BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | In what is being hailed as a major victory for the community, the agreement for the St. John’s Partners project recently approved by the City Council states that no more development rights from Hudson River Park may be transferred into Community Board 2 (CB2) after this one megaproject.
However, on the other hand, the agreement does allow the Hudson River Park Trust, the park’s governing state/city authority, to use the currently unused so-called “air rights” of Pier 40 on the actual W. Houston St. pier itself.
The massive former shipping pier boasts significant air rights, and there is already disagreement brewing between the Trust and the community over whether the authority should use all of those on the pier — or just a portion of them.
To that end, Terri Cude, the new chairperson of CB2, said the challenge on Pier 40 will be to strike a balance between “the needs of the park and protecting the community from overdevelopment.”
Meanwhile, the planned 1.7-million-square-foot St. John’s development will have 1,600 apartments and stretch for three blocks along West and Washington Sts. opposite Pier 40 at W. Houston St. A key part of the project is that its developers have agreed to buy 200,000 square feet of unused air rights from the park’s sprawling 15-acre pier for $100 million.
After these development rights are transferred to the St. John’s project, however, Pier 40 will still have an additional 380,000 square feet of unused air rights left. As for the currently “used” air rights on the pier, its existing three-story “donut”-shaped pier-shed structure encloses roughly 760,000 square feet of space.
Local youth sports leagues plan to work with the Trust, CB2 and local politicians on a plan for the pier’s future design that would fully or partially open up its eastern and western sides, while pushing the pier’s commercial structures to its northern and southern edges. This would actually increase the amount of field space on the pier. The Trust wants to develop commercial office space on the pier, but that would need an amendment in Albany, since the Hudson River Park Act does not currently allow office use at Pier 40.
Asked if there are any preliminary design plans for Pier 40 right now, a Trust spokesperson said, “No plans at the moment, but if there were an increase in area for ball fields, some of the [existing] buildings would have to be re-massed.” Whether that means the new structures would be taller — and how much taller — isn’t immediately known, at least not publicly. Theoretically, more floors just could be added within roughly the space of the existing envelope since the current pier shed has very high ceilings.
Air-rights transfers from the 4-mile-long West Side waterfront park up to one block inland were unheard of until 2013, when a surprise amendment to the Park Act at the very end of the Albany legislative session abruptly flipped the landscape.
However, some people scoff at the very notion that piers should have any air rights at all. Indeed, one skeptical local politician has been heard to utter this in private. Be that as it may, under current city zoning regulations, commercial piers — as opposed to recreational piers — do have development rights. Under the Park Act, Pier 40 is designated for a mix of recreational and commercial uses; it currently sports heavily used ball fields and a commercial parking operation.
The final agreement for the St. John’s project, which was brokered by Councilmember Corey Johnson in early December, states that the park’s unused development rights can only be transferred into the adjacent community board district. So, any air rights from Pier 40 can only be transferred into CB2, whose waterfront boundary stretches between W. 14th and Canal Sts.
As for the southern third of the park, in Tribeca, it has no commercial piers, so there will be no air-rights transfers into Community Board 1. Meanwhile, there are commercial piers in the park’s Chelsea/Clinton section — such as Chelsea Piers — so Community Board 4 (CB4) will no doubt see its share of park air-rights transfers in the future.
Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president and CEO, at times over the past summer said that the entire park currently has roughly 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights available for purchase. (At the time, that included the 200,000 square feet slated for the St. John’s project, which had yet to be approved.) Based on that figure, then, the CB4 park section likely has about 1 million square feet of unused air rights available for purchase and transfer along that part of the waterfront.
CB2 Chairperson Cude said the board is gearing up to tackle the Pier 40 redesign — including the question of how its air rights will be used.
“A CB2 working group on Pier 40 redevelopment is currently in formation,” she told our sister publication, The Villager. “It will collect input and build consensus on the needs of the park and protecting the community from overdevelopment. Until that public process takes place, CB2 does not have a position on what may or may not be appropriate on the pier.”
Asked who will chair the working group, Cude said she is planning to appoint Tobi Bergman, who chaired CB2 for the past two years. Bergman is one of the local youth sports advocates most associated with trying to ensure the pier’s survival as a youth sports mecca into the future.
Asked for comment, Bergman said, “All concerned parties, including the community, will have to be involved in the discussions about the pier. At least now, the Trust can start fixing the piles.”
The $100 million that the St. John’s Partners development team will pay the Trust for the 200,000 square feet of air rights will go toward Pier 40’s most pressing maintenance issue — the repair of all 3,500 of Pier 40’s corroded steel support piles. The work will begin in the spring. Under the air-rights legislation passed in 2013, the proceeds from the sale of any air rights from Pier 40 must go back into the W. Houston St. pier’s repair and maintenance.
Asked how much it will cost to repair all 3,500 piles, the Trust spokesperson said $104 million, based on an estimate in a 2015 report on the pier by Halcrow engineers (now known as CH2M). In addition to the $100 million from the air-rights sale, as part of the final St. John’s deal, the city agreed to kick in $14 million for Pier 40, which should cover the pile repairs.
Meanwhile, during the recent ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) public review for the St. John’s project, Trust CEO Wils fought strenuously, though ultimately unsuccessfully, for the Trust to be allowed to transfer the rest of Pier 40’s unused air rights into CB2. Not surprisingly, she is now eager to max out the use of the remaining air rights on Pier 40 itself for commercial use, since the Trust can’t sell them outside of the park.
Asked for comment, the Trust spokesperson said, “Madelyn has said publicly several times that the Trust hopes to use all of Pier 40’s remaining development rights on the pier itself for a potential commercial project. This would require two changes to the Hudson River Park Act through the state Legislature. The Trust would then work with local electeds and the community on a redevelopment plan for the pier.”
Asked if the Trust would heed the community’s wishes and consider not using all the remaining air rights, the spokesperson indicated that the authority feels it’s important to squeeze revenue out of the pier. That said, he added the project will be “less intensive,” apparently referring to how heavily the pier is used commercially.
“In accordance with the Hudson River Park Act, Pier 40 is intended as a significant revenue generator for the entire park, so our intention is to use all of Pier 40’s remaining development rights,” he said. “As we’re now limited to where we can transfer them inland, we intend to pursue a development on the pier that uses the remaining development rights and that is compatible with ball field use, which will remain and likely be improved. Keep in mind, the funding secured earlier this month already gives any eventual development on the pier a leg up, removing a large financial burden and allowing for a less-intensive project.”