Survey says? C.B. 2 to release online poll on future of Pier 40

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At a meeting on Pier 40 two months ago, a leader of the Downtown United Soccer Club presented some of the league’s ideas for the pier, including a modest commercial use — adding a cafe — and increasing the amount of playing-field space. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | So far, a series of meetings by a Community Board 2 working group focusing on Pier 40 have not exactly been going gangbusters in terms of drawing crowds of local residents.

To solicit more ideas and concerns about the planned redevelopment of the sprawling W. Houston St. pier, C.B. 2 now will be sending out an e-survey. Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the board’s ad hoc Future of Pier 40 Working Group, said the survey will be going out next week.

Few details were available at press time about the survey’s actual contents or exactly which e-mail lists will be used to distribute it — though, obviously the C.B. 2 list will be used.

In a recent interview, Bergman told The Villager, “We decided to do a survey to give a broader segment of the community a chance to weigh in, because the turnout at these meetings hasn’t been huge — because there hasn’t been anything on the table. Usually people start coming out [to meetings] when there’s a plan on the table.”

Although the Hudson River Park Trust, the waterfront park’s governing authority, has had one or more representatives at the meetings, which have been going for a few months now, so far no concrete plans have been broached by the Trust. What is known is that the Trust wants to redevelop Pier 40 to generate more revenue for both the massive W. Houston St. pier’s maintenance and the wider park, in general.

The Trust has tried, without success, to find ideas for the pier for more than a decade now. Two previous requests for proposals, or R.F.P.’s, from developers for plans to redevelop Pier 40 both went bust after the community opposed the proposals. Those failed ideas ranged from the world’s largest oceanarium during the first R.F.P. to a Cirque du Soleil-centered “Vegas on the Hudson” plan by The Related Companies during the subsequent R.F.P.

This past May, a deal was closed under which the Trust is selling 200,000 square feet of unused development rights from Pier 40 to the developers of the St. John’s Partners project at 550 Washington St. That project will see the old St. John’s Terminal redeveloped into a new residential-and-hotel complex with a significant amount of affordable housing included.

But Pier 40 still has remaining air rights, and if the pier’s current three-story pier shed is demolished, even more development rights will be available to build new structures on the pier.

“The difficult thing,” Bergman said, “will be to try to figure out how to protect the park from another overblown development project” without totally impeding the Trust from trying to redevelop Pier 40 at all.

The main goal of the Trust right now, he said, is to modify the park’s governing legislation, the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, to allow commercial office space to be built at Pier 40. Currently, under the legislation, space equal to 50 percent of the pier’s footprint must be reserved for recreational park use, while the rest of the pier can be used commercially to generate revenue for the park.

“What the Trust has made clear over the years is that they want as much flexibility as they get,” he noted.

The Pioneers team proudly took the field at Pier 40 at a Greenwich Village Little League Opening Day parade a few years ago. The pier’s enormous courtyard sports field is a sacred cow for local families. Villager file photo

But if what the Trust proposes is out of scale, no doubt there will be community backlash.

“If it’s huge, there will be resistance,” Bergman assured. “Scale is a huge issue.”

The former C.B. 2 chairperson and longtime local youth sports and parks activist noted that the pier has a floor-area ratio, or F.A.R., of 2 — meaning that if all the pier’s original development rights were still intact, the entire 15.4-acre pier could be covered solidly with two stories of floor space. Subtracting the 200,000 square feet that were sold to the St. John’s Partners project for $100 million still leaves the pier with a lot of usable development rights.

“You end up with half the floor area of the Empire State Building,” Bergman offered for comparison. “That’s what you could put there. What would be left would be 1.15 million square feet — the Empire State Building is 2.25 million square feet.

“And if you put offices there, you will have to have a certain amount of ancillary stuff — restaurants, cafes, coffee shops,” he noted.

The “density of the office space” will be a key issue, he predicted.

“If 10,000 people are working there, that would be a disaster,” Bergman warned. “Five thousand sounds like it’s still a lot.”

On the other hand, what the pier currently has — recreational park uses (its sports fields) and parking — are uses that have less impact and are less dense in terms of numbers of people on the pier.

Ultimately, Bergman pointed to the language of the park act as the guideline for any redevelopment of the pier. The legislation, he noted, says that “to the extent practicable,” the park will generate income through park commercial uses for the park’s maintenance and operation.

(“It is intended that, to the extent practicable…the costs of the operation and maintenance of the park be paid by revenues generated within the Hudson River Park and that those revenues be used only for park purposes. Additional funding by the state and the city may be allocated as necessary to meet the costs of operating and maintaining the park.”)

Looking at it another way, Bergman said, it isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a question of how much money the Trust wants to milk out of Pier 40, “but what can the park and the community take?”

“We don’t want to fight it again. That’s why we’re doing this,” he said of the working group’s goal of having recommendations for Pier 40 in place by the end of this year.

What is not wanted is another failed R.F.P., which would be “strike three” for Pier 40 after two previous processes tanked, he stressed.

“That would make chances even less likely it’ll happen,” he said. “We want a successful park / commercial project that can generate funds for the park. But,” he added, “the purpose of the park is not to raise money. The park’s commercial part has to be compatible.”

Personally, Bergman said he would have preferred some residential development as a way to raise funds for the park. Around five years ago, a group he helped spearhead, Pier 40 Champions — a coalition of the local youth sports leagues — proposed the idea of building two luxury residential towers near the bike path at the foot of Pier 40 as a revenue generator. But it never got off the ground due to lack of political support. Like office use, it would have needed a legislative amendment, since the park act doesn’t allow residential use. The leagues wouldn’t have built the towers, but they just suggested the idea.

“I thought the answer was a limited amount of residential,” Bergman reflected, “but the politicians didn’t want that, so we conceded that.”

Meanwhile, the Trust is not helping clarify things, in that it isn’t giving any real specifics on what it wants to see at Pier 40.

The Villager asked a Trust spokesperson if she could provide some more details about what the authority is envisioning, but she replied, “On Pier 40, the Trust respects the community board’s process and is not commenting at this point.”

At least one thing that is very clear, though: Bergman doesn’t want any of the potential office employees on Pier 40 thinking they’ll get insider dibs on the pier’s coveted courtyard or rooftop artificial-turf sports fields.

“They should have no special access to the fields,” he stressed. “No, not the same access to the fields as everyone else, because they already will be dominating the pier. Those fields are there for the community — not to make the pier more attractive to a commercial office use. I think that they would really have to be at the end of the line.”

Another big concern for the local leagues, like Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club, and local schools that use the pier is that the playing fields never shut down.

However, the fear is that a massive Pier 40 project could close the pier for several years, meaning the leagues will have to scramble to find alternative field space.

“They should not close down the fields for construction,” Bergman stressed.