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At a Pier 40 Forum, One Plan Emerges as the Public Favorite

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It was standing room only?not at some hit Broadway show, but at last night's community board meeting on the future of Pier 40. A couple hundred people packed into a room at Saatchi & Saatchi, just blocks from the plot of land in question, which juts out into the Hudson River near the westernmost ends of Clarkson and West Houston streets. Currently surrounded by a parking lot and home to playing fields used and beloved by local sports leagues (see photo, above right), it's completely rundown?requiring new stairwells, repairs to the sanitary system and the roof, and running on generators since the electricity doesn't work?and losing the Hudson River Park Trust $2 million a year, according to executive director Madelyn Wils. Oh, and it's also sinking into the river.

Two groups, the Durst Organization, led by former Friends of the Hudson River Park chairman Douglas Durst, and the Pier 40 Champions, presented competing visions for the land; the former advocates adding retail and commercial space to keep the pier financially sustainable; the latter would rather build two residential towers along the river, which would bankroll their goal to keep the pier exclusively devoted to recreation. Based on applause levels and general attendee murmuring, it was easy to determine which plan emerged victorious?even though Community Board 2 chair David Gruber emphasized throughout the forum that this is just the first of a series, and that neither plan is ready to or is even permitted (according to various city planning rules and park restrictions) to be executed right away.

Guided by a philosophy of "adaptive reuse," Durst plans to keep the structure on the pier virtually as is, renovating it to create three tiers. The first level would be a parking garage, which is what takes up the perimeter of the existing playing fields, with space for retail and other revenue-generating outlets facing east, towards the park's esplanade and the Hudson River Greenway. The mezzanine level would house the playing fields, surrounded by offices (see above, with the office windows to the right of the steps down to the fields). A rooftop area would allow extra recreational space, the Durst team said.

Dotted throughout the audience were square lime-green buttons emblazoned with "Save Pier 40." It was unclear to whom the button-wearers had allegiance (since presumably both parties are trying to save the thing) until the Pier 40 Champions headed to the podium to take their turn. Headed by Tobi Bergman, the group is made up of eight sports leagues; their main agenda is securing well-maintained playing fields for guaranteed use, well, forever. In plain terms, the organization opposes the hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail and office space put forth by the Durst Organization, fearing a repeat of one of the many past failed proposals for the pier, which aimed to lure big-box stores and entertainment venues as tenants. Instead, the Pier 40 Champions want to renovate the fields, move them to the ground level, and add more fields where there are currently parking spaces now. Here's the catch: to finance the whole thing, they want to amend the Hudson River Park act to allow residential development along the riverfront, set back from the pier in the uplands (see rendering below).

Constructing the two buildings with units for rental and purchase pictured would finance the work on the pier, which would also include an effort to make the waterfront accessible to Hudson River Park-goers by connecting the existing esplanade with a ground-level walkway that goes around the pier, in effect opening up a new riverside swath to the public that's previously been dangerous or off-limits. "We don't want cars there," Bergman said. "We want park there!" Then: "That's what I'm talking about right there," muttered a gentleman in the audience wearing a soccer jersey (and flanked by the rest of his team) during the Pier 40 Champions presentation. "What I want to know is, what's the fastest plan? When we're going to get our fields back."

So will commercial and office space or residential units ultimately keep Pier 40 in the black? The WSJ this morning sheds some light: one study recently found that the Pier 40 Champions' will likely be more profitable than Durst's. But at the entrance to the community board meeting, there were advocates urging attendees to sign a petition that would prevent residential development near the pier, and the Village Independent Democrats penned a resolution with the same sentiment. Despite that corner of opposition, the Pier 40 Champions' plan (see another rendering of the fields and a jogging track below) got the most applause, with whistles and hoots coming from the sports league members, which turned out in full force. Though the friendly debate was both packed and passionate, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said it best when he explained what comes next in some introductory remarks: "Le's make sure this is not the last meeting." So onto the next forum we go.