Cipriani says arrivederci to Pier 57 Leonardo plan
The Villager 5/3/2006
By Lincoln Anderson
The $250 million Leonardo at Pier 57 redevelopment project in the Hudson River Park has hit a major stumbling block, as Cipriani has pulled out of a partnership with the Witkoff Group under which Cipriani would have operated a spacious upscale catering and banquet hall on the pier.
Speaking on May 3, Jim Capalino, spokesperson for the Witkoff Group/Cipriani partnership, said Giuseppe Cipriani, head of Cipriani, withdrew his company from the project for the W. 15th St. pier “within the last week.”
“He just decided he’s got better uses for his capital,” Capalino said. “Just a rational business decision.” Capalino said the public process involved in redeveloping the pier simply will take too long. He predicted it will take 12 to 20 months to complete both an environmental impact assessment for the project as well as the city’s uniform land use review procedure, and that the pier might not be redeveloped until three to four years from now. Meanwhile, Cipriani has several projects in Europe and the U.S. he wants to focus on, Capalino said.
“He’s not a developer,” Capalino said of Cipriani. “He decided he’s going to use his capital funds for projects that don’t include the public approval process. Witkoff is a developer.”
There had been community concerns about the car, taxi and limo traffic the banquet hall would draw. But Capalino said that was not a deciding factor in Cipriani’s withdrawal and that the traffic management plan Cipriani presented to the Hudson River Park Trust, the organization that operates the park, and the Pier 57 Working Group — a community advisory group — was well received by both.
Chelsea Piers — which was a finalist in the bidding for the Pier 57 project — had issued an advisory stating that traffic from a Cipriani banquet hall would ruin its business by impeding traffic’s access to Chelsea Piers.
According to Capalino, the Trust is now giving Steven Witkoff the opportunity either to find another partner to fill Cipriani’s shoes and operate a banquet hall or for Witkoff do the banquet hall by himself. Witkoff could even change the project, Capalino said.
Said Capalino of Witkoff: “He’s been given a reasonable period of time by the Trust to come back and either say he wants to change the plan and introduce a new partner or stay with the plan and do the project himself. They’ve given Steve the chance to reevaluate the proposal.”
The Leonardo at Pier 57 project description states that it was “to celebrate the intersection of Italian art, culture, design and commerce with the historic significance and architecture of Pier 57.” There was to have been an Italian crafts, retail and cultural center, along with the Cipriani restaurant and ballroom, a marina, a rooftop pool and parking.
Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, confirmed Cipriani had withdrawn from the project and said Witkoff is now looking for a partner to fill Cipriani’s shoes. Asked if the project must go back to the drawing board and whether the bidding process must start all over again, Martin said the request for proposals originally issued for the pier’s redevelopment permits the developer to find a new partner if one drops out.
“The R.F.P. allows them to do this,” Martin said. “As far as I know, they are searching for someone to fill the place of Cipriani,” he said.
Asked what would happen if the project changes dramatically and includes a use entirely different from a catering hall, Martin said he wouldn’t speculate on that possibility right now.
Three years ago, the Trust’s efforts to find a private developer for Pier 40 at W. Houston St. sputtered, and, under an interim plan, the Trust decided instead to install a giant artificial-turf playing field in the pier’s courtyard.
Hudson River Park is supposed to be financially self-supporting, in large part through the redevelopment of several key piers as “commercial nodes.”
Martin said the Trust isn’t nervous that a second major pier redevelopment plan might tank.
“There’s no nervousness,” he said. “We’re going to have to see what Witkoff can do and what they’re going to come up with at this point in time.”
Until recently an M.T.A. bus depot, Pier 57 gained notoriety during the 2004 Republican National Convention when police used it as a holding pen for protesters, earning it the dubious nickname “Little Guantanamo on the Hudson.”
When told by The Villager on May 8 that Cipriani had pulled out, Lee Compton, chairperson of Community Board 4, said it was the first he’d heard about it.
“My immediate impression is that the identity of the [new] partner, as long as they are a reputable business, and as long as they conform to the original proposal, is not important,” Compton said. “If it does change from the original proposal in any significant way, I think it needs to go back and be reconsidered. We approved people and uses; they were going to perform certain things — and if the new group can do the same, that should be O.K. We would ask the Trust, if the changes are significant enough, to reopen it completely — to a new process, whatever that is.”
Compton said there had been “a significant level of discomfort” over the potential impact of traffic from Cipriani, but that the traffic plan presented to the board made them feel “the traffic could be mitigated and could be within the bounds of reasonable upgrade to the community.”
As for why C.B. 4 voted for Witkoff/Cipriani to get the Pier 57 bid instead of Chelsea Piers, Compton said there were concerns over Chelsea Piers monopolizing commercial uses on the Chelsea waterfront, as well as historic “friction” between the community and Chelsea Piers. Yet, he said, the board ultimately considered each plan on the merits.
A Chelsea Piers spokesperson said Chelsea Piers had no comment on Cipriani’s bailing out of the Pier 57 redevelopment or on whether Chelsea Piers is still interested in redeveloping Pier 57.