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Chelsea Piers squeeze play in battle to reclaim road space for cyclists, pedestrians, joggers

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated May 18, 12:00 p.m.: They’re putting the squeeze on Chelsea Piers in order to recover public space.

Community Board 4 and the Hudson River Park Advisory Council are both using the occasion of the athletic complex’s lease renewal as leverage to fight for more turf for pedestrians and cyclists — and less for movie trailers, as well as cars and cabs for partygoers — in front of the waterfront destination site. In short, Chelsea Piers shouldn’t be “locked in” to its current setup, in terms of the outside roadway, they argue.

“[Community Board 4’s] greatest objection to the new lease is the failure to require the removal of the vehicle parking lane [on the] east side of the facility,” the board’s chairperson, Jeffrey LeFrancois, and colleagues wrote to Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s president, in March. “Eliminating the lane will increase pedestrian access to the piers, expand the sidewalk [in front of the pier headhouse] and improve pedestrian movement on the upland side of the piers, which right now is narrow, confusing and forces pedestrians onto the roadway or greenway.

“Given the demand for better traffic and vehicle management across the city, improving of the environment, and the need to create more safe space for pedestrian passage, the fact that no improvement is being made to the traffic lanes is neither appropriate nor acceptable,” C.B. 4 stated. “Oftentimes the lanes are used for craft services for film shoots or parking. Both of those activities should take place inside the piers, not in the public realm. Given their interior vehicle facilities, it is alarming that Chelsea Piers would be allowed to continue its current outside operations given how much the city and area around it has changed since 1996.”

Transportation Alternatives, along with the publication Streetsblog and The City Club of New York, among others, also strongly support the effort to reimagine the use of the wide swath of asphalt.

The Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors could be making a call on the issues — both the lease and the road-space usage — at its meeting this Thurs., May 19. However, at last week’s meeting of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, Trust President Doyle indicated she does not think it’s a good idea to take away any of the road space that Chelsea Piers currently controls.

As anyone who has passed by the front of Chelsea Piers knows, there is definitely a lot of empty road space in front of it. The complex, in fact, has three full lanes of asphalt outside of it. In stark contrast, though, the Hudson River bikeway is at one of its narrowest points here, making it difficult if not dangerous for cyclists to try to pass runners and slower riders on the path. Meanwhile, the pedestrian sidewalk right in front of Chelsea Piers could be widened and made more usable, as well.

Chelsea Piers is currently seeking a longer-term lease. However, its operators don’t want to give up any outside road space.

In a letter responding to C.B. 4, Chelsea Piers wrote, “As we have explained, Chelsea Piers is a very busy complex and it is just not feasible for us to eliminate a driveway lane at this time without severely damaging our existing businesses.”

Also, Chelsea Piers plans to spruce up its riverfront walkway on the complex’s west side, which, it argues, will mitigate concerns about the eastern walkway.

“We continue to believe strongly that the significant investment we have pledged to create a more inviting waterfront path will, in its own right, significantly improve the working of the eastern frontage by redirecting pedestrians to the west as the preferred route,” Chelsea Piers countered.

The complex left open the door, however, to reassessing the roadway situation at some later date and — assuming such a day comes — letting C.B. 4 be involved in the process of rethinking the space and “improving public access.” This would, though, first be dependent on “a change of traffic conditions” at the pier, the operators noted.

Chelsea Piers produced a transportation study by AECOM to back up its argument that it cannot cede any space at this time.

However, Tom Fox, a member of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, in particular, was skeptical of AECOM’s findings, and so independently commissioned another firm, BFJ, to do its own analysis of the report.

Fox is also the former president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the predecessor of today’s Hudson River Park Trust, so is familiar with the original plans for Chelsea Piers from back in the 1990s. He says Chelsea Piers somehow modified the plans in such a way that space inside the complex that should have been dedicated to movie and TV production was removed, while Chelsea Piers also was given too much road space in front.

In a presentation to the park advisory council, Fox said, “As you may know, I participated in the initial negotiations of the Chelsea Piers lease, and in 1996 Chelsea Piers received a consideration from the state Department of Transportation and Governor Pataki to build three vehicle lanes on the east side of the building to facilitate access to and from Chelsea Piers.

“This was not consistent with the final environmental impact statement [F.E.I.S.] for Chelsea Piers or Route 9A [West Side Highway] and significantly diminished bicycle and pedestrian improvements planned for that area.”

Fox cited a 1996 article from The Chelsea-Clinton News describing “the community’s shock and opposition to the taking [of road space].”

“The extra lane of vehicular traffic wasn’t necessary then and it is still not necessary,” Fox declared.

Ample space dedicated for parking inside Chelsea Piers, such as these parking lifts, is instead, in some cases, used to store building supplies and materials, as seen above. (BFC)

According to the veteran waterfront activist, the BFJ study, which was issued this month, “confirms that both the advisory council’s and C.B. 4’s observations and requests for a removal of one of one lane are valid.”

Fox added that “a review of the original E.I.S. documents and promotional brochures from Chelsea Piers indicated that a number of new uses were added to the Chelsea Piers complex — the field house and bowling alley — and some movie and TV production support uses planned for the headhouses migrated to support trucks frequently parked on the frontage road.”

In fact, while not mentioned in the AECOM study, Fox said that parking occupancy within the Chelsea Piers headhouse has been reduced from the originally planned 355 spaces to fewer than 300. In addition, some of the parking spaces are now being used to store operational maintenance equipment, like bathroom trailers, a scissor lift, forklifts and a Zamboni.

On top of that, Fox noted disapprovingly, “Quite a few parking spaces on the elevated [parking] racks of Pier 59 are occupied by building material, indicating the parking supply exceeds the demand.” Also, “a significant number” of small trucks, buses and vans (30 feet long or shorter) “were observed parking on the frontage road, for long durations, when there was parking space available on piers,” Fox said.

The longtime park advocate added that Chelsea Piers’ “emergency access” argument doesn’t hold water either, since the longest fire trucks at 42 feet would not be able to navigate on the piers anyway due to the obstacles on them.

According to Fox, “BFJ expressed surprise that a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) study to analyze strategies and actions that reduce traffic and parking loads at the Chelsea Piers complex wasn’t implemented.”

Fox furthermore recommended that, since congestion pricing is slated to be implemented next year for Manhattan south of 60th Street, which could well impact traffic volume at Chelsea Piers, now would be an opportune time, in fact, to do a TDM study.

According to BFJ, there are two preferred redesign alternatives for the frontage road outside Chelsea Piers. The first is to reduce the three lanes to two two and then center them in the space, which would allow a widening of the current sidewalk in front of Chelsea Piers, as well as a widening of the bicycle path. The second option is to shift the two remaining lanes to the west, which would allow the addition of another 11 feet on the east side of the frontage road for a pedestrian path and possibly some widening of the bicycle path.

“In conclusion,” Fox said, “the argument that the Chelsea Piers frontage road must be three lanes wide isn’t supported by the facts, and a two-lane frontage road, together with some modified management of the parking and TV/movies support functions, will serve the circulation and parking needs of Chelsea Piers.”

As for Chelsea Piers’ lease, the complex is seeking a term “outside of the banking standard” of 25 to 30 years.

According to Chelsea Piers, “The longer lease term is required to support the long-term capital debt that supported the initial Chelsea Piers development and has allowed for significant, ongoing reinvestment in the pier buildings, facilities and the 12,000 piles that make up the pier foundation — $80 million in pile repair work [has been done] in the last 10 years. This requires periodic refinancing of capital debt that is only possible with a longer lease term.”

However, C.B. 4 wrote in its letter to Doyle, “Such a long contract duration calls for a contractual commitment by Chelsea Piers to be more equitable, insure safety in public space and promote a green environment” — with addressing the outdoor road space issue being the board’s “greatest objection to the new lease.”

“[T]he lease should not be executed as presented,” C.B. 4 stated, “and the board encourages the Trust and Chelsea Piers to go back and address our concerns.”

4 Comments

  1. lisa lisa May 19, 2022

    Very weird as the upscale folks who live in the area and run/bike also are users of Chelsea Piers plus other perimeter and pier food/entertainment etc.
    And though they run/bike during the day, they are big users of Uber at night…

    The TransAlt and Streetsblog folks are fortunate — they get to work remotely in comfortable apartments (or have short commutes to work), get their daily e-commerce and food deliveries schlepped by the underpaid worker-bees, and their elderly and disabled relatives live out of sight in Michigan or California.

  2. Jean Ryan Jean Ryan May 19, 2022

    I’m a wheelchair user who found the path in front of Chelsea Piers to be narrow, confusing and frustrating when I was walking along the path on the West Side with a friend. There were pedestrians coming in the opposite direction and it was hard to know where to safely go. I live in Brooklyn, not another state.

  3. B Kahn B Kahn May 19, 2022

    Many summer days (pre-pandemic) I walked to Pier 62 (public access) to spend the afternoon writing. I’m a playwright with the opportunity to have a new play produced annually. One day, some years ago, I was stopped on the walkway from 18th St. by a woman with a clipboard who told me I could not pass. There was a private party, and people from the yachts were gathering there. I would need to turn around and then walk around Chelsea Piers to get to Pier 62. This woman was standing in front of a sign designating the walkway as “Public Access.” I pointed that out to her. She replied, “If you continue, I will have our private security escort you out of here.” I later called the office of the city councilmember to make a complaint. The reply was, “With all the important issues going on, do you really think we would spend any time on this?” Another time, friends and I had gathered for my birthday in the adjacent public-access park, when it began to rain. We took our snacks and beverages and ducked into the covered area of Chelsea Piers to wait out the passing storm. A man in a security uniform came over to tell us we could not stay there. We just ignored him, and then the rain stopped. Al of this is my way of stating that Chelsea Piers should be more accountable to the community it lives in to warrant lease renewal.

  4. Matthew Matthew May 19, 2022

    There should be no frontage road at Chelsea Piers, the access road should be routed through the pier from end to end and the area where the current frontage road exists should be turned into a public plaza.

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