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After The Storm

Published: July 1, 2013

Publication: WestView News

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

New 40-story towers on West Street may be on their way. At around 1a.m. on Saturday June 25, the New York State Senate approved the Glick-Gottfried Hudson River Park Bill, amending numerous sections of the Hudson River Park Act. The amendments are designed to bring additional revenue into the cash strapped Hudson River Park. Many of the items were discussed over the past year by the Hudson River Park Task Force, which included the elected officials in neighborhoods near the Park, reps of Community Boards 1, 2 and 4 (including me), and other key groups, such as Riverkeeper, the Municipal Art Society, and Friends of Hudson River Park. However, the lion’s share of the discussion at that Task Force focused on proposals to develop Pier 40, at W. Houston Street, including residential or commercial office projects, alongside ball fields.

In March 2013, as part of a deal which sealed Assembly Member Glick’s endorsement of Christine Quinn for Mayor, Quinn, Glick and newly minted State Senator Brad Hoylman announced that they opposed any residential development in the Park. Since the Trust believed that commercial office development was too risky, a plan put forth by developer Douglas Durst, and endorsed by Glick, also seemed dead One of Debra Glick’s principal objections to the plan to build rental apartments either on or near Pier 40 was that the proposal needed more public airing. The three public hearings held by the Hudson River Park Trust and CB2 were not enough. In fact, Glick expressed an opinion that any legislation changing the Park Act required a public hearing.

Consequently, everything was quiet before our hard-working legislature, which doesn’t meet between July 1 and December 31.) Suddenly, on June 23, the Assembly passed a bill submitted by Glick and Assemblymember Gottfried (who represents Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen). It passed the State Senate at 1am on Saturday June 25.

What was in the bill?

  1. Commercial Office uses are now allowed at Pier 57 (at 16th Street).

  2. Small amusement concessions are allowed in the Park (e.g. carousels).

  3. The Park can sell air rights; Pier 40 air right sales must be used for Pier40 repair.

  4. 49-year leases are now allowed (the limit had been 30), up to 99 if Senate and Assembly leaders sign off.

  5. The City is mandated to give Pier 76 (the tow pound pier) to Trust; 50% park open space, and “park compatible” commercial on remainder.

  6. The will be a $2 per ride ferry and commercial/party boat tax imposed.

  7. The State and City will provide liability insurance to the Trust at no cost.

  8. A Heliport terminal is allowed to be built at 26th Street, in the water.

  9. Pier 54 (14th Street) can be rebuilt larger than its original footprint.

Everything is reasonable except the heliport (why do we need a heliport in a park?). The air rights sale raises some red flags. Hudson River Park has over 1.6 million sq ft of air rights it can sell. These are square feet from the various commercial piers (such as Pier 40 and Pier 57) which could be developed, which the legislature has now given the Park Trust the right to sell. From my research, this is the first time that a NYC based park will have the right to alienate some of its property (albeit airspace) and sell it to a commercial developer. Assembly Member Glick, guardian against residential development on Pier 40, opted instead to allow Pier 40’s development rights to be sold for use right across the street.

Such a sale is a one shot deal. The Park receives the market price ($1,000/sq ft?) and will never be able to use those development rights again. One result could be the end of development plans, since properties like Pier 40 will have less available space to develop. It will certainly keep companies like Related away. It could also put pressure on future Pier developers to use some of the ball field space for their projects. The ball field space is not protected, since, contrary to her promise, Glick did not protect it in the legislation.

More problematic is what can be done with the rights the Trust sells. Air rights can be used to increase the FAR (Floor to Area Ratio), or the buildable square footage, of projects within a block of West Street. This could mean a line of condo towers along West Street. A developer has already purchased a half square block bounded by West, Clarkson, and Morton Streets to build a 17 story condo. St. John’s building, now owned entirely by Fortress Financial, could seek to build one or two 20-plus story tall towers; if they couldn’t do it before, they will be able to do it once the Glick-Gottfried Bill becomes law. It is even possible that the bill will allow this new development to occur without meaningful review under ULURP; the land use process which involves the Community Board, the Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council. It could undercut the zoning changes enacted in the mid 2000s to limit development west of Greenwich Avenue. The bill contains no limits on the use of this massive public sale of air rights: 1.6 million sq ft according to Trust President Madelyn Wills. It will now be up to our newly elected City Council person to push for strict controls on the transfer process.

The sale of air rights by Hudson River Park is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Development outside of the Park, to fund the Park, instead of development inside the Park, could be a great solution to a very real funding crisis. Right now, the zoning in some areas across the street from the park limits its potential. In our developer driven city, there is a good chance that more and more waterfront land within a block of West Street will be rezoned anyway over the next 4-8 years with no benefit to the Park. So the sale of air rights is timely. Yet for the sale of to be done in a way which benefits the Park and doesn’t drown surrounding communities with new tall, out of context towers, the legislation should have been more carefully vetted and shaped, with input from the land-use mavens on all of the Community Boards, from the Borough President’s office and from groups like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The worst thing about this bill is the fact that Deborah Glick sponsored this bill, and voted for it, and State Senators Brad Hoylman and Dan Squadron voted for it without once taking the bill before the public. They held no public hearings; they didn’t present it to a Community Board or Hudson River Park Advisory Council meeting. They didn’t even discuss it with the Chairs of Community Boards 1, 2 or 4, even though it has a profound effect on the surrounding communities.

There have been proposals for Hudson River Park, and for its development, that have been discussed, refined, debated, and supported by thousands of individuals and families who live in the waterfront community. Their hard work was swept aside. Assembly Member Glick marched people around the streets of the Village to protest NYU’s encroachment on our neighborhood with 40 story towers. In the end, when she takes the mantle of leadership, she quietly proposes and allows passage of major pro-development legislation, without appropriate safeguards for use by the affected community, in the middle of the night. Somehow, there must have been a better way.

Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Vice Chair of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and the Democratic State Committee Member for Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Tribeca. He is also a candidate for Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village.

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