HUDSON SQUARE — The City Planning Commission recently held a public hearing on the St. John's Terminal project, which would add affordable and market rate housing to the neighborhood, as well as other amenities, and fund repairs to Pier 40.
The hearing was the latest step in the process for developers Atlas Capital Group and Westbrook Partners to build the 2-million-square-foot project — a process that stretches back to the earliest days of Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration, before commissioners at key city agencies involved in the project were even officially in place, according to documents obtained by DNAinfo New York.
The process also involves controversial figures with close ties to the de Blasio administration, particularly James Capalino, the lobbyist and friend of the mayor who came under fire for his connection to the lifting of a deed restriction that allowed a nonprofit nursing home on the Lower East Side to be converted into condos.
Based on records received through Freedom of Information Law requests, and on other reporting DNAinfo has done about St. John's Terminal, here is a timeline of how the project has moved along:
► Jan. 29, 2014
Capalino first emailed First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris about the project on Jan. 29, 2014, and copied Carl Weisbrod on the email, one week before de Blasio appointed Weisbrod as City Planning Commissioner on Feb. 7. (Weisbrod had previously been a member of the mayor-elect's transition team.)
Addressing Shorris as "Tony," Capalino wrote: "For the past twelve months, my firm has been working with [Hudson River Park Trust President and CEO] Madelyn Wils on a proposal to secure a $100M contribution by our client, Atlas Capital, to the Hudson River Park Trust to fund the cost of rehabilitating /stabilizing Pier 40 for continued recreational use. We are in discussions to have the residential development project over St. Johns Terminal become an [Empire State Development] project through a State sponsored general project plan."
Capalino also sought Shorris' permission to reach out to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who's in charge of housing and development issues, which Shorris granted.
► Feb. 27, 2014
Capalino's chief operating officer, Travis Terry, arranged the first meeting at City Hall, where he, land use attorney Michael Sillerman and architect Rick Cook of COOKFOX briefed administration officials on the project.
► March 19, 2014
Weisbrod's public schedule in 2014 and into early 2015 included frequent meetings and conference calls regarding the project, at least once and sometimes more than four times a month, with various stakeholders including Wils, Capalino, City Planning staffers including the agency's in-house lawyer, Atlas Capital Group principals, the chair of Greenwich Village's Community Board 2, the Hudson River Park Trust chief financial officer, and Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, who is responsible for the city's affordable housing.
The meetings stretch at least as far back as March 19, 2014, when Weisbrod met with Glen about the Trust in a basement conference room at City Hall, before another meeting on air rights with Wils less than 24 hours later in City Planning's offices at 22 Reade St.
► April 2014
Over the three months following Capalino's initial email to Shorris, Terry attempted to persuade City Hall to support the developers' desire to skip the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and go through a state General Project Plan (GPP) instead. He coordinated meetings and presentations for Glen and Weisbrod at City Hall, as well as a meeting with state officials hosted by the state agency that would oversee the GPP, the Empire State Development Corporation, in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office on April 7, 2014.
The major difference between the two processes is the involvement of government at the local level: a ULURP includes review by the Manhattan borough president and ultimately relies on approval by the City Council. Both entities would be skipped by a state plan.
Terry argued that Pier 40's repairs were so badly needed that ULURP would take too long — potentially three to four years — versus the General Project Plan's one-year timeline.
And he warned, in an April 23, 2014, email, that the developers "will not wait the 3-4 years for the ULURP as they have a reasonable as-of-right project ready to go."
► May 2014
Weisbrod's public schedule shows a "briefing for St. John's meeting with Capalino et al" at 3:30 p.m. on May 8, 2014, and a meeting at City Hall the following week on May 14, 2014, referred to as "St. John's Terminal meeting."
Local elected officials discovered the push for a General Project Plan just a week or so later, and were not pleased at being left out — particularly after they learned that the Trust had already signed a memorandum of understanding about it with the state back in December 2013.
"Shocked is an understatement for how we all felt," Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told DNAinfo at the time.
The secret MOU was subsequently thrown out, and the developers committed to following the ULURP process.
Weisbrod's schedule shows he was also at the May 16, 2014, meeting where local electeds discovered the secret MOU.
Three days later, he and Glen had a "Pier 40 meeting" at City Hall on May 19, 2014, then had local City Councilman Corey Johnson over to Glen's office the next day on May 20, 2014.
Three days after that, on May 23, 2014, Weisbrod had a "St. John's Terminal Meeting" on "proposed height and density" with "J. Capalino et al" on the second floor at 22 Reade St.
► June, July and August 2014
Capalino also emailed Glen's chief of staff, James Patchett, on June 16, 2014, about the appraisal of Pier 40's air rights.
Throughout the summer, Weisbrod had no less than three meetings per month regarding the Pier 40-St. John's project, his public schedule showed, as well as dinners with Madelyn Wils on June 3 and Aug. 11.
He blocked out time on June 18, 2014, met with Glen about the project on June 20, 2014, and was prepped June 25, 2014 for a "meeting with electeds" that took place on July 1, 2014.
He was prepped again by his staff on July 11, 2014, for a July 16, 2014, meeting at 22 Reade St. with Capalino, the developers and Michael Sillerman, the developer's land use lawyer.
He was updated on the project on July 21, 2014, had a phone call scheduled with Johnson on July 25, 2014, and did a site visit at 550 Washington St. on Aug. 18, 2014.
Two days later, on Aug. 20, 2014, he met then-chair of Community Board 2, David Gruber, about the project at his office.
And a little more than a week later, Weisbrod held a "St. John's" meeting in his office on Aug. 28, 2014.
► September 2014
Weisbrod was updated again on the project on Sept. 17, 2014, and had a 45-minute call five days later with Wils and other top Trust officials "re: appraisal of Pier 40" on Sept. 22, 2014.
On Sept. 29, 2014, the developers gave a presentation at Brewer's office. Through a Freedom of Information Law request, DNAinfo obtained handwritten meeting notes that showed the developers balking at including a school in the project and specifying that the affordable units would not have waterfront views.
► October and November 2014
The administration held more meetings throughout the fall, among Weisbrod and his staff on Oct. 16, 2014, another update for Weisbrod on Oct. 30, 2014, after which he had dinner again with Wils, a meeting with Johnson on Nov. 6, 2014, and a meeting with Glen, Weisbrod and "T. Terry et al" on Nov. 19, 2014.
Capalino then emailed Glen directly about the air rights appraisal on Nov. 25, 2014, requesting a phone call.
Asked about the call, City Hall spokesman Austin Finan said that the city supported the Trust's enlisting the independent appraiser who found that the air rights were worth only $75 million, less than the $100 million that had previously been assessed and that the developers had committed to paying.
The $75 million appraisal wasn't made public until May 2016, nearly two years after Capalino's first email to Glen's chief of staff in July 2014. A spokesman for the Trust said it wasn't done until 2016, when the project was moving forward in the ULURP certification process. The sale of the air rights for $100 million is still pending the approval of the Trust's Board of Directors.
► December 2014
Weisbrod and Wils had another call about St. John's on Dec. 18, 2014.
A day later, Capalino wrote the two officials on Dec. 19, 2014 thanking them for their "leadership in helping us reach an understanding on the land use actions related to St Johns Terminal - benefiting Pier 40," but was "concerned that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has stepped up its efforts to mobilize opposition even before we announce the agreement between our client and de Blasio Administration and offer project details."
He went on to urge Glen and Weisbrod that "it is time for a very positive news story about the unprecedented dimensions of our agreement."
"A joint announcement of the agreement and the project by the developer, Administration, HRPT, Council Member Johnson would allow us to proactively achieve positive, or at least balanced messaging in the media prior to further efforts to discredit the proposal as the outcome of some sort of 'backroom deal.'"
Capalino, and Lee Silberstein of The Marino Group, who was doing public relations for Capalino at the time, were concerned about GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman's efforts to use the Freedom of Information Law to get state officials to release an unredacted copy of the once-secret MOU, and had apparently been warned by state officials that the document would likely need to be turned over.
Administration officials responded with some back and forth, including the Department of City Planning's director of communications correcting Silberstein's use of the word "upzoning" to "rezoning."
More meetings were held throughout 2015, including a Jan. 2, 2015 conference call about the project that included Weisbrod and the administration's affordable housing czar, Vicki Been; another meeting for Weisbrod on Jan. 7, 2015; another dinner for Weisbrod and Wils on Feb. 3, 2015; an "Atlas Project Meeting" with Glen and Weisbrod in Glen's office at City Hall on Feb. 12, 2015; and a conference call with Glen and Weisbrod on Feb. 25, 2015.
Glen's schedule also shows a meeting with Johnson, Atlas, the Trust and Weisbrod on June 11, 2015.
Previous discussions about the amount of air rights to sell to the developers mentioned 250,000 square feet, more than is included in this deal. At a July 2015 board meeting, the directors expressed resistance to selling "all of the identified air rights as part of this [St. John's Terminal] transaction."
"I expect we may have future need for air rights on Pier 40," one director said.
Glen noted that there has never been an agreed-upon figure for the air rights. The directors agreed that "in the future the board will have a discussion about the amount of air rights" that exists, and how much should be sold.
Then on Aug. 24, 2015, one of the developers, Westbrook Partners, bought out an original third partner, Fortress Investment Group, as Crain's New York reported at the time.
Westbrook paid $200 million for Fortress' share, and the deal helped the Trust skirt a sticky issue, as Fortress principal Michael Novogratz is also chair of the Board of Directors of the Trust's fundraising arm, Friends of Hudson River Park.
Asked what delayed the announcement of the deal 10 months after his December 2014 email, Capalino, through a spokesman, said "there were ongoing negotiations during the interim period."
Finan said the talks were extended because of the ownership change, and "the scale of the project involved an extensive and iterative planning process including city agencies and the development team."
► October 2015
When the city and the developers announced the affordable housing project in October 2015, they warned that if the developers do not get their project approved, they will construct an as-of-right complex of three buildings, including a 50-story hotel, plus office, retail and event space.
While the project with affordable housing would include public outdoor green space, the as-of-right project would keep that garden area for the exclusive use of the complex's hotel guests or office workers.
As Capalino had wanted, the announcement came with laudatory quotes from Councilman Corey Johnson and new Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman.
► August 2016
Two days before the Aug. 24 public hearing, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer released a statement announcing the proposal "isn't good enough."
“A worthy plan for the St. John's Terminal site would have more and better affordable units, a true neighborhood retail plan, and accessible public spaces that residents will actually use,” Brewer said. "We don't need to choose between a massive project with massive flaws or letting Pier 40 fall into the river — I firmly believe we can do better with this site."
Brewer insisted, in a 23-page document, that "the amount, location and design of the proposed affordable housing" is inadequate, and called out issues with the developers' plans for "parking, open space, retail and public acccess."
In a statement, a spokesman for the developers thanked Brewer “her and her staff's work" and said they "value her input."
They also said they looked forward to the ongoing review process, and to getting started on the project.
At the hearing, Johnson said he "will not approve a project that does not adequately serve the needs of the community that I am elected to represent."
He added that he wants the city to kick in more money for Pier 40 on top of the $100 million it will receive from the sale of air rights.
And several commissioners were skeptical of the project's parking elements, future retail uses and that affordable housing will be in only one of the three residential buildings, not including an affordable housing building for seniors that's also part of the plan.
► What comes next:
The City Planning Commission is expected to vote on the proposal by Oct. 17, and potentially make changes to it. After that, it goes to the City Council, where more changes can be made before final approval.