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Lawyer defends Heatherwick's New York Pier

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Promoters of Thomas Heatherwick’s plans for an island park on New York’s Hudson River have hit back at the scheme’s opponents

Heatherwick drew up designs for a new pier in 2014. His proposal extends 213m into the river, hosting trees, bushes, plants and a 700-seat amphitheatre for music, dance, and theatre performances.

But the Pier 55 plans are still awaiting final permits amid a legal challenge brought by urban environmental campaign group, the City Club of New York.

Among a number of complaints, the club said: ‘With the footprint of a Home Depot and a maximum height of seven storeys, the island would block Hudson views now enjoyed by tens of thousands of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists daily.

‘It would replace them with a view of concrete pilings and a small, out-of-the-way vantage point atop the island.’

The group’s legal challenge is on the basis that Heatherwick’s client, the Hudson River Park Trust, wrongly failed to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the proposals.

It also says that the trust should have carried out a competitive bidding process before accepting a $100 million-plus donation towards the scheme from philanthropists Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.

A third ground for challenge is that events held on the island would exclude members of the public and restrict entry by ability to pay.

Finally, the club says the footprint exceeds that which was granted permission in 2013 by New York State for the reconstruction of its predecessor, the derelict Pier 54.

However, David Paget, attorney for the trust, hit back at these complaints.

Paget, partner at leading US environmental law firm Sive, Paget & Riesel, told the AJ: ‘The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has already determined that no EIA is needed.

‘The litigants have not cited a single instance where the process they are urging – a competitive bidding process for philanthropic donations – has ever been followed.’

He also said that 51 per cent of events held on the island would be free or ‘low cost’ with the rest charged at a market rate for comparable events.

Finally he said the plans drawn up by Heatherwick, who is also designing the controversial Garden Bridge in London, complied with existing legislation allowing the extension of the pier’s footprint.

On the claim that the island would block views from the banks of the river, Paget said: ‘If I had to look out over the Hudson at the remnants of a withered and decayed pier or Heatherwick’s design there is no doubt over what is more scenic or attractive or pleasing to the eye. It is an infinite improvement.’

No date has been set date for a judgment in the case, and the scheme’s promotors are still awaiting decisions on permits from the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Comment:

Michael S Gruen, president of The City Club of New York

The City Club of New York’s mission is to improve the urban environment through better planning and better process. The Pier 55 case primarily concerns process and we became involved for several reasons:

a) The project illustrates a city-is-for-sale mentality. Raising income is the highest good for city government and selling city property is a popular way of advancing that goal. In this case, without competitive bidding, the Hudson River Trust has entered into a lease with Pier55 Inc, which on its face does not look particularly favorable for the city. Pier55 builds the structure, but the trust must contribute $17 million to the costs. Pier55 pays the trust $1 per year rent for up to 30 years. Pier55 also pays its operating costs, except that the trust pays for maintenance of the surface of the pier. At the end of 30 years, the trust gets possession of the pier, which may by then have somewhat deteriorated.

b) The deal is, we contend, illegal under the terms of the Park Act, an extraordinarily carefully constructed statute intended to ensure that the park operates not only for public recreational pleasure but to preserve the estuarine environment and even improve it.

For that reason, the Park Act prohibits pier construction (other than to repair existing piers without expanding them beyond their footprint at the time the act was adopted), and the act prohibits uses of most piers (including Pier 54, which Pier 55 replaces) which are not water dependent. The trust made its deal with Pier 55 in near secrecy, without generally disclosing that it involved building an entirely new pier in an area that was open waterscape, and using it primarily for the non-water-dependent purpose of providing performance space. The trust had to obtain an amendment to the Park Act to build the pier, but chose to do that by what amounted to trickery.

It buried the issue in a lengthy technical bill, and characterised the project as a reconstruction of Pier 54. It led legislators to believe that the reconstruction would (as the word ‘reconstruction’ connotes) be done on the existing site, but with some enlargement. Although the trust, by the time the bill was presented, was actually working on plans for an entirely new pier whose connection with Pier 54 is incidental (it very slightly overlaps the former Pier 54 site at one corner), it did not disclose this to legislators. 

Our point may be a little old fashioned, but we like it: government has every bit as much obligation to comply with the law as we mortals have.

c) The environmental protection laws were bypassed. Our procedures call for preparation of environmental impact statement in environmentally sensitive projects. The statement studies potential environmental impacts in depth and, at least in theory, serves to ensure that, from the beginning of a project, the governmental officials responsible for it will plan it to minimise adverse environmental impacts. The first step is an assessment of whether there is any possibility that the project will have adverse environmental impacts. If the answer is yes, the agency must cause an EIS to be prepared. In this instance, the trust found it inconvenient to go through the process and declared that there was no such possibility. That is a sham. Obvious impacts include:

  • The new structure (which we refer to as an ‘island,’ that being more accurate than ‘pier’) will substantially totally block, over a distance of several hundred feet along the shore, public view of the Hudson River in an area that now is substantially totally open. The trust rather preposterously claims that this does not adversely affect views because the thousands upon thousands of drivers and automobile passengers passing by the currently open view will get an even better view by going out to the island. Likewise as to pedestrians and bicyclists. The trust ignores that there are very limited parking facilities, so forget the car drivers and passengers. Others would likely find it rather inconvenient to take a detour of a few hundred feet in each direction to go out onto the island in the hope of finding a fabulous view from it. For the most part, they would be disappointed anyway, as the shape and undulations of the island (it rises from about ten to 60 feet off the water surface) will block all complete views of the river other than at one corner, which may accommodate about 10 people at a time, which juts furthest into the river and is at the 60 foot summit.
  • The site is now available for recreational non-motorised boating. That would be substantially curtailed because the island and its accessways cover about 2.7 acres and extend from the Pier 54 pile field to the pile field of former Pier 55. Small boating is dangerous in the pile fields and would be under the island. The trust contends that very little boating occurs there now, ignoring that the trust is charged with encouraging more boating.
  • The site is populated (so to speak) by many species of fish, some rare or endangered. There is reason for concern that they will be adversely affected by the shading of the large area beneath the island, by day, and by artificial lighting by night.

d) Terms of the lease to Pier 55 would give the lessee substantially total control over entry charges for entry to performance events on the island, thus potentially excluding a substantial portion of the public from attending. Our parks are supposed to be open to the public generally, not just that portion which can pay high entry fees.

 

 

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