Pier 40 and a Clash of Views on How to Finally Save It

Daniel Heuberger of Dattner Architects explains the Durst plan to the more than 300 people who came to a Pier 40 forum at the Saatchi & Saatchi building, near the pier, on Feb. 28. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 05, 2013

Proponents of competing plans for Pier 40 brought their proposals to a recent gathering of more than 300 residents, many of whom want to find way, somehow, to save the deteriorating pier.

The 15-acre parcel of Hudson River Park at West Houston Street furnishes parking for some 1,700 cars—40 percent of the revenue that supports the entire five-mile-long Hudson River Park. It is also home to some of the most heavily used sports fields on Manhattan’s west side.

Constant need for critical repairs, worsened by recent hurricane damage, has led to the Hudson River Park Trust to determine that it will need to be shut down within five years. A complete overhaul is estimated to cost $100 million.

“Bottom line is that historically Pier 40 was intended to support the park, and right now the park is supporting Pier 40,” Madelyn Wils, executive director of the Hudson River Park Trust, sdaid at the forum. “It’s costing us $2 million more per year than we’re getting in revenues.”

Saving the Pier 40 athletic fields was of prime interest to this crowd, many of whom are parents of children who play there. The Downtown’s Soccer, Football and Little Leagues use the fields for at least some of their practices and games.

Pier 40 Champions, an initiative of youth sports groups on Manhattan’s west side, proposes that a developer put up two 22-story residential buildings on the east side of the pier, between the building and West Streets. They say the plan, drafted by WXY Architecture and Urban Design, would increase the field space and keep the play at ground level.

The other proposal, presented by the Durst Organization and designed by Dattner Architects, would utilize much of the current structure, consolidating commercial parking at the center of the pier and surrounding it with 100,000 square feet of retail and 414,000 square feet of offices. The field space would be the same size as they are now and moved to the pier’s roof. Developer Douglas Durst and the pier’s former parking operator, Ben Korman, are behind the plan.

In December, Durst resigned his position as chair of Friends of Hudson River Park, the designated fundraising partner of the Hudson River Park Trust, after the Trust lent its support to plans that would open the pier to residential development. Korman, the former vice chair of Friends, also resigned. They believe that opening the pier to commercial uses is the best way to go.

“The existing building can be used in a smart way to meet the needs of the park,” he said at the forum. “Adaptive reuse is the fastest route to stabilizing the pier.”

In contrast, Pier 40 Champions envisions removing part of the current structure in order to expand the courtyard and bring the river into view from the east. Revenue from the 606 residential units would subsidize the rest of the park, according to Tobi Bergman, who heads the group.

Bergman said that one building would probably consist of luxury condominiums. The other would be part of an “80/20” program, in which 20 percent of the units are designated for low- or moderate-income  households. An advantage to residential development, he said, is that it can be built on speculation.

“What that means,” Bergman said, “is that I don’t need an anchor tenant that has to wait around four years for this project, which they won’t do.”

Before either of these plans can move forward, legislative changes need to be made to the Hudson River Park Act, which now prohibits residential buildings on Pier 40 and places limitations on commercial development.

State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick is a leading opponent of residential development as the answer to the pier’s and the park’s problems.  Any legislation on the park is unlikely to go forward without her support. Glick has called the Champions’ proposal “wildly inappropriate” and claims it’s being “falsely characterized as a low impact option.”

At the forum, she said the apartment towers “will have your kids playing in shadows every Saturday and Sunday morning.”

Bergman acknowledged the need for shadow studies, then took a swipe at the Durst plan, drawing loud applause. “Frankly,” he said, “we don’t want to have kids playing on the roofs of private entities, we want them playing in public parks.”

In addition to a rooftop athletic field, Durst’s proposal was criticized for its increase in retail space. Despite the developer's insistence that his plan would limit commercial use to park-related retail like kayak rentals and coffee shops, representatives of Pier 40 Champions claimed a large “anchor” tenant would be needed to attract other retailers.

A recent study by Newmark Grubb Knight Frank has also cast doubt on the Durst plan.  The Hudson River Park Trust commissioned the firm to assess both proposals and several publications released them following the forum.

The study concluded that, while the Champions’ plan was financially viable, Durst’s proposal would fail to meet its projected revenue. According to the study,  Durst’s estimated rental fees are too high for the pier and its surrounding neighborhood.

The report stressed the importance of an anchor—citing rates paid by such enterprises as Fairway Market, which signed a lease in Kips Bay for $65 per square foot. The Durst plan calls for $120 per square foot.

Similarly, Newmark estimated a market rate of $35 to $45 per square foot for office space on the pier compared to Durst’s estimate of $55. The firm’s estimates for recreation revenue also fell far below Durst’s numbers. In response, Durst, who developed 1 Bryant Park, 4 Times Square and has the major stake in 1 World Trade Center, told the Wall Street Journal that he stands by his numbers and that his track record speaks for itself .

The forum closed with remarks by elected officials whose districts include the park—State Sen. Brad Hoylman, State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Assemblywoman Glick. All three steered clear of endorsing either plan.

“I’m of the belief that we need to seriously consider public revenue first, then
look at uses that are currently legal in the [Hudson River Park] Act,” said Hoylman. He cautioned people to be skeptical about “gifts” brought to the pier in the form of housing development.

“This is public land, and last thing we want to do is fork over public space for luxury housing,” he added. “I believe there’s a consensus to be found between these competing ideals.”