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Pier 40, sinking the park, faces closure, Trust warns

Pier 40’s fields are heavily used by youth leagues. The leagues commissioned a study, which found residential use on the pier would have low impact with high revenue. Photo by Chris Bishop

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  “Unfortunately, it seems a bit like the Euro crises — where people don’t understand the problem until the pier is closed down,” board member Michael Novogratz commented at the Hudson River Park Trust’s July 24 meeting.

His analogy referred to Pier 40, the crumbling and cash-consuming pier that is the Trust’s biggest concern and challenge.

“If it was my decision, I would say, cut it off — not one more dime goes into it — and we shut it down as necessary,” Diana Taylor, the Trust’s board chairperson, said of the problem pier. “I have no problem with that decision — I just want to put it on the table.”

Taylor and Novogratz made their remarks after Trust President Madelyn Wils had opened the meeting with her report to the board. Wils said she felt she had to “take an aggressive approach” toward Pier 40 a few months ago, by making a push to change the Hudson River Park Act before the state legislative session ended in June.

“I felt it was necessary, given that now there is no path forward on Pier 40,” Wils said, adding that if nothing is done to address the pier, the Trust may be forced to shut it down.

The massive, 14.5-acre, West Houston St. pier would likely be taken offline in phases.

Pier 40’s stairwells are currently falling apart; one of its three stairwells recently had to be closed for safety reasons, Wils noted. The Trust now has to decide if it has the funds to fix it.

Over the next 10 years, the 5-mile-long Hudson River Park is expected to bring in $200 million in revenue but have expenses totaling $280 million — a deficit of at least $80 million. Yet the park is intended to be financially self-supporting.

Pier 40 alone needs about $100 million in repairs, for both its roof and metal support pilings, and has become a serious financial liability for the Trust. Even though Pier 40 pulls in $5 million annually in revenue from its parking operation, Wils and Trust officials say the cost of repairing the deteriorating pier has grown too costly — especially since Pier 40 ideally was supposed to have been redeveloped by now. The Trust has had to dip into its reserve fund to pay for a $6 million fix of the northeastern section of the pier’s roof, which is currently midway to completion.

‘A difficult decision’

“It’s a difficult decision to make — no one wants to make this decision — but we don’t have the money for these repairs,” Wils added of the pier shutdown scenario. “We’re going to do our best to keep it open.”

Not only would Pier 40 be lost, but were it to close, Hudson River Park as a result would also lose about 40 percent of its annual revenue.

Two previous attempts by the Trust in the past decade to find a developer for Pier 40 that would pay for the pier’s repairs were sunk in the face of community opposition, as well as developers’ need for a lease longer than 30 years, which is all that’s currently allowed under the park’s legislation.

However, earlier this year, a new study of Pier 40 commissioned by the local youth sports leagues that heavily use the pier’s playing fields found that high-end residential development on the pier would produce the least impact yet yield the highest revenue compared to other options. But residential use isn’t allowed under the 1998 park act, so a legislative modification would be needed.

A “Strategic Task Force” of select community leaders considered the consultants’ report as part of their brainstorming on how to improve the park’s finances.

Wils said the Trust is now assessing the cost of continuing to pour money into Pier 40 for repairs, but with the hope that in five to seven years there will be a long-term plan in place for the pier’s redevelopment.

But former state Senator Franz Leichter, another board member, noted that the Trust’s effort to change the park act to increase options for Pier 40 still faces opposition.

‘State of denial’

“A number of people got out of the state of denial and rejection — not everybody,” Leichter said. “Since the community is so dependent on the pier and cares about it so much, we have to make them understand that there’s a point at which that pier is going to have to be closed.”

In fact, Leichter — a co-author of the park act — said Pier 40 has always been a thorny issue. He said the park act would have been passed back in 1994, instead of 1998, if not for “all the turmoil around Pier 40.”

“We need legislative changes,” he stressed, “but the legislation that didn’t pass [this June] didn’t really include changes for Pier 40.”

‘A managed shutdown’

Speaking later, Wils said, even with making some of the emergency fixes over the next few years, the Trust still is facing the possibility of having to do “a managed shutdown” of Pier 40 as it continues to decay.

“Because, even if we deal with all the repairs on the roof, we still have the piles,” she noted.

Asked if the Trust will continue to push for changes to the park act, she said, “Yes, I think that it’s imperative.”

As for the legislative changes, she said, the Trust would like to see those go farther than what was proposed this past June. Those proposed modifications did not include a provision for residential use at Pier 40. They did, however, include an allowance for a CUNY art gallery or museum, but it wasn’t clear if those uses weren’t already allowed under the existing legislation. Obviously, a CUNY gallery wouldn’t bring in anywhere near the revenue of 600 to 800 units of luxury rental housing.

“We would be looking for more revisions,” Wils said. “We’re having internal discussions with the city and state. We have to put the park on firm financial footing, and Pier 40 is part of that mix.”

Pro soccer punts

Major League Soccer was also eyeing the West Houston St. pier earlier this year for a new soccer arena, but the plan lacked political support. Legislative changes also would have been needed to permit a soccer stadium. But after the state Legislature recessed in June without amending the park act, MLS shifted its focus to Flushing Meadows, in Queens.

Glick kicks housing

Asked about the Trust’s warning of a Pier 40 shutdown, Assemblymember Deborah Glick reiterated her opposition to the housing idea.

Glick slammed what she called the Trust’s “continuing attempt to stampede people into believing there’s only one solution — and that’s residential.”

Housing should not be built on scarce parkland, she insisted.

She said if the mayor has $260 million for Governors Island and money for other parks, Hudson River Park deserves public funds, too.

“The discussion [about Pier 40] has only been around since about May, and I don’t think the discussion has been sufficiently broad,” Glick said. “A task force with a handful of people is not enough.

“We want to find a solution — a joint solution,” Glick said, “but it has to begin with them giving up the residential idea.”

Changing the park act

The Assembly bill that would have modified the 1998 park act never came up for a vote in June, and there was never a state Senate version of the bill.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, the original park act’s other co-author, put his name on the bill with the proposed legislative changes, but indicated he hadn’t been very enthusiastic about it. Glick, though, said she would have supported it.

“The bill was partly put in as a placeholder,” Gottfried explained, “partly to get a draft out in the public, so people could see it and comment on it. I don’t know if anyone thought it should become law,” Gottfried said, though adding, “It was a start.”

Gottfried loathes the pier’s three-story shed, calling it “the outrageous Pier 40 structure.” It’s unattractive and blocks river views, he said.

He’s hopeful a modified version of the legislative changes will pass when lawmakers reconvene.

“I’m optimistic that there will be strong community support and that a strong bill will be enacted,” Gottfried said. “Hopefully, things don’t come down to passing something over anybody’s objection,” he said, clearly referring to Glick.

A bill could possibly come up for a vote at a special session in Albany in November or December, otherwise it could be voted on with the state budget in March.

‘Fiercely’ against residential

The group FIERCE, which advocates for gay and lesbian youth who flock to the Christopher St. Pier, also opposes residential use on Pier 40. They fear it would impact on their nearby stomping ground, “gentrifying” the waterfront, pushing them out.

“I wouldn’t say FIERCE is necessarily opposed to opening up the park act,” said Krystal Portalatin, the group’s co-director. “But if you open up the act, it has to have community buy-in… . We don’t want more private spaces, residential or a hotel. We don’t think it would be good for L.G.B.T.”

Park Improvement District

One revenue-boosting idea, however, that seems to have general support is for a Neighborhood Improvement District that would include the park.

A.J. Pietrantone, executive director of Friends of Hudson River Park — the Trust’s private fundraising wing — said this district would extend east from the park seven-tenths of a mile, which in the Village would mean to Hudson St. Residential property owners would be assessed 7 cents per square foot; so a 1,000-square-foot apartment would be taxed $70 per year. About one-third of the property in the proposed district is residential, the rest commercial.

The assessment would be used to fund the park’s maintenance needs, tend the West Side Highway median and the plantings along the highway’s eastern edge, and make the highway crossings safer. This funding district could generate up to $8 million to $10 million per year, he said.

A steering committee of property owners would need to come up with a final plan, after which there would be feedback and an evaluation of whether the scheme had sufficient support. Then it would be presented to the City Planning Commission, followed by a vote by the City Council.

Pietrantone said there has been no “organized” opposition to the idea.

“Basically, we have to get 50 percent of the property owners and 50 percent of the assessed property value to go forward,” he explained. According to him, the improvement district could be operating within two years.

Chelsea Piers loses lawsuit

The Trust had a big win last month when a State Supreme Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Chelsea Piers Management that would have forced the Trust to pay $37 million to repair the sports complex’s wooden pier pilings, which are being eaten by marine borers. The Trust plans to countersue to ensure Chelsea Piers makes the repairs, and is currently assessing the work’s cost.

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