Two plans pushed to save Pier 40 fields

The Pier 40 Champions plan by WXY Architects includes an elevated jogging track over the pier’s courtyard.  Image courtesy of Howard Hughes
The Pier 40 Champions plan by WXY Architects includes an elevated jogging track over the pier’s courtyard. Image courtesy of Howard Hughes

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON   | With two competing proposals recently floated for Pier 40, Community Board 2 will hold a forum on Thurs., Feb. 28 on the ongoing, contentious issue of how best to redevelop the sprawling West Houston St. pier.

One of the plans is by a coalition of local youth sports leagues called Pier 40 Champions. Their proposal calls for the construction of two residential towers sited just east of Pier 40 on parkland within the Hudson River Park. Revenue from the towers would help fund repairs and redevelopment of the 15-acre, three-story pier, which needs tens of millions of dollars to fix up its corroded steel support piles and eroded concrete roof. The payoff for the youth leagues is that the pier would be opened up to increased use for sports fields, which now includes even more field space than it originally did.

The field expansion could mean playing time for children in neighborhoods like Tribeca and Battery Park City, and parent leaders further Downtown are beginning to sign onto the Champions plan.

The rival concept for Pier 40 is by Douglas Durst, former chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, in partnership with Ben Korman, who formerly ran the pier’s parking operation. It would utilize the pier’s existing shed structure for a mix of high-tech office space and retail, along with parking. Durst is not an advocate for housing either on Pier 40 or anywhere in the park.

Allowing housing in the Hudson River Park would require the state Legislature to modify the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, which prohibits residential use.

Meanwhile, the Hudson River Park Trust appears favorable toward the Pier 40 Champions plan, with its residential component, as a solution for helping save both Pier 40 and the entire 5-mile-long park, yet, at the same time, is also interested in the idea of parking stackers, as contained in the Durst plan.

The park is suffering a serious cash flow problem, which will only worsen in coming years, according to the Trust, as state and city funding have tapered off.

The Hudson River Park is supposed to be financially self-sustaining, and Pier 40 is one of its primary designated commercial “nodes.” However, under the Park Act, 50 percent of the pier’s footprint also must remain open for park use.

Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that operates the park, and Michael Novogratz, the new chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, recently sat down for an interview. Novogratz, formerly a board member of the Trust, switched over to the Friends — the park’s leading fundraising arm — after Durst bailed from the Friends at the end of last year, saying he disagreed with the Trust’s direction on Pier 40.

Wils and Novogratz are sending the message that — after the fallout with Durst — things are now “kumbaya” between the Trust and Friends, that they’re on the same page regarding the park and, especially, Pier 40.

Wils noted that the Trust has retained a leading commercial real estate advisory firm, Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, to crunch the financials for both the Champions and the Durst plans to assess their feasibility in terms of generating the needed millions in revenue for the park.

“What we’re looking for is the most risk averse plan for the pier,” Wils said.

Asked if she supported the Pier 40 Champions plan, she responded, “I’m not signing onto any project, but the residential on the upland [part of the park, as opposed to on the pier itself] gives more parkland on Pier 40… I’m a parkie.”

She added that more options for Pier 40 are needed, and that, “The best way to get more options is to open the act up,” as in modify the legislation to allow currently illegal uses, such as housing.

Novogratz, president of Fortress Investment Group, said that there are a lot of “wealthy, creative people” who live along the park from Tribeca up through the Village and Chelsea, and that he’s confident they’ll be able to tap into that pool to fundraise for the park.

“If we haven’t raised substantially more money over the next five years, I would see our tenure as a failure,” he said, referring to the previous five years of fundraising by the Friends.

“This is not being done to make a half a million dollar donation to the park each year,” he stressed. “This is the richest city in America and a ton of people use this park.”

He was joined at the sit-down by Scott Lawin, the new vice chairperson of the Friends, replacing Korman, who resigned from the group along with Durst last December. Novogratz and Lawin — who is the managing director of Moore Capital Management — noted they had just hosted a fundraiser in Tribeca for the park the previous night that netted a cool $200,000. Novogratz, Lawin and Wils all live in Tribeca.

The Trust and Friends are also pushing a plan for a neighborhood improvement district, or NID, that would extend two or three blocks inland from the park to assess property owners a small tax each year. The revenue would be used to help with the park’s maintenance and even capital costs and would also fund upkeep of the highway median and create safer highway crossings, among other things.

Wils added, “The park needs the NID, the park needs private funding and the park needs to generate funding from the revenue nodes [designated piers].”

As for the ideal plan for Pier 40, Novogratz said, “There’s a great line a judge had about pornography — ‘I know it when I see it.’ That’s what I think it’ll be like with Pier 40 — when there’s a good plan, we’ll know it when we see it: Someone comes up with the idea of residential on the upland… Stacking cars might be a piece of it,” he said, referring to automated parking stackers, which are featured in the Durst plan as a way to consolidate the pier’s parking operation to free up space for other revenue-generating uses.

Asked how any plan with residential use would be O.K.’d if all the local legislators oppose it — which currently appears to be the case — Wils downplayed the issue.

“I don’t think asking our opinion about what the elected officials will do is very useful,” she said.

“At the end of the day, we’re dealing with a 15-acre piece of infrastructure that’s severely debilitated — and it’s getting worse,” she emphasized.

“If a fairy godmother gave us infinite sums, would I put residential on the pier? No,” Novogratz said, adding, “I wouldn’t put parking on the pier either. I wouldn’t put anything there. You gotta try to figure out the Rubik’s Cube — and it’s complicated.”

Asked about the Durst plan, Wils indicated she’d simply like to see more options, in general. The problem, she said, is really that there hasn’t been a comparison of “three or four plans” for the pier. However, she did say, “Intuitively, stacking parking seems like it would work.”

To get a comparison of a larger number of concept plans, Wils continued, it’s necessary to put out a request for proposals, or R.F.P., to developers. However, the Trust can’t cast a wide net for uses if so many of these uses are illegal, she noted. Hence, the need for modifying the park’s legislation.

“We’re pushing to get the legislation done as soon possible,” she said, assuring, “We will get legislation.

“If the local youth leagues came up with that with their architects,” she said, referring to the Champions plan and WXY Architects, the firm they worked with, “what other plans are we not seeing?”

Novogratz — a major booster of U.S. wrestling, who was wearing a Princeton Wrestling windbreaker during the sit-down — said he could envision some sort of recreation center on Pier 40, with the funding for it raised privately. “Just a big jock,” he said, describing himself after being asked about wrestling.

“It’s very difficult to go up to someone and say, ‘Give me $10 million to fix the piles,’ he noted, contrasting that with the attractiveness of ideas like a rec center or other conspicuous uses.

How about the idea of transferring air rights from Pier 40 across the highway to the St. John’s Center building? they were asked. This is an idea that reportedly has been kicking around in real estate circles, and could conceivably generate revenue for the park, though undoubtedly would be controversial.

Wils said, in fact, they have been looking at this, but the idea would be to see if they can transfer all of the park’s air rights to one single site — she didn’t say where that might be — for a development project.

Novogratz said that a key part of the Friends’ fundraising ability — as for any fundraiser — is being able to convey “excitement,” and that’s something he clearly feels.

He has four children and numerous brothers and sisters, and all their nieces and nephews, living Downtown, and they all use the park, he noted. Lawin is married with two children, and they, too, are all big park users.

In related news, Fortress, his firm, recently purchased a controlling share of the St. John’s Center, across from Pier 40. But Novogratz is more on the investment side of the company — not its real estate division — and he and Wils shared a laugh, saying that he didn’t even know about the connection until Wils notified him about a news article she read.

Returning to residential use at Pier 40, local elected officials remain opposed.

New State Senator Brad Hoylman said “I have serious reservations about residential development in the park. These concerns have heightened considerably since the aftermath of Sandy.

“I’m confident that through a robust public process that involves all the stakeholders, public officials and the community, we’ll find a plan for Pier 40 that is financially viable, expands fields and open space, and has the least possible impact on the park and the surrounding neighborhood.”

State Senator Daniel Squadron said “Whether we’re talking about Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park or any public park, I’ve had longstanding concerns about housing on public parkland. Over time, those who live there have a fundamentally different relationship with the park than the broader public.

“We must continue to work together to find sources of funding to stabilize Pier 40 and support Hudson River Park for the long term,” Squadron added. “Each of these visions [Pier 40 Champions and Durst plans] represents a broad concept and will help inform legislative and funding decisions; none are proposals that could be accepted or rejected today.”

Assemblymember Deborah Glick has been a staunch opponent of residential use in the park. She said the Champions plan “is a very intriguing picture, but has no details. And the Trust, which alleges — Madelyn alleges they have no money — is about to spend money on doing an analysis of it, which I do not really understand because it is not a legal use, and none of the relevant legislators that represent the area support it.

“So, I’m mystified,” Glick said, adding — in a reference to the Durst proposal — “and I think we could have gotten further along if the Trust cooperated on an adaptive reuse plan.”

A recent article in Crain’s about the Pier 40 Champions plan, referring to the opposition of Hoylman and Squadron to housing in the park, was headlined, “Key politicians shoot down new Pier 40 plan.”

However, Tobi Bergman, president of P3 (Pier, Park & Playground Association), a member of the Champions group, said he was confident in the youth leagues’ eventual success.

“We don’t feel shot down,” he said. “I know [Squadron and Hoylman] both understand the importance of providing more sports fields for our growing communities, finding the best solution for Pier 40 and finding a way out of the crisis the park is in.

“We don’t expect elected officials to just say yes,” he noted. “We do expect them to support the needs of their constituents, to respect the hard work we have done, to problem-solve with us, and keep their minds open to all possible solutions, as we are confident they will.”