Pier 40 / St. John’s deal is a win so many ways

BY ANDREW BERMAN | From a neighborhood preservation perspective, the final outcome on the Pier 40 / St. John’s Terminal deal is about as good as one could hope for.

We got unprecedented zoning and landmark protections for the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as changes to the planned St. John’s Terminal development at Houston and West Sts. that will significantly reduce this project’s impact upon nearby areas.

First, we were able to get landmark designation of the third and final phase of our proposed South Village Historic District, just a few blocks from the site. Now this 10-block historic, low-rise residential area — including beloved monuments like St. Anthony of Padua Church — will have the strongest protections possible against inappropriate demolition and out-of-scale new development.

Councilmember Corey Johnson speaking at the dedication of the NYC AIDS Memorial in Greenwich Village on Dec. 1.  Photo by William F. Alatriste / NYC Council
Councilmember Corey Johnson speaking at the dedication of the NYC AIDS Memorial in Greenwich Village on Dec. 1. Photo by William F. Alatriste / NYC Council

The city resisted landmarking this area for more than 10 years. We did get it to landmark the first two phases of our proposed historic district, between Houston and W. Fourth Sts., and LaGuardia Place and Seventh Ave. South, in 2010 and 2013. With the current zoning for this now-landmarked area allowing 300-foot-tall towers, and developers like Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner buying up properties in the area, designation did not come a moment too soon.

Second, we also got strict limits on any further air-rights transfers from the Hudson River Park into Community Board 2 (between W. 14th to Canal Sts.). Estimates of the amount of the park’s air rights that the state Legislature in 2013 allowed to be transferred into this and other park-adjacent neighborhoods is about 1.6 million square feet. Thus, this limitation we won on future transfers is a huge victory, which will pay dividends for generations to come by protecting our neighborhood from the threat of massive overdevelopment that we could have seen on our westernmost blocks.

Finally, we eliminated the proposed “big box” stores and oversized “destination retail” from the planned St. John’s development, which would have drawn shoppers by car from across the metropolitan area, greatly exacerbating local traffic problems. Instead, we got limits on the total amount and size of stores allowed in the project.

There can be no understating of the impact of these measures, which were the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s three central demands throughout this process. Thousands of Villagers stood up for these goals, the community board made them among its top priorities, and most importantly, City Councilmember Corey Johnson fought for and secured their inclusion in the final deal.

It’s rare that G.V.S.H.P. has much positive to say about deals involving large new developments, and this one will be among the largest. But this case was different than many other prior battles.

Most important, a huge development could have and almost undoubtedly would have been built on the St. John’s Terminal site, no matter what. By contrast, when G.V.S.H.P. opposed granting any approvals for New York University’s expansion plan or for a huge addition atop Chelsea Market, no new construction was allowed on those sites due to the then-existing zoning restrictions. So, what was in play in the current St. John’s case was not whether or not something could get built — but rather what its impact would be, and the benefits and mitigations for the surrounding community that would or wouldn’t be included along with it.

If this development application had not been approved, there would be no public benefits and no zoning or landmark protections attached. Additionally, under current zoning, a development on the St. John’s site would have been an entirely commercial structure — featuring offices, hotels, event space and retail. The traffic this would have generated would have been exponentially larger than the residential uses that will dominate the approved project.

In addition, there would have been no height limits or design controls applied to a project under the existing zoning. The “as of right” scheme for development on this site was a monolithic 600-foot-tall tower north of Houston St. The approved development, on the other hand, while still way too tall at 450 feet, will at least be broken up into several slender setback towers.

As part of the deal, the approved development will also provide both indoor and outdoor public space. Thirty percent of the units will be below-market-rate primary residences for middle- and lower-income New Yorkers, particularly seniors, and thus won’t be the perennially empty pied-à-terres for globetrotting billionaires we see in so many other new developments. And the developer will pay $100 million toward repairing the public playing fields on Pier 40 and other Superstorm Sandy-damaged infrastructure on that pier.

This last benefit comes from what is perhaps the most controversial element of the deal — namely, the Hudson River Park’s selling 200,000 square feet of air rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s site. We continue to believe that allowing air-rights sales from the park is a bad policy that could lead to grossly inappropriate overdevelopment of waterfront blocks, and that alternatives for raising funds for the park that G.V.S.H.P. and a coalition of community groups offered years ago should be utilized instead.

But had we not acted now, to attach a proscription against further air-rights sales into our community to this one-time-only sale of a fraction of the park’s total available air rights, the outcome no doubt would have been much worse. Right now, we have a city councilmember who was willing and able fight to ensure that no more air-rights transfers were allowed than necessary to pay for the urgently needed repairs for Pier 40, and to protect our community from the possibility of the other 85 percent of the park’s unused air rights being transferred into our neighborhood at some point in the future.

One does not have to look far back in our past to see a time when we did not have a city councilmember who was willing to fight for such neighborhood protections — and the reality is we may not always have one in our future. Factors such as term limits and larger political ambitions, which can enable councilmembers to ignore the wishes of the local communities that elected them, mean we would have likely faced the day when we couldn’t prevent the city and the City Council from transferring many more of those air rights into our neighborhood. The limitations we won on future air-rights transfers are about as strong a bulwark as we could achieve against that possibility in the future, thus potentially saving us from a future fight to protect our neighborhood we would have been much less likely to have won. And the restrictions we secured against future air-rights transfers were approved over the objections of the powerful Hudson River Park Trust, as well as the wishes of the City Planning Commission.

They say politics is the art of the possible. When we see hostility at so many levels of government to preservation efforts and an ever-more emboldened real estate lobby, the Pier 40 / St. John’s deal we fought for was probably the biggest win possible for our community. We are extremely grateful to the countless individuals who worked with us in this effort, particularly Community Board 2.  And we’re most especially grateful to Councilmember Corey Johnson, who championed these issues throughout the process, and ultimately made them a reality.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation