A long-ignored West Village pier could partially transform into a hub of commercial office space under new state legislation, but not everyone is sold on the plan.
Pier 40 is one of Hudson River Park’s few cash cows, where millions in revenue can be generated to help operate the five-mile green space stretching from the Battery to 59th Street. A bill creating the waterfront park passed the state legislature in 1998, but with the provision that it sustain itself with funds earned from the commercial sites within its bounds. That stipulation has forced the Hudson River Park Trust, a nonprofit that controls the park, to be creative; it’s eager to see the pier’s allowed uses expanded to include office development.
Now, a proposed amendment to the Hudson River Park Act would permit up to 700,000 square feet of commercial office space with structures no taller than 88 feet. Under the changes, the Hudson River Park Trust could enter into a 49 year lease with a developer, with the option of one 25-year renewal. It would also increase the percentage of public open space on the pier from 50 to 65 percent. Proposals to develop the space would be required to adapt existing structures unless reusing those buildings is “determined to be unfeasible after public review”; potential projects would be subject to the city’s lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, according to the proposed changes drafted by Assembly member Deborah Glick.
“While I personally don’t see parks as profit centers, neither the city or state necessarily agree with me so we are in the situation we are in,” said Glick, who represents a large swath of the park and drafted the changes. “Politics is the art of compromise, and so we’re looking for that sweet spot that provides for the community—most importantly—but also provides revenue for the trust.”
The changes aim to clear a path to financial viability for Hudson River Park while being mindful of concerned locals who fear overdevelopment on the 15-acre, doughnut-shaped pier with athletic fields—a popular stomping ground for youth baseball and soccer teams. But the proposal leaves much to be desired on both sides of the aisle.
Madelyn Wils, president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, calls the plan too restrictive and fears the 49-year lease, instead of a more typical 99-year lease, may make the pier less of a lure for developers, potentially leaving sorely-needed revenue on the table.
“We do not believe the draft in its current form creates a viable path forward because of its combination of limitations and requirements,” Wils told local elected officials at a Tuesday hearing to gather feedback on the proposed changes. “We ask you to reconsider this legislation and provide the tools needed to make Pier 40 a treasured resource that also ensures long-term success for the whole park.”
To keep the park afloat, revenue from Pier 40 must generate at least 25 percent of the park’s annual operating costs, or about $12.5 million, according to the Hudson River Park Trust.
A handful of architects, real estate developers, and builders reviewed the draft with the trust’s board, ultimately envisioning a max of 880,000 square feet with equal treatment for adaptively reusing the pier’s structures and erecting new ones. A cap at 88 feet would be acceptable, says Wils, but only if mechanical structures in and on top of potential buildings are not counted toward the building’s useable footprint, as the draft currently stipulates. Such changes would “give us the best chance of a successful [request for proposal (RFP)],” said Wils. Pier 40 has already had two previous RFPs ultimately fall apart.
Previous efforts to develop the site have fallen flat in the face of community opposition, including controversial plans to develop two new residential towers. At one point, Cirque du Soleil was considering a home there; there have also been plans for an aquarium, and separately, a hub for big-box retailers, but each proposal was eventually scuttled.
Manhattan Community Board 2 has clashed with the Hudson River Park Trust over what they’d like to see on the waterfront esplanade, calling for more active, recreational space. Others have questioned why the city, state, and park can’t work to develop a more creative solution to Hudson River Park’s financial woes than merely renting it out to the highest bidder, with some at Tuesday's hearing calling the process “a historic blunder,” “a jungle of dysfunction” and “a major mistake.”
“We are talking about Hudson River Park Act legislation that is changing, but we’re missing the golden egg here,” said Dan Miller, the chairperson of Community Board 2’s economic development and small business committee. “I really don’t want to see Hudson River industrial park, I want to see it remain a park. Can’t we be more creative in designing something where we don’t have to have private industry and development pay for public land and privatize it?”