March 01, 2013 at 15:49 PM EST
In shift, Durst wants piece of Pier 40
When it comes to saving Pier 40 on the West Side, Douglas Durst has long described himself as a concerned citizen who wants to help save the pier and Hudson River Park. Now the billionaire developer admits he may be in it to win it. Mr. Durst told Crain's that he would be open to putting in a bid to develop the 14-acre pier. Until now, he has extolled his vision of redeveloping the existing buildings as simply the most economically and politically feasible. He has said repeatedly that he does not intend to develop the pier himself. But on Friday he admitted, "that position could change." His shift has been many months in the making and further heightens the standoff that has emerged over the park's future. High tensions were on display Thursday at a meeting of Community Board 2. About 200 residents concerned about the future of the ball fields at Pier 40 assembled at 375 Hudson St. to hear the details of two competing visions for developing the crumbling pier. On one side there was Mr. Durst, dressed in a charcoal gray three-piece suit. On the other was Tony Bergman, leader of a community group called the Pier 40 Champions, wearing sneakers and a fleece vest over a button down. Mr. Durst outlined a $384 million development plan he claimed would not require tearing down the existing building. The "adaptive reuse" of existing structures, would generate $10 million a year to the trust that oversees the park, he said. His proposal calls for lifting existing playing fields onto a mezzanine built over a half-million square foot of commercial space, 90,000 square feet of office space and parking for 2,000 cars (the pier currently has 1,700 parking spaces). His architect, Daniel Heuberger, spoke of "park compatible" retail occupying the commercial space, including bike rentals, kayak rentals, cafes and gyms. Commercial revenue would be used to maintain the five-mile Hudson River Park and save the crumbling pier, which costs $7 million a year to maintain but brings in only $5 million annually. Currently, money to support it is expected to run out by 2015. "Tech firms want high ceilings and unconventional and interesting space," Mr. Durst said of the kinds of tenants that would be interested in space he claims would rent for $55 per square foot. "Our concept avoids the massive dislocation and environmental nightmare [destroying the existing building] would cause, that would take the playing fields out of commission for years." It seems like a David versus Goliath battle—wing tips versus sneakers—except in this case Mr. Bergman's community plan is arguably more ambitious than Mr. Durst's vision of "adaptive reuse." The community group wants to tear down the existing pier and build two 22-story residential buildings—one luxury condo and one with an 80-20 affordable housing mix. Their plan would expand the number of playing soccer fields to four from two. In the short term, the group claims the project would bring in $10 million a year for the Hudson River Park Trust, and $20 million in the long term. But at nearly $700 million, the plan is much more expensive than Mr. Durst's. The renovation of the pier clocks in at $197.5 million and the residential development is estimated to cost $493.3 million. "We don't want to have kids playing on the roof of private entities," Mr. Bergman said. "We want them playing in parks." The audience clapped and cheered its approval as Mr. Bergman railed against Mr. Durst's commercial plan. "It's set up for broken promises," he said. "You can't have mom and pop shops. You need an anchor and that has to be a major store [like Home Depot]." (In response, Mr. Durst pointed out in contrast that small stores, not a big box tenant, has made Chelsea Market a success. The argument has become so heated on both sides that it's hard to remember the competing visions are nothing more than conceptual designs. Both plans would need Albany approval. Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, wants legislation passed to open up the pier for a wider variety of uses. "We are open to all options, but to get it done, we need a legislative change," Ms. Wils said in a statement. But building residential towers on the pier would require approval from Albany, which has not yet been eager to use its authority. Lower Manhattan Assemblywoman Deborah Glick on Thursday night said she opposed the residential plan. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, emotions simmer. Mr. Durst is on a mission to make sure residential does not become an option for the pier. He has also personally reached out to developers who work on the waterfront, asking them to tell Ms. Wils that a plan to build residential buildings on the pier was deeply flawed and would never work, multiple sources said. "I have no personal animosity toward Madelyn," said Mr. Durst, who stepped down as chairman of Friends of Hudson River Park late last year because of the disagreement over the pier's future. "Developers do things because it's the right thing to do." For her part, Ms. Wils has the support of parks advocates. "We support trying to put out an all-inclusive, broad-based Request For Proposals to get real development proposals as opposed to conceptual ones," said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. "In my experience, the best, most creative solutions we get come when we did the most open-ended RFPs. You push the market to think creatively."
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