greenwich village resident outlines a major league vision for manhattan’s pier 40
In just ten days, the brand new and beautiful Red Bull Arena will finally open to soccer fans with a sold-out exhibition between Red Bull New York and Brazil’s famed Santos football club. New Yorkers will hop on the PATH train and in about a half-hour arrive at the Harrison, NJ, based stadium without most of the problems of traveling to the Meadowlands, the previous home of RBNY and the now defunct Giants Stadium.
But for many who live East of the Hudson River, the biggest problems still remain. Will the best soccer stadium in the country be able to draw fans across the river? Can a building straighten out a mismanaged franchise with a history of failure? Will there be a honeymoon, and if so, how long will it last?
RBNY has its new home, but another structure’s future also places the city’s soccer future in the wind. Pier 40, one of the largest and most-used sports facilities in Manhattan, is in dire need of rehabilitation. Just as with RBNY, many plans have failed. But Greenwich Village resident Patrick Shields thinks he has the answer. An ambitious answer…
One Last Chance for MLS in Manhattan
an op-ed by Patrick Shields
The current revenue reliant development mandate at New York’s crumbling and contentious Pier 40, at West Houston Street and the Hudson River, may be the only chance, ever, to create a modest and traditional, English Premiere League style Major League Soccer franchise on the island of Manhattan. If current law stands, and admittedly desirable pro-neighborhood changes in the state legislature in Albany do not happen, a historic business and branding opportunity for Major League Soccer in New York City will be lost if supporters and soccer investors do not act quickly.
Greenwich Village area communities know that short of legislative changes in Albany in 2010, the Hudson River Park Trust, which controls what happens to Pier 40, and the Hudson River Park Trust Act, will ultimately require the investment and cooperation of a single, large corporate tenant. This tenant would have to embrace community requirements for usage and shed the burden of the historic lack of success and consensus with larger, less neighborhood friendly organizations. The difficulty is that publicly developed revenue streams may not be enough to permanently maintain the pier, and will certainly not be available, up front, in the vast amounts needed to first rehabilitate it.
A stadium may be anathema to Pier 40 communities, or seem politically impossible, but look at small stadiums throughout the world, especially London. Pier 40 can be a spectacular Hudson River facility–part Craven Cottage, (the Hudson standing in as the Thames) and part Loftus Road of Queens Park Rangers. By decree of the Park Trust Act, not more than 50% of the pier may be allotted for commercial revenue producing uses, and at least 50% must be dedicated to public use. I think a soccer specific stadium, what could ultimately be known to soccer supporters as “the old Pier,” can fit into this available acreage while creating vast new public green space.
I argue that infrastructure investment can be soccer centric, and be soundly and prudently managed in acceptable neighborhood terms, for four reasons:
- The patiently managed emergence of the sport and business of soccer in the U. S. A.
- A potentially lucrative urban, iconic world class soccer franchise with a world market.
- A small scale stadium which would be available at times to the public
- A growing and well managed corporate soccer partner willing to cooperatively develop a true massive increase in Pier 40 public green-space, i.e. MLS.
While started by the best of intentions, the failed efforts to update the pier to date are a prescription for the ultimate loss of Pier 40. A single, solid idea, with a single commercial partner needs to happen now. This would be a bitter pill to swallow for those in favor of corporation-free green space, but short of changes in Albany, (and where is the plan for that?) no one in the community has yet advanced a financially sound, revenue-based plan that the communities and the Park Trust control. Pier 40 Partnership came close on the ongoing revenue stream end, but the Trust seeks a long term financial home run which also includes drastic pier rehabilitation.
Rendering of Pier 40 Partnership’s vision of Pier 40
An editorial by Arthur Schwartz of Community Board 2 on possible Albany action references a crucial item from the Park Act, Section 7(2): “the Trust shall not be authorized to issue bonds, notes, or other similar obligations, whether or not negotiable or to contract to pay debt service on such obligations issued by any other entity”. “In other words”, Schwartz writes, “the Hudson River Park Trust can’t take out a loan, it can’t issue its own bonds, and it can’t have the State and City issue bonds which it is obligated to pay back. Why, many may ask, doesn’t the Trust just develop the Pier itself?”
I argue that with a soccer plan we can, as long as all corporate capital raised for the project is protected, earmarked only for use in pier rehab, and pier and stadium development. First funds raised from private investors must of course require this. Post-development and ongoing operational revenues would have no such restriction, and again go to the Park Trust general fund. We can do it without taxpayer funded issues, without borrowing, and without paying debt service on other investor contributions.
The New York soccer community, the soccer business community, and Major League Soccer must make a determined and legit effort to find a group of U. S. and international luxury box lessees, raise $150,000,000 from them, assist pier development, and attract MLS ownership, with neighborhood and political priorities in place. The long term payoff for ownership, for Hudson River communities, and businesses old and new, would be enormous.
Ownership gets a flagship New York sports franchise in a growth industry with global export and branding. The community gets a well-developed, well-maintained pier with a single fitness-oriented business partner. Real park space, real revenues. Real access. No bond issues, no stadium rip-off. And all of this for the historically alternative Village, which could preside over American soccer’s most visible symbol of, “We’re here to stay.”
The Pier was built in the late 1950’s as a passenger ship terminal for the Holland-America lines, is the largest former working pier now under control of the Hudson River Park Trust, and sits at just over fourteen acres. It’s currently a huge parking garage surrounding a turf field used for the adult Metro NY Soccer, Downtown United and New York Kickers youth soccer, little league baseball, and other youth sports.
Governor George Pataki signed the Hudson River Park Act in 1998, designating a project area (including the then car-park-only pier) for a public park, establishing the Trust to “continue the planning, construction, management, and operation.” The Act also identified Hudson River enjoyment, maritime protection, quality of life, and waterfront recreation as integral aspects, allowing the “public interest” of “limited commercial uses.” The battle over these uses, and the growing necessity of funds provided by them, are what have created an MLS opportunity. While much of the waterfront has been developed and is ongoing, Pier 40 has become the inevitable public/private flashpoint, and the last decade has seen one protracted, failed attempt at public/private partnership after another.
Obstacles are large:
- Up front investment in amounts large enough to complete pier rehabilitation.
- Ongoing revenues within a cooperative plan which would satisfy both public and private entities and pay for service and maintenance of the public space in perpetuity.
Both of these challenges will need to happen, all while maintaining no more than fifty percent private control of the available acreage. Corporations won’t foot the full bill, and right now the public can’t. Both have power to exercise under the current Act. Too much corporate desire butting up against too many neighborhood chefs has left all projects at a stalemate. The corporate entities, including big box stores, Related Management (a Cirque du Soleil option nicknamed “Vegas on the Hudson”), and others, have been rejected as too invasive. The neighborhood group, Pier 40 Partnership, was rejected as “financially unviable”. Everyone is tired of the R.F.P. (request for proposals) process, and won’t do it again without probability of success.
Commercial prospects already out both time and money won’t make another attempt without back room deals, while the neighborhood fights with itself and rejects all plans. School parents, the School Construction Authority, dog run and cheap parking advocates, greenmarket aficionados, soccer parents and LGBTQ youth center advocates attack each other online with vitriol and self serving non-dialogue certain to doom access to the Pier.
Major League Soccer is the perfect buffer. Only those unwilling to accept any corporate involvement can argue against this, but until they show us public money for rehab and a plan for revenues for ongoing maintenance, it’s all hot air. Let the clearest and best organized downtown groups put forward plans now. Let the loudest put money where their mouths have been. Haggling for space after making decisions has been a recipe for disaster up to now. Non-plans need to be abandoned, and a final process begun. Come up with a plan, or participate in someone else’s plan. Now.
Economic self sufficiency for Pier 40 would begin expensively and need long term economic commitment before hitting the ground. Fixing the leaky roof and rusting pilings is short term thinking. Total redevelopment and construction have to happen with the Pier closed. We all know this is coming; it has to happen. A small neighborhood-style soccer stadium within the overall public idea makes for the speediest construction.
This idea would necessarily be a space compromise for both the community, and for MLS, but it is possible. I envision a fifteen to twenty-five thousand seat stadium. London has done it again and again in dense urban and suburban areas.
INITIATIVES THAT FALL SHORT
The following consistently raised proposals are either misguided, or are admirable and suffer from insufficient planning:
1. Luxury, middle income or transitional (safe) housing
Any housing effort at Pier 40 would doom green space. The brutal lobbying tactics of luxury, or the emotions and politics of necessary middle income, safe or transitional housing would overwhelm. Park and recreational space must remain the absolute focus.
2. Traditional school space
Worthwhile, but another battle preventing green space. If in play, it ought to be small and specific—Science and new media or jobs-oriented for those under-served public school students for whom traditional education is of no interest. I am for school space, but the Pier 40 debate simply cannot include a large scale school or schools. Noble, obviously necessary, but not the right venue. We’re an island, maybe a maritime academy.
3. A dog run or dog park
This proposal is always emotional and too narrowly focused, deserving of marginalization during this debate if only as a means to eventually get more green space, and therefore more dog space. The petty bickering which always accompanies dog run debates has the potential to steal focus from a goal which at this point requires a laser like focus on financial success in order to rescue the Pier. Dog run advocates need to align themselves with a larger working plan instead of simply making demands for space with no plan of their own on the table.
4. Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) Center
This option is clearly necessary, and welcome in the Village, but it’s also an idea persistently accompanied by no plan. How will “at risk” youth “made safe,” and how it is going to be funded? I support this if it has specific purpose, like sports and fitness, in line with green space, and specifically funded arts and cultural training, for real professions. A “meeting place”, with “activities”, is dangerously vague at this stage in the fight for Pier 40’s survival, a catch-phrase for kids “hanging around.” Let’s give these kids a place with real purpose. Tell us what real dollars are going to fund the ongoing mission. Who is going to run it? What’s the plan?
New York Times photo from Pier 40 rally
THE MLS PLAN (from a concerned Greenwich Village resident with no connection to the league)
A commitment to a Major League Soccer franchise from the very beginning can raise development money through leasing of luxury boxes, without ceding ownership control of the property to a non-HRPT entity. Twenty domestic and international soccer loving Global 500 corporations should each be willing to pay $7,500,000 in advance to lease a box at the only professional soccer stadium in Manhattan, if play were guaranteed to begin in five to seven years. This would be $468,750 per year for a sixteen year lease, or $375,000 per year for a twenty year lease. Four to five World Cup cycles in value, and the stadium easily completed in time for the Cup to come to the U.S. in either 2018 or 2022. It’s the world’s game and it will bring in the world’s money, not to mention the U.S. dollar now jumping aboard the soccer bandwagon. Soccer is here, and it is ascendant.
This $150,000,000 in development money would provide funding to both rehab the pier and build the stadium within. The stadium would then be leased to Major League Soccer, guaranteeing immediate operating revenue for ongoing park maintenance. (Added to this plan could be a sister WPS franchise, but for simplicity, I’ve kept it as MLS alone.) MLS would buy in, knowing it has corporate sponsors and fans literally built into a New York MLS flagship. Eventually stadium specific concessions go in, fostering further investment from which the Park Trust could command a revenue percentage. If we build it, they will come. If we own it, even nominally through the Trust, we help dictate the terms. In truth, this estimate for potential box leases may be conservative given soccer popularity worldwide, with more money and shorter leases possible.
To increase lease revenues, boxes can be limited to one company per nation, with the U.S. as an exception. The top bidding company from each of the top twenty bidding nations gets a box in each lease cycle. This increases overall lease revenues, creating a high profile international business networking presence, which alludes to the immigrant history of nearby New York Harbor. “The Pier” could be the single most international gathering place in New York City, on a weekly basis, with live MLS matches or giant HD screenings of Champions League and other international Cups as well. The soccer related revenue opportunities are endless, and then there are concerts and other events. How about The Philharmonic at Pier 40 in front of 20,000, four times a year? The possibilities are endless in New York City, where intimate outdoor arenas are almost non-existent.
From the outset, negotiations with MLS must also include the fate of luxury box lease fees from the second lease term and beyond. The eventual MLS or private owners will demand the lion’s share, but even a modest fee percentage could be a windfall for parks. Total public ownership of the stadium will be leverage. Perhaps Pier 40 Partnership will lead the way and find a financially practical business use for the first leased box.
The commitment to MLS, obviously, must be ironclad. Let the luxury box holders pay for the development for once, and to us, not to any corporate owner. For corporations from soccer loving nations doing business in Manhattan, these boxes would be an invaluable business tool and perk. Fellow Villagers, let’s go into the (small) stadium (which supports our parks) business, and have it benefit citizens for real, for once. I don’t see how the Hudson River Park Act prevents this. It’s not a bond or tax, and not a loan. And this isn’t the riverside, over-sized Jets stadium project.
It is a wonderful stadium. But will Red Bull Arena feel like home to New Yorkers?
Above this would sit the MLS stadium field and stadium.
On the current ground level exterior ring, surrounding the public field, the enclosed spaces can be developed for community use. The south end becomes a recreational marina, ferry pick-up and dockage for goods delivered by boat. The west becomes greenmarket, general river view stroll, and a modest dog run. The north becomes arts and community centers of various types and a modest school or schools. All of these on or just within a continuous three sided open air promenade with no private interruption.
The current second level becomes covered parking all the way around the stadium opening, half reserved for local long term parkers (with a waiting list) and the other half for daily and hourly rental (with discounts for local, daily and hourly parkers). Or set it aside fully for local, long term parkers. Let the parkers fight over a pre-determined fixed amount of space, rather than continue to hold up the entire future of Pier 40 over the revenues issue.
With the addition of a new fourth level as described below, the current roof (third) level, becomes, along the outside ring, a covered promenade. This would be for dual use of the public (always), or public plus stadium fans (on match days). Concessions and restrooms, facing outward, could serve both, with as many open concessions on non match days as the market for the promenade demands. Stadium ticket entranceways and promenade side rear walls of luxury boxes could be in rotation with concessions and restrooms. Then, on the stadium interior, the rotation would be luxury box then advertising space, which again could be split with the Trust. The luxury boxes, at proper height, would have no fan obstruction. A half dozen or so blocks-worth could be held for MLS and team ownership offices (the league is headquartered in midtown Manhattan), with windows or decks facing the field.
With clever planning, the concessions could open on both the stadium side and the external promenade side, if the stadium side boxes were above them. No doubt an architectural challenge, this perhaps offers boxes both river views and stadium-side views. Perhaps the soccer franchise could take all concessions from game day, and the HRPT the remainder, to keep clean sheets on both sides.
On the stadium interior above and below the luxury boxes, there would be modest tiers of seating, all the way around. One from the new field level to either the level of concession or box, and another, larger graded tier above the boxes, again all the way around, allowing for maximum seating in the available space. I’ll bet 15,000 to 20,000 can fit.
A newly added fourth level would be green space all around, except for the stadium roof opening. Proper architectural and stadium lighting and seating planning could make the park deck and stadium opening equal in height, but with no field view from above, offering copyright protection to team owners while keeping 360 degree views available to park users. It could be an oval stadium opening, maximizing rooftop green space by building inward toward the oval. One of the new stadiums in Durban, South Africa, has a tram built into an arch over the top of the stadium, offering both revenue and structural support.
Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban, South Africa
Brilliant. It could be our London Eye-type attraction, but we make ours with two passing trams, a true funicular, stopping at a common viewing platform. The arch could offer genuine support for Pier 40 and the new pilings from above, and serve as yet another concession, more revenue for maintenance of the parks. The closest we’ll ever get to an urban “roller-coaster” and still be dignified. We can think big in a small space.
The new fourth level should be for rest, relaxation and reflection—an oasis. It should be dog free, frisbee free and sports free, designed to prevent interruption or injury.
The public space would be permanently free, with unimpeded rights to pass, sell art or get up on a soapbox. The pro stadium could be used for public and private school championships, like Columbus Crew Stadium.
A crucial issue for a professional team would be the lack of a training ground, so that would have to be split between the Pier and elsewhere, perhaps in an outer borough where the franchise could join with local youth soccer teams (and their own academy team) to create a home for NYC youth soccer. Or, have a pro team, for once, practice in New Jersey and play in New York.
Fans would come by public transportation. It works for Yankee Stadium, why not here? Walking bridges over the west side highway would be a necessity, and it would be about time. New Jersey fans could ferry into the recreational marina that would be included, or take the PATH. Islanders hop on the Long Island Rail Road. There are express subway stations at Chambers Street, West 14th, and West 4th/Washington Square, as well the Houston Street and Spring Street local stations. Sure, it’s pretty easy now to get to the brand new Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, but nothing would compare to a Madison Square Garden for soccer.
THIS IS THE PERFECT PLACE
NYC, astonishingly, lacks pro soccer, the only world class city which does not permanently host the world’s number one sport. Make no mistake about it, Major League Soccer, no matter how successful, will not begin to compete internationally without a true New York City franchise. It’s just one of the reasons they need us as much as we need them, and why a fair deal is possible. And would not a public park containing a valuable franchise forever anchoring Pier 40 make future Olympic and World Cup bids more attractive to organizers? The Village has always had firsts, so why not host the first permanent and successful Major League Soccer franchise actually in New York City?
Residents participating in the process have clearly rejected the possibility of big box retail and big box entertainment, but an MLS venue need not grow or be a constant disruption. We all go to sporting events in other people’s backyards, what are we afraid of? This would always be a small, economically safe, local team in what will eventually be a much larger domestic business than it is now. Perfect partner, perfect time.
If New York City soccer fans are serious about a linchpin MLS franchise, the time is now. Imagine Pier 40 with three layers of public space, much of it year round use, and revenue built in on every level except the grand corporate-free rooftop. Coordination with one growing sports entity on our terms is a fair trade for massive and varied public space. Success of a sports franchise is never a guarantee, but I believe season tickets would sell out, and a lengthy wait list would back it up. The matches would always be full, the franchise stable, and because of that, so too would Pier 40, and the entire HRPT area.
Lobby the Hudson River Park Trust, Community Board 2 in Manhattan, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Lobby Don Garber and MLS, Sunil Gulati and U.S. Soccer. Get Pier 40 done and create jobs. It’s in the interest of the community for Albany to make Pier 40 part of its agenda immediately.
If the Trust Act changes, this former Cleveland Browns fan turned World Cup traveler will remain a fan without a team. I will always have the U. S. national team, but I long to have that Browns-like feeling for my own Leeds, West Ham or gritty little Burnley. To tell my friends “see you at the Pier”. Our Stamford Bridge. Our Cottage.
If there is no Albany action, the soccer community must be ready to strike. And in the current and constant state of Albany dysfunction why should we have any hope, or wait? It won’t be achieved without organization and a commitment to a long fight.
Here’s where we start: is there a soccer fan/stadium architect out there somewhere willing to help with the renderings which would better sell the greatest project of our lifetimes?
There has been, seemingly and suddenly, a vast consensus on Pier 40 as an enormous greenmarket. A public meeting called by the Hudson River Park Advisory Council will determine if the neighborhood has come up with yet another soon to be failed plan, or a plan with sound financial thinking, which will provide repair and rehabilitation for the Pier up front, in order that it may become whatever it becomes. I have read the plan proposed to fund it, and it involves the idea that small business owners being forced out of their spaces in the Village will somehow, suddenly, be able to afford mortgages to buy raw retail space to develop at Pier 40. That thinking merely opens the door for corporate retail development to ultimately swallow the Pier.
I enthusiastically support the greenmarket plan, as only part of an overall plan, (and have said so in my plan) but I oppose what I believe to be a mortgage plan which would only be affordable to corporate retailers. I also believe generally there should not be any non-HRPT ownership of any part of the Pier. I am calling for soccer enthusiasts to read the plan above, thoroughly, and if in New York, come out to support it.
Come to the meeting on March 22 at Village Community School Auditorium, 272 West 10th Street, between Greenwich and Washington Streets, 7 PM.
The meeting was held on March 22, 2010, and our voice was heard. As it turned out, it was a strict greenmarket agenda, so I voiced the idea that the Pier as a whole was too big for only a greenmarket, and that a greenmarket was an essential part of any Pier plan. Stay tuned. This is not over.