On Tuesday morning, a City Council subcommittee discussed a Chelsea mega-development in the works for 550 Washington Street.
In order to construct the proposed 1.7 million square-foot building complete with tapering glass towers and mixed-use space at what is now the St. John’s Center, Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital are requesting to pay $100 million for the transfer of 200,000 square feet of air rights from nearby Pier 40. The Hudson River Park Trust, which runs the pier, plans to use the money to repair its crumbling pilings.
In the days before Tuesday’s hearing, the project was approved by the City Planning Commission and criticized by Council Member Corey Johnson, who has requested that future air rights transfer be barred from occurring within the neighborhoods surrounding Pier 40.
Johnson also recently pushed for a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on extending the South Village Historic District, which was finally successful after 10 years partially because of the looming possibility of the St. John’s project. If the ban on air rights transfers and the extended historic district are not approved, Johnson has said he will oppose the plan. The commission has scheduled a hearing on the South Village for Nov. 29.
Andrew Berman, president of the Greenwich Village Historic Society, praised the council member for his help and re-emphasized the importance of the City Council’s making provisions for future air rights transfers and protecting the South Village.
“We made it absolutely clear that it would be unconscionable for the city to consider rezoning that area...without finally moving forward with landmark designation,” Berman said. “I don’t think we would’ve gotten the city to finally move forward were it not for the fact that we created this sharp contrast between what they were doing for a developer at the St. John’s site and what they were up to this point not doing for the community for the nearby South Village.”
The legislation on the docket Tuesday morning for Pier 40/St. Johns included applications to create a Special Hudson River Park zoning district. That would allow for the air rights transfer and subsequent height increase, and would accommodate three parking garages with a total of 772 spaces.
Addressing the committee, Hudson River Park Trust President Madelyn Wils said Pier 40’s was in dire need of repairs that the trust alone would not be able to afford. “Any further deterioration of the piles would mean that the pier would have to close,” she said. “The park is responsible basically for holding up the west side of Manhattan.”
In a tense exchange with Wils, Johnson made it clear that any deal involving the pier’s air rights should be bulletproof. “My hair is falling out from this deal,” he said. “I don’t want us to go through this whole process and then, oops, we’re not getting $100 million.”
Johnson reiterated that he wanted future air rights transfers to be banned from occurring within Community Board 2, but Wils said she did not think that would be necessary.
Karolina Hall, a senior planner at the Department of City Planning, emphasized that the proposed special zoning district would exclusively apply to the Pier 40 and St. John’s sites so that no other properties would be eligible to receive air rights. It is possible that the 383,000 square feet of air rights that would be left after the St. John’s transfer could be sold to other developments – something Johnson hopes to avoid – but any such proposal would have to undergo a complete and separate Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
Community Board 2 has already voted to approve the project, with a few conditions, and there have been mixed reviews from its residents.
Concerns mentioned include: pedestrian safety at the site, which is near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel; environmental impact; the specifics on the affordable housing component and potential big box retailers.
Still, plenty of community members are in favor. Before the hearing Tuesday morning, the Friends of Hudson River Park group handed out flyers urging the City Council to approve the project in order to save Pier 40. At previous community meetings on the proposal, families with their Little Leaguers have also showed up in support. Pier 40’s 15 acres include heavily used sports facilities that, if closed, would force baseball games to played outside the neighborhood.
The hearing was still underway as of press time on Tuesday afternoon, but in response to Johnson’s concerns about the possibility of the $100 million for the piling repairs not coming through, land use attorney Michael Sillerman said his clients would offer to keep the money in escrow and sign the Purchase and Sale Agreement in advance of the Council’s approval.
Johnson called this “too good to be true,” but seemed interested in the prospect. The City Council is expected to vote on the project some time in December.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org