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Notes Reveal What a Developer Wants to Do With Pier 40's Air Rights

By Danielle Tcholakian | November 12, 2014 7:31am
 Atlas Group is buying 250,000 square feet of air rights for $100 million, which the Hudson River Park Trust will use to repair crumbling Pier 40.
Pier 40 and St. John's Terminal
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HUDSON SQUARE — A proposed development in the St. John’s Terminal building across from Pier 40 on the Hudson River will contain condos, retail and affordable housing, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The details of the controversial project were revealed at a recent closed-door meeting at Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer's office, according to handwritten notes obtained by DNAinfo through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The notes show the lower-income units will not get riverfront views.

At the Sept. 29 meeting, developer Atlas Capital Group presented its plan to buy 250,000 square feet of air rights from the neighboring Pier 40 for $100 million, giving a much-needed infusion of cash to the crumbling pier while allowing Atlas to build a huge addition to its St. John's Terminal building at 550 Washington St.

The plan has not yet been presented publicly and would need many city and state approvals, including from Brewer's office.

At the meeting, Atlas proposed dedicating at least 110,000 square feet of the project to affordable housing for seniors, according to the notes. But there was one caveat.

"No affordable housing on river side," one of the attendees wrote of the planned 150 to 200 affordable units.

Atlas Capital Group declined to comment.

Brewer released a statement saying, "We listen to all sorts of proposals at informational meetings like these."

At the briefing at Brewer's office, Atlas revealed that the first phase of the project would include 450,000 square feet of condos and 100,000 square feet of retail, according to the notes.

The first phase also includes the 110,000 square feet of affordable housing for seniors, which Atlas is working on with Forsyth Street, a firm that advises on affordable housing and real estate.

The second phase of the project could feature more market-rate and affordable apartments, as well as commercial space or a hotel.

The sprawling four-story, 1.3 million-square-foot St. John's Terminal spans more than three city blocks along the West Side Highway. It was built in 1935 and was once the endpoint of the High Line railway.

Atlas hopes to begin the public review of the project, through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, in the first quarter of 2015 and break ground on the first phase as soon as the beginning of 2016, the notes show.

The building's expansion has been shrouded in secrecy since its conception.

In late 2013, Atlas quietly signed a memorandum of understanding with the state outlining the proposed $100 million air rights sale at Pier 40, without informing local elected officials or the public.

After the state refused to disclose the details of the deal, sparking public outcry, the Empire State Development Corporation and the Hudson River Park Trust agreed to scrap the MOU and put the project through a more public review, with oversight by the City Council and Brewer's office.

That process has not yet started, but Brewer's staff reached out to Atlas in early September asking for their own private briefing and the developer agreed, according to emails obtained by DNAinfo. The meeting was organized by Capalino+Company, a lobbying group that the St. John’s Terminal owners first retained in 2013 to lobby Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was supportive of the project.

Brewer's communications director denied this week that Brewer had asked for the meeting. But in a Sept. 4 email obtained by DNAinfo, Brewer's director of community development told an executive assistant at Capalino+Company, "the MBP would like a briefing on the St. John/Atlas Capital project site."

One focus of the Sept. 29 meeting, which Brewer attended, was the $100 million figure that Atlas had previously agreed to pay for the 250,000 square feet of Pier 40 air rights under the MOU.

Community leaders have raised concerns that the amount — about $400 per square foot — was too low for the neighborhood. Earlier this year, Community Board 2 called for an independent appraisal to determine the value of the air rights.

At the meeting, Atlas revealed that the $100 million figure had come from the Empire State Development Corporation, according to notes. It was not immediately clear if the number was open to negotiation.

Empire State Development Corporation did not comment.

The meeting also included a discussion of the community amenities Atlas would offer at the St. John's site as part of the project, according to the notes. In addition to affordable housing, Atlas may add a grocery store, the notes show.

Other potential "asks" scribbled by one of the note takers, who were not specifically identified, include a community facility, transportation, a library and a school. 

But Atlas apparently balked at a request for a school in the development, noting that there are three new schools coming to the area and saying that an environmental impact study indicated an additional school would not be needed, according to the notes.

While the first phase of the project will break ground once Atlas receives necessary zoning changes and finalizes the air rights sale, the second phase won't start for at least five years and may not begin until as late as 2026, according to notes from the meeting.

Part of the reason for the delay is that Bloomberg LP currently occupies 370,000 square feet of space in the building, after renewing its lease there in 2012, according to reports.

Bloomberg LP declined to comment.