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From Pier to Park

Pier 40 hosting two passenger liners (upper right) and two cargo ships (lower left)

As the summertime blanket of heat and humidity descends over the city, our thoughts inevitably move toward the cool breezes found at the city’s waterfront. A little bit south of the Far West Village waterfront that GVSHP fought to get landmarked (see here and here) is the massive concrete structure known as Pier 40. Though for the past decade, the pier has been known as a site for car parking, sports, and community boating, the structure’s life during the past fifty years offers a unique window into the city’s sometimes complicated relationship to the water that surrounds it.

In 1958, The Villager reported on the commencement of construction on the new pier at Houston Street and the Hudson and noted,

“Emerging from the mist over the North River, like Caesar approaching Rome, a legion of city dignitaries aboard the tugboat Cynthia Moran pulled into the south side of the old Pier 38 at the foot of King St. yesterday…Debarking were more than 100 businessmen, labor leaders and city officials [for a] gala, old style ceremony marking the first concrete pour in the construction of New Pier 40.”

A brochure introducing the new Pier 40.

The new pier, designed and built by the city’s Department of Marine and Aviation, was built as fifteen-acre square (instead of a standard finger pier jutting out into the water) so it could simultaneously accommodate a number of large passenger ships and smaller cargo vessels. The Department of Marine and Aviation was the city’s port development agency, which at the time developed its projects separately from the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The pier opened for service in 1962 and the Holland-America Line utilized it for transatlantic passenger service and for its cargo operations.

Even as it opened the brand new Pier 40, the city’s short-sightedness about global shipping developments was beginning to show. As Pier 40 began service on the east side of the Hudson, the NY/NJ Port Authority was busy putting the finishing touches on a large container port to the southwest in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The Elizabeth Marine Terminal was one of the first specially-constructed container ports in the world, and it and similar projects would help render the city’s port facilities obsolete. As early as the 1950s, shipping companies were experimenting with a novel way to move freight, utilizing large, stackable corrugated metal containers that were never opened while in transit and could easily be transferred from ships to railroad cars to tractor-trailer trucks. Containerization streamlined the loading/unloading process as individual pallets of cargo did not have to be loaded, secured, and moved (this older process is called break-bulk cargo handling).

Pier 40, built for the break-bulk cargo market and for transatlantic passenger service (which by the 1960s was also in steep decline thanks to the advent of the jet age) was essentially obsolete when it opened. With competition from commercial jets among other issues, Holland-America Line ceased its transatlantic passenger services in 1971, and in 1973 sold off its cargo division. The facility soon came to be primarily used for vehicular parking (inlcuding for many local residents who were hard-pressed to find parking elsewhere in the Village).  But Pier 40 would soon gain a new lease on life as the city looked to reconnect with its waterfront and revitalize its disused industrial infrastructure—not for commercial shipping, but for recreational and open space.

Related's Redevelopment Proposal, dubbed "Vegas-on-the-Hudson" by detractors

With the last crumbling remains of the elevated West Side Highway removed by the late 1980s and work on West Street/Route 9A beginning in the 1990s, plans were developed to redevelop the waterfront. In 1998, the State legislature passed the Hudson River Park Act which designated the park area and established the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT)–which set up its offices in Pier 40–to manage development and maintenance. As the 2000s progressed, a three-acre courtyard at the center of the pier was re-purposed to house two full sized soccer fields (which could also be used for baseball).

By the late 2000s and in search of additional revenue to support the pier and parks, the HRPT sought proposals from builders to redevelop the pier. In 2007 the Related Companies proposed to construct a 600,000 sq. ft., 10,000-seat, nearly $700 million multi-venue mega-entertainment complex on their which was quickly dubbed “Vegas-on-the-Hudson” by critics. GVSHP opposed the proposal, citing concerns about the commercial plan which would generate huge amounts of traffic, serve largely as a tourist attraction, overwhelm the park, and encourage inappropriate development in the neighboring communities. GVSHP worked with the Pier 40 Partnership (P40P) and many other stakeholders to register the community’s strong opposition to the oversized commercial plan.

The interior soccer fields of Pier 40 today.

In a tremendous victory for the community and for P40P, in early 2008 the Trust voted to reject the Related Companies’ proposal. Though still in need of refurbishing, Pier 40 stands today as a remarkable example of adaptive reuse that took a structure originally constructed for an (already-outdated) early twentieth century industrial use and crafted a community asset fit for New York’s 21st century waterfront.


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