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Future of NYC pier turning into a circus

A former cruise ship terminal, Pier 40 on the Hudson River is now home to a parking garage and athletic fields. And as might be expected in space-starved Manhattan, it's also at the center of a fight over how best to use the scarce land.
Image: Proposed redevelopment projects for Pier 40 in New York city
This artist's rendering shows what the Pier 40 complex, which includes facilities for Cirque du Soleil and the Tribeca Film Festival, would look like.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former cruise ship terminal, Pier 40 on the Hudson River is now home to a parking garage and athletic fields. And as might be expected in space-starved Manhattan, it's also at the center of a fight over how best to use the scarce land.

The Related Cos., one of the city's biggest developers, wants to build a $625 million entertainment complex that would house Cirque du Soleil, the Tribeca Film Festival and attract up to 2.7 million visitors a year.

The proposal has been denounced by neighborhood residents, who say it would bring traffic congestion and pollution and overwhelm the scale of the downtown neighborhood.

"It's too commercial," said Philippe Archard, watching his daughter Manon play soccer on a recent winter day. "I don't think it's healthy for the children."

Pier 40 was built in 1963 for the Holland America steamship line. The 14-acre structure, with views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, is now home to a giant parking facility, artificial-turf fields and a trapeze school.

But Pier 40 is in bad shape. Chunks of the roof have fallen on parked cars, and officials say the pier needs tens of millions of dollars in upgrades.

"Everybody is agreed that we can't just let the pier fall into the river," said Diana Taylor, the banker who chairs the Hudson River Park Trust, the body that must determine Pier 40's future.

The trust's board met Jan. 31 and decided not to accept or reject either of the two proposals it has received — Related's plan for an entertainment complex, with the playing fields moved to the roof, and a more modest plan built around a day camp.

A group of sports-league parents called the Pier 40 Partnership had submitted a third plan — not a formal proposal but a concept using tax-free bonds to maintain the pier without high-impact development.

The trust's board put off any decision until the end of March and said the three groups should work together.

A ribbon of waterfront from lower Manhattan to the Upper West Side, the Hudson River Park was created in 1998 by a state law intended to reclaim old piers and underused shoreline for recreational use.

The park is not yet completed, but some piers have been turned into playgrounds and sunbathing spots. There are paths for cyclists and joggers. The Chelsea Piers sports complex some 20 blocks north of Pier 40 pays rent to the trust.

Under the law that created it, the Hudson River Park is supposed to support itself. Funds for upkeep are to be raised at commercial centers including Pier 40, which now generates $6 million a year from the parking garage.

The advantage of Related is that it is a large developer with enough money to shore up the pier, build its entertainment complex and pay the trust at least the same $6 million a year it receives now.

But Related would not commit to a 30-year lease, which is required by law, because it might not make back its investment by then. It wants a longer term.

Pier 40 sits at the western end of Houston Street straddling Greenwich Village and SoHo, neighborhoods that have been on the front lines of the preservation wars since they defeated Robert Moses' plan for an expressway through lower Manhattan in the 1960s.

Community residents call the Related proposal "Vegas on the Hudson." They question how sports fields would work on the roof of a movie theater and circus.

"The life of a neighborhood is at stake," said Irene Kaufman, one of hundreds who attended the trust's Jan. 31 meeting. "You can't have a commercial development paid for on the backs of children."

Taylor stressed in an interview that the pier needs money-making attractions.

"The problem is that the residents here and the Pier 40 Partnership don't want a lot of people on the pier," she said. "They just don't."

The second Pier 40 proposal is from a team headed by CampGroup, which runs summer day camps including one upstate that some New York City children are bused to. The CampGroup plan would feature a day camp for 1,000 kids charging $1,000 a week.

Richard Caccoppolo, a member of the partnership that would keep the playing fields where they are and raise money for the pier's upkeep through bond financing, said the trust should have thrown out the Related and CampGroup plans and started over.

Taylor compared the hostility to the Related proposal to the outrage that sank the New York Jets' plan for a West Side football stadium in 2005.

"We need the money," she said. "I don't understand why people are so leery of having private development come in and do things."