Trust wants to pick Pier 40 tenants twice a century
Concern is brewing over Pier 40 once more, after the Hudson River Park Trust passed a resolution to ask the State Legislature to extend the lease term for the massive W. Houston St. pier from 30 years to 50 years.
Opponents of The Related Companies’ failed Cirque du Soleil/Tribeca Film Festival plan for the Houston St. pier fear that with a lease change, the “Vegas on the Hudson” scheme could rear its glitzy, high-impact head again.
In the past five and a half years, two efforts by the Trust to find private developers to repair and revamp the 14-acre Pier 40 have failed. As part of the second effort, which sank last year, The Related Companies proposed its Cirque du Soleil-centered plan that would have drawn millions of people to the pier annually. But Related couldn’t make its plan’s financials work within the 30-year lease requirement of the Trust’s request for proposals, or RFP, for the pier. Related insisted on a 49-year lease, and, as a result, was disqualified by the Trust in March 2008. This second RFP process was formally closed six months later, when the Trust rejected a lower-impact, community-friendly collaboration by the Pier 40 Partnership and Urban Dove/CampGroup, featuring two or three public high schools and possibly a new private high school. The Trust believed this last proposal’s financials would not work.
Meanwhile, the pier, desperately in need of renovation, continues to deteriorate. And so, at last month’s Trust board of directors meeting, former State Sen. Franz Leichter proposed the board ask the Legislature to amend a law he co-wrote—the Hudson River Park Act—to allow a longer, 50-year lease on Pier 40. Taking many community members and park advocates by surprise, Leichter’s idea was not listed on the meeting’s agenda and was introduced as “new business.”
“We’re really handcuffed with that 30-year lease,” Leichter told his fellow board members. “I think we really need to lift that restriction, and more important, move ahead on Pier 40.”
Leichter said 160 parking spaces on the pier have been taken out of use because of the roof’s crumbling condition, and that unless something is done, more parking spaces will soon be lost—or worse.
“The piles are in bad shape,” he said of the metal supports on which the pier sits. “We may even have a situation where we have to close the pier.”
Leichter said prior to this week’s Albany shakeup that there is “a glimmer of hope” the park act could be amended this year to address Pier 40’s lease.
“I’ve been told by one of the more influential legislators that it would be helpful if we had an expression of support” for the lease extension, Leichter said, not naming the legislator.
Of those park piers that are slated for commercial uses—to generate revenue for the park—initially all had 30-year leases under the park act, as Leichter explained it. In order to qualify for historic preservation credits, the lease for Pier 57—which has a unique, floating caisson support system—was extended several years ago to 49 years, he noted. An exception was also made for Chelsea Piers, which got a long-term lease before the Hudson River Park was even formally established.
Diana Taylor, the Trust’s chairperson, agreed a resolution requesting a longer lease on Pier 40 is needed—especially because the community has been a stumbling block.
“Pier 40 has been such a problem because there has been so much opposition by the community,” Taylor said. “We have to do something, and I think it’s a great idea.”
Joe Rose was the only board member who spoke up about discussing the idea with local park advocates first to get an “appropriate consensus.”
“If the [Hudson River Park] Advisory Council has a concern about [extending] the lease, let’s hear their reason why,” Rose urged.
However, Taylor said no consultation with the community or any consensus was needed before the Trust voted.
“There will be opposition—this is New York City,” she stated. But, she added, “I agree we should work with the other groups, and maybe get a letter from them, too.”
Taylor said she would authorize the Trust’s staff to draft a letter to legislators seeking the 50-year lease and also direct the staff to work with the Friends of Hudson River Park, the park’s chief advocacy group, “to bring them along.”
However, Rose said, he understood the park’s advisory council was supposed to give its assent to these sorts of changes.
Leichter disagreed, saying, “I certainly don’t like the idea that action taken by this board requires the approval of the advisory council.”
In the end, the resolution passed unanimously.
“Thank you, senator,” Taylor told Leichter after the vote.
Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of both the park’s advisory council and Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee, later said, “The fact that the Trust board passed a resolution without first talking to the advisory council and the community boards and the elected officials in the neighborhood is both arrogant and poor politics. If there was ever a sure way of making sure there was opposition, this was the way to do it. People in the neighborhood haven’t approved a 49-year lease on principle—it really depends on the use.”
Schwartz said he and other park advocates were previously in favor of a 49-year lease for the pier when the Pier 40 Partnership/CampGroup proposed that the School Construction Authority build schools and supporting community uses on the pier.
Schwartz said he spoke with Leicther at the Friends of Hudson River Park’s benefit the night before the Trust’s board meeting and told him the community would support a longer lease for those types of uses, but not for big commercial development.
Schwartz noted he was told by a Trust official that the pier is now losing $600,000 a year because so many parking spaces have been taken off line due to the decaying roof.
“I think there’s almost a conscious resolution on the part of the Trust to let the pier deteriorate to justify a longer lease,” he offered.
It’s unclear whether the lease extension would be passed in Albany. The pier is in Assemblymember Deborah Glick’s district, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told Chelsea Now he would defer to her on the issue.
“I don’t know what Deborah’s view is on it yet. She hasn’t told me,” Silver said. “But it’s in her district—and the [assemblymember] is closer to it.”
Silver added that “maybe there’s a compromise” that could be included in a new Pier 40 RFP process, but didn’t mention specifics.
Silver said there’s no chance the amendment would be “sneaked in” before the session’s end this month, as some park advocates fear.
“We never sneak anything in,” Silver stressed. “Any bill goes before the substantive committee.”
Glick said her office had been getting “a lot of calls” after the Trust’s board meeting. The callers expressed concern about a Pier 40 lease extension, and were saying, “Don’t do anything that opens the door to Related,” she said.
Glick emphasized that lengthening the lease was Leichter’s idea, not hers. She, too, spoke to Leichter prior to the board meeting, and said he told her the Trust might possibly need to put some additional restrictions on Pier 40’s use along with extending the lease.
Meanwhile, Glick noted, she told Leichter that “a lease extension doesn’t address an emergency.”
“The real question is how do we get the roof fixed to preserve revenue for the pier?” Glick said in a phone interview. “Over 40 percent of the park’s operating budget is generated by Pier 40. Forget the pier’s development for a minute—it is an immediate, emergency safety issue and affects the park’s revenue stream.”
Plus, Glick added, in the current economy, many development projects are on hold.
Last year Glick expressed qualified support for a longer Pier 40 lease, such as for a school, but definitely not to enable mega-development of the pier.
Last week she said, “Longer lease terms are not necessarily my first choice, in general.”
Asked if she thought an amendment to the park act could conceivably be slipped through by the end of session, Glick said, “I’ve been here long enough to know that anything could happen. … Sometimes things happen quickly. … This is the sort of thing that’s a little more complicated because of its long history and the general care that was taken with the legislation.”
By Lincoln Anderson