Chelsea Piers remains one of the most park-friendly revenue producing uses of any New York City park. With one million square feet, it is of a scale to suit both the park and the city. Chelsea Piers hosts the largest summer camp in the City, countless events, teams, and production studios. The rental income provides over 20% of the park’s operating budget today.
"Today the Chelsea Piers are shabby, pathetic reminders of a glorious past. No ships call there. Decay has set in and is well advanced. Walls and ceilings are collapsing, windows are shattered, and their vast empty spaces echo to the rattling and banging of loose sheet metal."
"The State Department of Transportation has marked Chelsea Piers for demolition. The ever-present threat of fire may turn into a quicker, more merciful, and more spectacular solution."
Demolishing Chelsea Piers
The words above were written as preparations were being made to raze the Chelsea Piers so that a new highway could be built along the Hudson. But the highway project failed, the Department of Transportation held an auction, and finally, in 1992, under the guidance of Roland W. Betts, Tom A. Bernstein and David A. Tewksbury, the waterfront property began its historic revitalization.
When Chelsea Piers development project first began, the four piers (Piers 59, 60, 61, 62) were dilapidated and falling into the river. Pier 59 stored road salt and sanitation trucks. The head-house along the highway housed limo parking. The roof leaked throughout.
Despite the condition of the piers, three visionary entrepreneurs attempted to rent one of the piers to build a skating rink. The Department of Transportation agreed to let them rent the pier only if they would take on all three. This moment served as the catalyst for the Chelsea Piers development project. Naturally, development did not proceed without conflicts and controversy along the way. The biggest barrier seemed to be that, for the most part, no one understood what the Chelsea Piers project could be for the City.
Tobin had recently joined the Hudson River Park project team. With deep experience in negotiations earned at NYC’s EDC and City Hall, Tobin worked for a year to negotiate a lease which would enable the owners of Chelsea Piers to create the first ‘development node’ in the future Hudson River Park.
With Chelsea Piers at the vanguard of the overall park development, Tobin accurately envisioned how the park would be used by New Yorkers. As part of the lease, Tobin added a take-back provision for Pier 62, ensuring that the Pier would host a park provided by Chelsea Piers immediately, but would be turned over to the Hudson River Park once construction reached Chelsea. Fifteen years later, in 2009, Pier 62 opened to great acclaim.
Cracking the Code
One of the trickiest elements to navigate was the issue of the fire code. According to New York City fire code, all the exposed steel needed to be sprayed with fireproofing, which would have been cost prohibitive as well as unsightly.
Reading through the fire code laws Tobin realized that it was written for skyscrapers. The piers, standing at 1000 feet long, were effectively 100 story buildings lying on their sides. In reality, they were only 2-story buildings. Using technical knowledge of the building code, Tobin discerned that the code was meant to ensure buildings could be evacuated and argued that a two-story building evacuation is much quicker than a 100-story building.
Advising the Chelsea Piers management team, Tobin was able to persuade the little known Board of Standards and Appeals to review the case. She hosted a field trip for the Board members to view the space and helped create a workable solution. The stairs were originally designed to face the water for the ships that used to dock. With the change in entry from water to shore, it made sense to solve the problem by simply flipping the exterior stairs. Tobin assured the Board that the development had respectfully addressed safety issues, and that visitors could easily evacuate into the city and away from danger.