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$62M Chelsea Pier project launched.

Four neglected Chelsea piers are being turned into a $62 million sports and entertainment center that will become the cornerstone for the community and a reality for champions of a useful and sparkling city waterfront.

The spacious Chelsea Piers Sports Entertainment Complex, with its head-house stretching from the 23rd Street entrance southward five blocks, will feature two Olympic-size ice skating rinks, in-line roller rinks, a four-tier 200-yard golf driving range, the world's longest indoor track, a gymnastics center, a 10,000 square-foot rock climbing wall, basketball and volleyball courts, Manhattan's largest film and television production facilities, an extensive marina already docking the Spirit Cruises, waterside restaurants, sports shops, a 1.2 mile public waterfront esplanade and a 2.5--acre park along with parking for its visitors.

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo called the facility New York's "newest act of faith and hope," and said the city can't give up on its unused potential and should draw inspiration from this project to create life out of those great vacant buildings "with those empty eye sockets that are so ugly to behold."

Mayor Rudolf Giuliani said the Piers were a labor of love by chairman Roland Betts, "and labors of love always succeed." This will reaffirm New York City's status as the recreation capital of the world, the mayor added.

Since the 1.7 million square-foot facility owned by the State Department of Transportation will be refurbished and rented with private funds, that called for a New York style celebration.

Hundreds of invited guests, along with union leaders and politicians, crowded around a makeshift raised plastic "ice" rink to hear speeches and later watch the Governor, the Mayor, Borough President Ruth Messinger, New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner John E. Egan and other politicians, along with Chelsea Piers Chairman Roland W. Betts, President Tom A. Bernstein and Vice President David A. Tewksbury heft ceremonial hockey sticks in comical attempts to get a puck past New York Ranger goalie Mike Richter, who afterward resolutely signed autographs for nearly an hour.

This unusual ground-breaking ceremony was preceded by an ice show produced and hosted by Olympic skater and Sky Rink professional, Jo Jo Starbuck. It was performed by young skaters from the current Sky Rink, which will relocate and expand to two 24-hour Olympic-sized skating rinks on the new piers in the Fall of 1995.

Betts, the lead owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and a partner with Bernstein in both the baseball club and Silver Screen Management, said he got the idea for the complex after having to bring his daughter to the current small Sky Rink for her 5 a.m. practices.

In 1991, while looking for a site to expand Sky Rink, he came upon the neglected piers where Universal Studios was already shooting the TV series "Law Order." It's star, Jerry Orbach, was also on hand for the ceremonies.

Betts realized the piers' column-free space would be ideal for ice skating and worked with architect Jim Rogers of Butler Rogers Baskett to develop the entire sports and entertainment complex. "We were less developers and more dreamers," Betts admitted.

The Chelsea Piers, 59 through 62, were designed at the turn of the century by Warren and Wetmore, who worked on Grand Central Station during the same era. By 1910, new concrete and granite headhouses and steel piers replaced a hodgepodge of overcrowded and short wharves in time to accommodate the great ocean liners of that era, which extended from 600 to 800 feet long, including the Oceania, the Lusitania and the Mauretania. The Titanic was headed to these docks when she hit an iceberg and sank and survivors were brought there by the Carpathia's life boats.

Troops embarked from the Chelsea piers during both World Wars, but the construction of the longer 1000-foot luxury liner piers in the West 40's left Chelsea's docks as primarily cargo terminals. By 1967, the Grace and U.S. Lines relocated to larger containerization facilities in New Jersey.

In the 1980s the piers were slated for demolition as part of the Westway highway project. When that was halted because the court-protected fish spawning sites, the piers remained as parking facilities for buses, towing impound lots and sanitation trucks. Television production came to the piers in 1984 with such shows as "Kojak," "The Equalizer" and the movies "FX" and "Jacobs Ladder."

Betts and Bernstein, who are both attorneys, met in the entertainment law department of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton Garrison. They left and formed Silver Screen Management, a firm that has raised over $1 billion from 140,000 investors to finance movies for The Walt Disney Company and Home Box Office, including "Beauty and the Beast" and "Pretty Woman."

Their own Silver Screen Studios is currently located in the Chelsea Piers headhouse, where the NBC "Cosby Mysteries" is being filmed in addition to "Law Order." Silver Screen will eventually expand to 300,000 square feet of studios, soundstages and production facilities and will be designed as a Hollywood back lot. Tewksbury, a former Cushman Wakefield director, was also involved in the Sky Rink and is now executive vice president of Chelsea Piers Management, the company the three formed to bid on the Piers in 1992.

While teaching in the school system in the late 1960s through 1975, Betts met Messinger, who at that time was also a teacher. Once she knew he was involved with the project, she said she never doubted that it would be built.

The borough president, who has been a strong advocate of public access and redevelopment of the waterfront, praised the project as an example "that will show the way it can and will be done." Eventually, Messinger noted, people will be able to bike, walk, rollerblade or "turn handstands" around the park and piers. Community Board 4 Chairperson Ross Graham said she would be glad to have the piers and the park just for river watching. "We're delighted to tell all our friends who said we were buying a pig in a poke, |I told you so,'" she added.

The Chairman of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, Michael J. Del Giudice, called this the first example of a people-friendly waterfront activity for the 90 acres and five miles of the Hudson River frontage.

The Piers' 20-year lease term has one 10-year renewal option. The rent is $2.4 million per year and the $70 million in payments over the life of the lease will help fund the Hudson River Park.

Chelsea Piers will not have to pay any real estate taxes, Betts noted, but is expected to provide $11.7 million in annual tax revenues, 1,400 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs after it opens in the Spring of 1995. Construction is to begin this week.

The development and finance team includes Morgan Stanley & Co. as investment bankers; Cushman & Wakefield, development consultants; A.J. Contracting Inc., general contractor; Butler Rogers Baskett, architects; Cosentini Associates, consulting engineers; Allee, King, Rosen & Fleming, environmental and planning consultants; along with the law firms of Kalkines Arky Zall & Bernstein; David Polk Wardwell; Owen & Davis; and Stadtmauer Bailkin Levine & Masyr.
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jul 20, 1994
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