Parks and Wreck: The Fight for Pier 40 and the Myth of Public Parks

This debate is at the heart of the fight between Mr. Durst and the rest of the park’s leadership. He wanted up-front investments to protect the park, while other board members wanted the private sector to pay—perhaps rightly so, since the park could barely afford even the $30 million-to-$44 million tab Mr. Durst had touted.

“If it was up to me, not one more dime goes into Pier 40,” Diana Taylor declared at a recent board meeting. “Period.” (In addition to being a Friends board member, Ms. Taylor is, of course, Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend and in some ways his surrogate.)

The problem is that the legislation that created the park—by virtue of it being the first—is the most restrictive of the public-private parks in the city. It limits residential and certain other types of development and caps leases at 29 years. In comparison, more than 1,000 apartments will be built as part of Brooklyn Bridge Park, with leases up to 99 years.

The trust has been lobbying Albany for years now to relax the restrictions, often to fierce outcry from locals, who oppose most forms of new development. (It’s the Village and Soho, after all.) So far, everything from an outpost of Cirque du Soleil to a Major League Soccer stadium has been proposed, but all have been sunk by neighbors.

The trust insists it does not favor housing, it simply wants that as one of the options on the table. “The community needs to understand that if they want a park, they need to be willing to do what it takes to maintain a park,” Ms. Wils told Crain’s in May, when she unveiled plans for a 115-room hotel and 800 apartments on the pier—but with expanded open space as well, a palliative to all that development.

“It’s never what you want to do, for sure,” said Rob Pirani, a vice president at the Regional Plan Association and member of the Governors Island Alliance, that park’s watchdog. “It’s the difference between a real estate project and building a neighborhood.” But he also conceded that without the public-private partnerships, public officials might not have agreed to underwrite these parks in the first place.

Meanwhile, the entertainment complex Chelsea Piers, the other big money-maker for the trust, has sued, alleging two decades of deferred maintenance on its piles. The repair costs have been estimated at $100 million, a price the trust could hardly afford. (The fact that there is an expensive place for people to rock climb, ice skate and drive golf balls on what is ostensibly public land, meanwhile, gets at the heart of the problems with this type of park. It’s a nice amenity for the neighborhood, but only for those who can afford it.)

There is some hope on the horizon, as the park’s third major commercial project, Pier 57, is finally getting underway after years of delays. Young Woo, a hip downtown developer, has teamed up with designers Lot-Ek, known for building with shipping containers, to transform the pier into an artisanal market. Cute, but again, commercial. There will be a public walkway around the pier and expansive open space on the 1.6-acre roof—but there would be even more public space without those stores. The proposal was just approved by the Community Board last week, the first step in the months-long public approval process.

“Despite these and other challenges, including the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy, the Friends and the trust remain wholly committed to working together to secure resources for the park and sustaining its future,” Ms. Wils and Friends executive director A.J. Pietrantone said in a statement released after Mr. Durst’s departure.

Ms. Leicht hopes they can pull it off. “I do think getting it right here is essential before we continue to forge ahead on these types of parks,” she said.