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Village attorney threatens lawsuit over Pier 40 office-building scheme

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The Legislature hasn’t even reconvened in Albany for the new session yet but the Pier 40 pressure cooker is already simmering once again.

A bill to allow office use on the capacious W. Houston St. pier was recently submitted quietly (as Pier 40 bills usually are) to Governor Cuomo. Under the usual rules governing bills, he has 10 days to sign it or reject it, or else it becomes a so-called “pocket veto,” as in, “it never left his pocket.”

The New York Post reported the deadline is the end of the day on Tues., Jan. 31. 

Cuomo is “reviewing the bill,” a spokesperson told the tabloid.

Village attorney Arthur Schwartz this week announced he will file a lawsuit if Cuomo O.K.’s the bill. 

This past June, on the last day of the legislative session, Albany politicians approved an amendment to allow office development on Pier 40. The Hudson River Park’s founding 1998 legislation forbid commercial office use in the 4.5-mile-long park.

The bill was sponsored by Deborah Glick in the Assesmbly. In the state Senate, it was sponsored by Brian Kavanagh and co-sponsored by Brad Hoylman. (Pier 40 is in Kavanagh’s district but Hoylman represents the area right around the pier.)

The proposed changes to the Hudson River Park Act would allow up to 700,000 square feet of “business, professional or governmental office space” on the 15-acre Pier 40. 

In addition, the Trust, the state/city authority that is building and operating the entire park, would be allowed to have up to 50,000 square feet of office space and 50,000 square feet of operations space on the pier. 

Maximum height for buildings and structures on Pier 40 would be capped at 88 feet — with an additional 20 feet allowed for mechanical systems, such as housing for the top of elevator shafts. 

The parameters for redeveloping the pier came out of a process that saw a working group of local politicians build off of a foundation of recently hashed-out recommendations by Community Board 2. The board does not support office use in the park, yet saw things trending that way, so at least wanted to give their input.

However, the Trust, for its part, objected to being limited from developing more of the pier’s available air rights, and was still pushing for an additional 200,000 square feet of office space when the last session ended and Cuomo failed to sign the bill at that time.

The Post reported, though, that the Trust now “supports the bill as written.” 

According to attorney Schwartz, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is saying that if the current bill does not get voted on, then the Legislature would not take up the matter again until 2021. Schwartz’s understanding is that Glick, who holds a key vote on the pier, is saying no to increasing the allowable size of office development there. Cuomo reportedly had reached out to both Glick and Kavanagh and did not want to change the bill’s language without their support.

“They released the bill a couple of days ago, late last week,” Schwartz told The Village Sun on Thurs., Dec. 26. “That gave Cuomo 10 days to sign it.”

The attorney’s understanding is that the Trust still did not want the governor to sign the bill, wanting more office space to be allowed on the pier, but then got the word from Heastie that it was, basically, take it or leave it.

Schwartz said, if the bill is approved, he would file suit, arguing that the proposed changes of use for Pier 40 must be vetted under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA. The suit would say the Trust needs to look at the “impact on the environmental, in general,” he said.

“It’s building a building in the river,” he stated. “So whether it’s increased boating traffic in the river, pollution, sewage… .  Not one environmental organization supports this bill,” he noted.

Schwartz said he was “asked” by someone to do this lawsuit — though currently is not revealing who it is.

Asked who the plaintiffs would be, he said he can’t say right now. 

As for why the possibility of a lawsuit didn’t come up back in June, Schwartz said there were a couple of factors.

“I didn’t raise it [then] because no one spoke to me about a potential lawsuit,” he told The Village Sun. “No matter what TransAlt says, I do litigation when asked. I also had heard that there was a delay with the governor [last time]. Now I have been asked.”

His mention of Transportation Alternatives referred to when the bike-and-transit-advocacy group angrily protested outside his Village home in August for blocking the start of the 14th St. busway with his lawsuit.

Regarding who the Pier 40 suit would be against, Schwartz said it might be New York State, but he doesn’t know yet.

A (RED) mural by Stephen (ESPO) Powers, highlighting international efforts to end AIDS, was completed on the south side of Pier 40 on Oct. 2. (Photo by The Village Sun)

This would be one of several “public interest” suits the attorney already has going, including ones against the 14th St. busway, the downsizing of Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital and a third representing disabled advocates against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over the slashing of bus stops on the M14 for Select Bus Service. Schwartz is also currently collecting plaintiffs for a lawsuit against the planned razing and rebuilding of East River Park under the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.

Schwartz noted that he first learned how to do an environmental-impact lawsuit back in 1997, when he litigated to get public sports fields on Pier 40.

“They were just going to put parking lots on it,” he recalled.

That activism more than 20 years ago was driven by Downtown families’ desire for more playing space for local youth sports leagues.

“The league people are against this plan,” Schwartz said of the current push to legalize office space on Pier 40. “It’s guaranteed to screw up the fields one way or another: They’re going to close the fields during construction or construction will impact the fields. 

“It will bring too much park-unrelated business and traffic into the park, and it sets a precedent for allowing uses which have no relationship to the water,” he said. “The original bill was a delicate compromise and this is a step down a slippery slope.”

The attorney also said the seeming assurances written into the current bill that would safeguard the fields for community use are not reassuring.

“They can say what they want,” he shrugged of the amendment. “It just says that ‘X’ amount of square feet has to be preserved for athletic use.”

Glick and Hoylman did not immediately return requests for comment.

The Hudson River Park declined a request for comment.

Daniel Miller, a former president of Greenwich Village Little League, is a leading waterfront park activist on Community Board 2 and a member of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council. He said he agrees with Schwartz on how the current plan could impact the playing fields — yet still supports it as the best option currently available to fix up the crumbling pier and help boost revenue for the supposedly “self-sustaining” park.

“It is absolutely crucial that the public side of Pier 40, regardless of the developer/development, remain governed and open to the public,” Miller said. “We fear an anchor tenant housed in a massive office space built at an enormous cost may use the open space as a parade ground for its corporate offices, and seal off the fields during events. We reject the idea of the public exhibiting an ID to gain entry into Pier 40 because the corporate entity requires it for ‘security purposes.’

“It is unfortunate — to put it mildly — that one of Downtown Manhattan’s only open spaces, and by far its largest, requires a private development on public land to ensure the viability of the park.  Is there not a more creative solution to supporting Hudson River Park? Why not amend the language in the Hudson River Park Act to account for all the new luxury buildings that line the park, and all the tax dollars that the park generates through these new luxury buildings?” Miller said. “Back in 1998, the area was deserted and the park was required to do the best it could to sustain itself through commercial means. This concept is outdated. Yet, the amendment does not address this out-of-date concept.

“The amendment to the act should strike away the idea of the park having to generate enough income to run the park. It is time for the city and state to recognize the important contributions the park is providing in developing new neighborhoods, adding more residents and income through taxes. With all these new residents and schools, where do the children play? It’s not like C.B. 2 has other areas to develop into park space. So why take away what little we have to build a corporate headquarters?

“Personally, I am happy they are backing down from that request,” Miller said of the Trust’s pushing for an additional 200,000 square feet of office space on Pier 40. “I understand the financial pressure the Trust is facing. But the focus should be on creating more park, not selling it to the highest bidder.”

C.B. 2 also wants the existing three-story pier shed to be “adaptively reused,” instead of a glitzy new building being constructed on the pier, he added.

“I won’t comment on Arthur’s threat of a lawsuit,” Miller said. “But I do agree that an office building is not a practicable use in a park. Especially, if that office space will account for thousands of daily workers [in] a park designed to get away from the office, a place to play ball, row a boat or kick a soccer ball. 

“The electeds worked hard to create a compromise that worked for both the Trust and community interests,” Miller continued. “As a private citizen, I support the legislation as written only because the park must do what it can to financially sustain its operations. Until that language is amended, I don’t see another alternative other than to minimize the damage an office tower will have on our park. Doing nothing is worse. No doubt, it has been a tough pill for me to swallow. “

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