PIER PRESSURE: Activist files Pier 40 lawsuit


By Albert Amateau

Volume 73, Number 36 | January 7 – 13, 2004


Activist files Pier 40 lawsuit

Arthur Schwartz, a Greenwich Village park and waterfront activist, served papers on the Hudson River Park Trust last week in a lawsuit seeking to force the Trust to designate a permanent developer for Pier 40 and to stop any action to install interim uses on the 14-acre pier, including expanded parking and construction of an athletic field.

The often-delayed redevelopment of Pier 40 for mixed commercial and recreation use has long been the source of controversy among park advocates, elected officials and the Trust, the state-city agency planning and building the five-mile riverfront park between the Battery and 59th St.

The suit by Schwartz, the Village’s male Democratic district leader and former Community Board 2 Waterfront Committee chairperson, was filed on behalf of the West Village Community Alliance for Parks and Playgrounds, Inc., a park advocacy group he organized in 1993, originally to rehabilitate Bleecker Playground.

The suit charges that the Trust violated state legislation by failing to designate and negotiate with a developer as planned last June. The action also charges the Trust with violating the Open Meetings Laws in connection with the decision.

Chris Martin, spokesperson for the Trust, said the agency had received papers pertaining to the suit on Dec. 29 but would not comment on it this week. “We don’t ordinarily comment on pending lawsuits, but we might issue a statement later,” he said. The suit requires the Trust to appear in court on Feb. 3, when a judge will be assigned and a hearing date for February will be set.

Some neighborhood park advocates, although critical of the Trust’s failure to proceed with the permanent redevelopment of the mammoth W. Houston St. pier, found fault with Schwartz’s suit, saying they supported an interim plan that could provide an artificial turf playing field by the summer of this year.

Tobi Bergman, head of Pier Park and Playground Association, the nonprofit group that currently runs recreation on Pier 40 as a tenant of the Trust, said his group, along with the Greenwich Village Little League and the Downtown United Soccer Club, was in favor of an interim playing field in the courtyard of Pier 40. “We also support moving forward with permanent development of the pier, but for now we’re in favor of the Trust proposal,” Bergman said.

State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, long a critic of the Trust, was also leery of Schwartz’s case. Glick acknowledged that Schwartz’s 1997 lawsuit against the state Department of Transportation had won Governor Pataki’s agreement to build a youth athletic field on the southeast corner of the pier’s rooftop and also to provide an indoor field and other space for community use on the pier. But she said on Jan. 5 that a settlement of the current suit could make Schwartz the only person sitting across the table from the Trust.

Nevertheless, Glick said the Trust should not be allowed to put off Pier 40’s permanent development indefinitely.

Last month, Charles Dorkey III, chairperson of the Trust board of directors, told an Assembly committee that the Trust intended to engage a marketing survey firm to determine how best to redevelop Pier 40 and to suggest possible changes in the Hudson River Park’s legislation to facilitate the pier’s development.

“I’m not eager to make major changes, but I’m willing to look at narrow changes,” said Glick, adding, “I’m not opposed to waiting a few months to see what development possibilities there might be as long as they’re compatible with the park.”

The Trust last year rejected proposals from three potential developers after inviting them to submit amended plans. The Trust said the proposals failed to meet the Trust’s development goals and that it would be better to wait until the economy improved to undertake the pier’s redevelopment.

At the same time, the Trust announced plans for interim use of the pier. Space for 800 to 900 more cars in addition to the present 2,000 parking spaces on the pier and construction of a $5 million temporary, 3.2-acre playing field were also part of the interim plan. The interim parking plan for Pier 40 calls for a contract with an initial term of four years with three one-year extensions.

Originally, Schwartz had planned to file the suit on behalf of Friends of Hudson River Park, but the Friends decided to hold off when Dorkey allegedly promised that the Trust would move expeditiously to either pick a developer or reissue a request for proposals for developers for the pier.

Yet, in case the Trust did not follow through on its alleged promise and to allow him to potentially activate the suit later, Schwartz made sure to file the lawsuit in State Supreme Court last October, just before the statute of limitations was set to expire. He then had 120 days in which to activate the case. Saying he wanted to “let it run” a bit, he held off serving papers on the Trust until Mon. Dec. 29.

“They [the Trust] had agreed to start the Pier 40 process expeditiously, but instead they have an interim plan for seven to 10 years. I don’t think they’ve done anything to make the situation better,” Schwartz said. “If they had done something, the suit would have stayed in my computer,” he said.

“I’m not a Lone Ranger in this suit,” said Schwartz, adding that though no one initially knew he had served the Trust with papers, they do now. He said he would have had more plaintiffs if he’d sued in October. As for his playgrounds group, he said it includes “dues-paying members.”

Schwartz seeks a court order directing the Trust to select one or more developers and negotiate a Pier 40 lease. An alternative remedy, the suit says, would be to order the Trust to issue a new request for proposals and “expeditiously” carry forward the process of selecting a developer and negotiating a lease.

But Stuart Waldman, president of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront and Great Port, said he feared that if Schwartz won the suit, the result could be worse than it is now.

Waldman noted that the Trust rejected proposals for a big-box store and an oceanarium — planned as the world’s second-largest aquarium — that many community activists found unacceptable. “If he wins, there’s nothing to stop the Trust from getting the same proposals or worse and designating whomever they want,” said Waldman.

“The major issue is the Trust’s control of the process,” Waldman said, “We have to find a way to do something about that.”

As to Glick’s fear that he’d be the “only one at the table,” Schwartz said if the case reaches negotiations before a judge or with the Trust, he’d bring in all the local elected officials and “anyone from the community who wants to work on this.”

Schwartz added that the lawsuit could also force the termination of the new parking permit issued by the Trust to Standard Parking, which took over management of the parking operation at the pier as of Jan. 1, 2004.

Schwartz noted he was also the attorney who brought suit in 1998 on behalf of then-Councilmember Tom Duane and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried to remove a restaurant, Aquamarine, from W. 26th St. in the park, after it overstayed its lease.

One activist wondered if Schwartz, in filing the suit, was just trying to put some pressure on the Trust. He also suggested that without support of the youth leagues, the suit might not stand much chance of winning.

But Schwartz said the lawsuit is not half-hearted.

“I don’t file lawsuits that aren’t serious,” he said, adding that, for example, in addition to not picking a developer for Pier 40, the Trust hasn’t been giving 60-day notification before making major changes to the park plan. “I want them to function within the guidelines set up within the law,” he said.