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Las Vegas on the Hudson?
Little Leaguers, pols lash out during raucous hearing over Pier 40 plans

Dueling proposals for Pier 40 on Manhattan’s West Village waterfront have whipped community groups into a frenzy, and, at a cacophonous public hearing on May 3, one scheme was blasted as a gaudy “Vegas on the Hudson,” while the other was deemed a lesser (but vastly preferred) evil. The brouhaha comes from the fact that the pier’s caretaker, the Hudson River Park Trust, solicited proposals from private developers in order to finance upgrades of the pier structure itself as well as the public spaces of the park. All of which means the Trust will have its hands full as it ponders the future of the site and tries to balance its own financial needs and the strong feelings of the surrounding community.

The 14-acre pier, at West Houston Street, is now home to a two-story parking garage and offices, wrapped around a courtyard with 3.5 acres of athletic fields. The fate of those fields is at the heart of the debate. At the hearing, soccer clubbers and political leaders alike lashed out at the specter of Jumbotrons on the Hudson.

Denouncing the “humongous development... destroying and disturbing this community,” Deborah Glick, state assembly member for the 66th District, vowed to oppose any retread of Robert Moses’ Westway proposal to tunnel a highway under Manhattan’s western shore . “We fought Westway so that we would have open recreational space,” she told the lively crowd of 1,500 at P.S. 41. “What we need is a direct connection to the waterfront.”

And so in one corner is the Related Companies, with its $626 million bid for a performing arts and recreational center, including an 1,800-seat home for Cirque du Soleil. The plan also calls for a 12-screen cinema for the Tribeca Film Festival, brasseries, galleries, dog runs, and more than 10 acres of public space and ball fields—most of which would be elevated to a rooftop, a move which angers local leagues.

In the other corner is the so-called People’s Pier, developed by summer camp operator CampGroup with Urban Dove, a youth service organization. The $145 million plan focuses on sports facilities, plus an educational complex housing a high school and college. CampGroup architect Richard Dattner cited his firm’s hugely popular Riverbank State Park, built atop a sewage treatment facility over the Hudson River, as a model. The plan would adapt most of the existing pier structure, add a glass entrance tower, and, crucially for ball field boosters, keep the fields at ground level. “I’ve never seen American Idol,” Dattner quipped as the crowd wildly cheered his team, “but this must be what it’s like.”

As the largest pier structure in Hudson River Park, Pier 40 hasn’t seen a major upgrade since it opened to the public in 1962 to serve the Holland America Line. Either proposal would need to fix severely deteriorated steel H-piles holding the structure up. Related’s team, which includes Arquitectonica, Elkus/Manfredi Architects, and Rockwell Group, along with landscape architect DIRT Studios, would also extend Houston Street through the pier as a central, pedestrian-only thoroughfare.

Further complicating matters, Pier 40 is one of only three designated revenue-generating piers in Hudson River Park (the others are Chelsea Piers and the World Yacht/ Circle Line piers), and a central question is what revenue sources should be included to fund the pier’s renovation and the overall park budget. Pier 40’s garage racks up $5 million per year for the park trust, and both proposals call for more than 2,000 parking spaces to keep that cash flowing.

But the hearing made clear that pier advocates had successfully framed the affair as a referendum on T-ball. “The People’s Pier ensures that no one will take these fields away,” declared Urban Dove founder Jai Nanda. For his part, Related Companies president Jeff T. Blau promised “bigger and better fields” and “complementary cultural and entertainment uses.”

For many in the audience, the Related team’s talk of LEED certification and high-performance turf was no match for Little Leaguers who lined up at the microphone. As one youngster dolefully explained, “I would be really disappointed if our field was turned into a mall.” 

Jeff Byles