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Big-Box Plan, but with Icing on Top

Published: November 24, 2002

Publication: The New York Times

By Terry Pristin

A private developer has proposed building two or three so-called big-box stores on Pier 40 in Greenwich Village, the same neighborhood that resoundingly rejected a Costco store just two years ago.

This time, however, the superstores would be accompanied by a giant carrot for the community: a 15-acre sports park that would occupy the top level of the huge pier. The stores would take up 450,000 square feet on the lowest level, hidden from view, according to the developer, Forest City Ratner.

Forest City’s plan is one of four proposals for Pier 40 that are being weighed by the Hudson River Park Trust, the public benefit corporation that is building a five-mile park. The project will stretch from Battery Park to 59th Street and will include 13 piers with public parks and a waterfront esplanade.

All of the proposals for Pier 40, at the foot of West Houston Street, were required to incorporate a park as well as commercial development. As the biggest pier in Hudson River Park, Pier 40 is expected to provide the park’s largest green space as well as a significant chunk of its operating revenues. A decision is expected in February.

Sponsors of the other plans refrained from proposing large-scale commercial development. One developer, C&K Properties, the current manager of Pier 40, would create Federal Express’s first maritime operation, allowing packages to be transported to Newark Liberty International Airport by water instead of 18-wheel trucks.

Another proposal, by TEC-PMC Associates, of Los Angeles, would remove the pier walls and roof, leaving a pergola-like structure with a number of smaller stores. The fourth proposal is for a large aquarium, but community leaders have opposed it on the ground that it would take business away from the Coney Island Aquarium.

Completed in 1962, Pier 40 currently houses parking for trucks, buses and about 2,000 private cars as well as a company that rents out props and an acting school for children. A soccer field is atop the structure.

Village leaders say they remain adamantly opposed to big-box development.

”I don’t think anybody’s in favor of having a big-box store there,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz, the chairman of the waterfront committee of Community Board 2, which represents the Village. Arthur Strickler, the board’s district manager, said big-box development would generate too much traffic at times when park use was at its heaviest and would put small neighborhood stores at risk. In 2000, community opposition forced Costco to abandon plans to open a store on the former site of the 14th Street Armory and to sell property it had acquired for two other stores.

Still, the Forest City proposal has not provoked the intense outcry that Costco faced — not yet, anyway. Judy Duffy, the assistant district manager of Community Board 1, which represents the neighborhood just south of Pier 40, said the tone of the discussion had changed. ”It’s not the Village it was six years ago,” she said. ”We’re all asking a lot of questions.”

The Hudson River Park Trust has not released any financial data from the proposals, but has told the Pier 40 Working Group, an advisory group made up of community leaders, that the Forest City Ratner plan would be the most lucrative. Ms. Duffy said that the developer’s experience in building such large projects as the Metro Tech Center, an office complex in Downtown Brooklyn, also worked in its favor. ”There’s a certain amount of confidence that Forest City Ratner has deep pockets and can bring this baby home,” she said.

The proposal by Forest City Ratner, which is the partner with The New York Times Company in the development of The Times’s new headquarters, does not spell out which retailers would lease space at the pier, although Costco, Ikea and Fairway supermarkets are cited as potential tenants.

Costco and other national big-box retailers have been eager to break into Manhattan. ”We are very interested in doing something there,” said Jeffrey H. Brotman, the chairman of Costco, referring to Pier 40. In 1999, the City Council approved plans for a shopping center along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive that would include a Costco and a Home Depot, but the development has been stalled because of financing and legal hurdles.

Mr. Schwartz of Board 2 said that Forest City Ratner might be able to lower its development costs and avoid having to lease space to superstores. But Michele deMilly, a spokeswoman for the developer, said the stores were needed to make the project viable. She said Forest City would go ahead with the project only if the community was behind it.

Whichever plan is adopted, one thing is certain: The 2,000 car owners who park at the pier at the exceptionally low rate of about $200 a month will continue to be accommodated. Mr. Schwartz said that 90 percent of the car owners came from the neighborhood and constituted what he described as a ”powerful lobby.”

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