The Hudson River Park Trust has made a deal that follows a disturbing trend in park financing: In exchange for a gift of at least $113 million, the Trust would allow media mogul Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to build a 2.7-acre island in the Hudson River and to control in large part how it would be used. The project would require driving about 550 piles in an area of the Hudson protected as an estuarine sanctuary. Diller and von Furstenberg would receive a 30-year lease to operate the island as a performing arts venue and naming rights to the island in perpetuity. The Trust would contribute $17 million toward construction costs and would be responsible for long-term maintenance of the structure. In recognition of its location between former Piers 54 and 56, the island would be called “Pier 55.”
Because the river is a navigable waterway, this project requires the permission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For 15 years, the Trust has had a Corps permit to rebuild Pier 54 at its current location but has not done so. The Trust has now asked the Corps to modify this permit to allow it to build the island. The Corps has invited public comment on the proposal.
The City Club of New York will submit extensive comments to the Corps requesting that the Trust’s application be denied. This summary explains why:
The Trust is not in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The Trust wants to build the island in the estuarine sanctuary, which is reserved by law for environmental conservation and the protection of marine wildlife. The island’s purpose is to provide green space for the performing arts and recreation. This purpose can be fulfilled at another location, without driving hundreds of piles in the Estuarine Sanctuary. The Clean Water Act requires the Trust to prove there is no feasible alternative to building the Island between Piers 54 and 56. The Trust has not considered whether these amenities could be provided elsewhere and has not even attempted to address this requirement.
The island is contrary to the public interest. The Corps must decide whether the Island is in the public interest by carefully weighing its reasonably expected benefits against its reasonably foreseeable harms. The harms outweigh the benefits:
The island would obstruct navigation in the river. The island is not a pier and cannot be used for maritime or water-dependent activities. Building it between Piers 54 and 56 would prevent future uses of both piers, and of the embayment between them. Pier 54 is designated by the Park’s master plan to host historic vessels. Were it rebuilt, it could serve as a potential emergency evacuation point or transportation hub. The island would also eliminate the protected public waterway between Piers 54 and 56 that rowers, sailors, and kayakers use to practice their techniques out of the wind and current.
The island would negatively affect fish and wildlife. The island would result in increased daytime shadows, nighttime lighting, construction noise, and sedimentation, all of which would affect the Hudson ecosystem. The Trust acknowledges the potential impact but misleadingly dismisses it as insignificant compared to rebuilding Pier 54 with an outdated 15-year-old design.
The island would erase historic resources. Pier 54 was the home of the White Star and Cunard Lines and the starting point of Lusitania’s final voyage. State law requires the Trust to incorporate this history into the reconstruction of Pier 54 (as opposed to the construction of the island, which is not authorized by state law at all). Instead, the Trust proposed a futuristic design that does not integrate or celebrate the area’s working maritime history.
The island would block views of the Hudson. With the footprint of a Home Depot and a maximum height of seven stories, 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 island’s benefits would be limited and restricted based upon ability to pay. The West Side already has a host of indoor and outdoor performance venues, and the Trust has never explained why another is needed. Pier55, Inc. can charge whatever it wants for nearly half the events on the island, close it for private fund-raisers, and sell memberships. The Trust’s application is misleading and cannot be granted under federal law. The Trust provided misleading and/or incomplete information to the Corps about important subjects. These deficiencies prevent the Corps from granting the Trust’s request.
This is a new island, not a reconstruction of Pier 54. The Trust claims it is rebuilding Pier 54, but it chose the name “Pier 55” for a reason. The Island is a new structure in a new off- shore location. It would cover 40 percent more of the Hudson. It would require driving hundreds of piles in a location where the Trust has never been allowed to build. This is a new project that needs a new permit, not just a modification of the existing permit, and the Corps must subject it to exacting environmental scrutiny.
A private corporation, not a public Trust, is primarily in charge of the project. Primary responsibility for building the island would lie not with the Trust, a public agency, but with Pier55, Inc., a private corporation controlled by Barry Diller. Under its lease, Pier55, Inc. would have final authority over the island’s construction. Pier55, Inc. should apply for its own permit under Army regulations, but the Trust does not even mention Pier55, Inc. in its 496-page application to the Corps.
The “No Action” alternative to building the island is not rebuilding Pier 54—it’s no action. The Trust misleadingly understates the island’s environmental impact by comparing it to the impact of rebuilding Pier 54. The Trust has already dismantled Pier 54 and told the public it has no intention or ability to rebuild Pier 54 because it lacks funding. The island’s real environmental consequences can only be assessed by comparing it to the true, current alternative: Doing nothing and leaving the Pier 54 pile habitat as is.
A public hearing is needed. The construction of a new island by a private entity in a public park in the Hudson is unprecedented. Given the important issues involved, and the secrecy surrounding the Trust’s planning process, the Corps should, at a minimum, hold a public hearing. New Yorkers deserve an opportunity to provide meaningful input into the Corps’ decision.