By Brian J. Pape
With a reported $113 million contribution to the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT, a joint New York State and local government entity) from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, it shows money talks louder than proper procedure. The 2.7-acre park-on-a-pier at Pier 54 (dubbed “Pier 55”) was designed by Thomas Heatherwick’s London office, but the real battle plans were made behind closed doors right here in New York by the cabal of HRPT and the Diller family foundation. Pier 54 will be demolished except for a forest of hundreds of pilings sticking out of the water.
“It’s entirely my fault that this has become so ambitious,” says Barry Diller, the 72-year-old billionaire funder behind the $170 million project (now estimated to be $200 million), former head of Paramount Pictures and Fox, now chairman of internet company IAC.
The Hudson River community was shut out of all consideration. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick has raised concerns about the secrecy of the Pier 55 process, as have many other civic groups, saying, “It is deeply disturbing that the [Hudson River Park] Trust failed until now to disclose what it is doing.” Everyone thought that a public park development needed to go through public hearings for community input.
But what of the architectural merits of the new Pier 55, which the Dillers went to such great lengths and distances to procure? What does the community think of it? Many articles reported the shock and disdain of the community for the new pier. Indeed, this new playground looks nothing like any pier along the Hudson, starting with the shape. Instead of an elongated rectangular level platform hugging close to the water line, this design has an amebic freeform divorced from the line of the bulkhead.
Separated from the esplanade of HRP by water, connected only by two ramp walkways from shore, the new pier will be a barrier for the appreciation of the magnificent Hudson River beyond. Once up top, the lush landscaping may be delightful, like the trees on Piers 45 and 46 further down river, but getting there will be far from it.
Some of the pilings will rise almost 70 feet above the water, revealing the ugly underbelly of the pier, probably the worst idea ever thrust upon the river-loving public. The designers may think that smooth concrete “mushrooms” will be clean and attractive to look at from below, but anyone in NYC knows how quickly the streaks of soot and various nests and webs will stain and degrade its appearance.
Others have voiced fears that it represents another example of privately-managed “public” space, while some have questioned whether the City can sustain three more stages, given the competition from other forthcoming cultural venues. Will the quality of the Hudson River esplanade be degraded by the rush of tourists, like the High Line tourists have crowded out locals?
Most previous attempts to rebuild piers have run into environmental complications, especially because shading the waters with new structures, or even boat docking, have negative affects on the marine habitat. The City Club of New York has filed its lawsuits to stop Pier 55, and its attorneys are appealing a judge’s ruling, based on environmental issues.
WestView News has reported that the Diller offer of an entertainment venue will cost taxpayers $40 million to build two causeways to the island, and the new attraction contributes nothing to the cost of ongoing maintenance of the park, and makes the HRPT responsible to pay for the piling structure’s maintenance. The HRPT is already deeply in debt, and needs an estimated $40 million just to repair the piling structure at Pier 40. Why isn’t the $40 million being used for Pier 40 instead of Pier 54?