but as the last board meeting passed, nothing was heard.

Then there are the school adherents. The Village continues to be in desperate need of more schools, at all levels. Once again children are being shut out of kindergarten. The options get worse as children progress from middle school to high school. There once was a full-blown proposal to build two middle schools on the pier, along with a private high school. But with falling commercial real estate rentals, the School Construction Authority has been reined in, and the Department of Education is looking to rent space in communities where schools are needed. But schools remain an intriguing possibility. 

There are some interesting ideas floating around that could contribute to the answer to — but not completely resolve — the long-term Pier 40 dilemma:

First, there is the idea of borrowing. The Trust is prohibited by law from having debt. It cannot float bonds, and cannot have the state float bonds for its operation. This could be changed by an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act. There has been talk of a proposed trade-off: The Trust would be granted borrowing authority in return for an agreement that mega-developments like the one proposed by Related are never built on Pier 40. The parking revenue from Pier 40 and the rent revenue from Chelsea Piers are solid security that the Trust could pledge. Interest rates are low now; the Trust would probably pay less in interest now on an annual basis than the sum it loses annually from closed-off sections of the Pier 40 parking lot.

Another way to boost revenue is parking lot development. Right now the Trust runs the parking lot and hires a vendor to collect money and service the parkers. (A miserable vendor just got replaced.) There is tremendous potential to park far more cars on Pier 40 without even expanding the space use — through the use of modern stackers and automatic parking systems. No one would invest the money to install such a system without a very long-term lease, up to the 30-year limit allowed by law. What’s to say that such an investor wouldn’t also see the efficacy of fixing the roof — and thus opening up parking spaces below — as part of the investment.

Finally, there is the idea of mobile vendors and a farmers’ market. A proposal is being pushed by a local monthly newspaper to locate a farmers’ market in front of Pier 40 on the weekends, with the idea of testing to see whether residents would cross the highway to shop, or whether joggers, bikers, ballplayers and car parkers already across the highway might also shop. The notion is that a successful showing in front of the pier this spring and summer could lead to an expanded and larger market, with small artisans and shopkeepers, as well as food sellers, inside of the pier’s doors.

There are vast, empty, unused spaces on the pier’s west side (four city blocks long), and convertible space on the north side, which one could envision as an all-weather, all-season marketplace. And even if such a market doesn’t become a permanent fixture on the pier, it could build a shopper group ready to patronize longer-term retail enterprises for Pier 40 that the Trust or the community might come up with in the future. 

We are a vibrant community, full of thinkers. New ideas continue to come into play. Feel free to contribute your own thoughts about Pier 40’s future.

Schwartz is chairperson, Community Board 2 Waterfront Committee; vice chairperson, Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council; chairperson, Pier 40 Working Group; and a member of the State Democratic Committee, 66th Assembly District. (The views he expresses in this column are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any of these groups.)