The Little Leaguers that gathered in an auditorium in lower Manhattan last Tuesday night were not there for a sporting event, but for a community board hearing.
Tha board was considering a development plan for the St. John’s Center on Washington Street, a block from the Hudson River. The roughly 20 kids, still in their uniforms, were joined by more than 50 adults, who were concerned both about the future mega-development and about the nearby Pier 40, where the kids have sports practices.
Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group are the developers of what will eventually be a multi-building commercial, residential and hotel complex and are hoping to transfer the air rights above Pier 40 to the St. John’s Center for the price of $100 million dollars in repairs to the dilapidated pier.
For Harry Bubbins, East Village and special projects director at the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, the issue is less about this particular development than it is about setting a precedent that might endanger more buildings in the future. “If there are not limits on any future air rights transfers, generated by Pier 40 as well as any other piers along the Hudson River, then projects of this enormous scope would be permitted anywhere one block in from the river,” Bubbins said, summarizing GVSHP’s main concerns. “So obviously any section one block in would be threatened by this kind of proposal.”
The Department of City Planning, which is named as the applicant for an amendment that would establish a special Hudson River Park zoning district, presented its plan first. “The transfer of development rights would help to support the repair of Pier 40,” DCP representative Karolina Grebowiec-Hall said.
During the presentation, one attendee couldn’t hold back his opposition. “How can you legally build over a river?” shouted one man, after Grebowiec-Hall completed a complicated slideshow. “Her presentation boggles the mind!”
After Grebowiec-Hall, Rick Cook of COOKFOX architects took the stage to describe the transformation he envisioned for the St. John’s Center. COOKFOX is considered part of the second applicant, SJC 33 Owner 2015 LLC, which is requesting a zoning map amendment, two special permits, an authorization for curb cuts and a chairperson’s certification to construct five new buildings where the St. John’s center is now. The buildings will include a hotel, commercial and event space, market-rate housing, and some affordable and senior-affordable housing on a 40,660-square-foot lot.
At 430 feet, the tallest building would be about 40 stories tall. “We’ve kept the footprint of the towers very, very narrow,” Cook said in order to explain the height. “Much more narrow than you would see in a typical modern building.”
Carin Ehrenberg, president of Greenwich Village Little League, called the development “beautiful and thoughtful” and credited it with giving back to the community by preserving a crucial sporting and recreation facility. “We’re running out of time,” she said. “We can’t continue to fight about this. We need to save the only park that our community has.”
Others, like Bubbins, are skeptical of what the requested special districts and allowances could mean for the neighborhood’s future, despite the promised repairs. “If a developer was able to get away with this kind of mega-development without the sensible community protections … then they would be looking around for sites to do similar things,” Bubbins said. In particular, he listed the Gansevoort meat market and the parking lot at Jane and West Streets as potentially attractive development sites that should be preserved.
Attendees at the meeting also wanted more precise descriptions of the affordable housing that would be included -- Cook could not provide the square footage of the affordable apartments -- and they wanted to know why the plans did not include a school, despite the families with children who will inevitably be moving in when the buildings are completed. “The ... analysis showed that we would generate 169 elementary students, 56 intermediate students and 84 high school students,” said land use attorney Michael Sillerman.
The next meeting will be held June 6 at the New York City Fire Museum, about the specifics of the air rights transfer.