A new $260 million park floats on the Hudson. It's a charmer.
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A new $260 million park floats on the Hudson. It's a charmer.
The main plaza on Little Island, which floats over the Hudson River near West 13th Street in Hudson River Park, on the site of an old pier in New York, May 17, 2021. The main plaza, with food and cafe tables and chairs, can double as a performance space. Amr Alfiky/The New York Times.

by Michael Kimmelman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Rising from the Hudson River alongside Manhattan, Little Island preens atop a bouquet of tulip-shaped columns, begging to be posted on Instagram. Outside, it’s eye candy. Inside, a charmer, with killer views.

Mega-mogul Barry Diller’s $260 million, 2.4-acre pet project and civic mitzvah, near 13th Street in Hudson River Park, is the architectural equivalent of a kitchen sink sundae, with a little bit of everything. Who knows what it will feel like when crowds arrive this weekend. I suspect they will be enormous.

Because nothing in New York gets built without a struggle, opponents battled for years in court to stop Little Island. The park-within-the-park was conceived nearly a decade ago to replace Pier 54 on Manhattan’s West Side. In 1912, the RMS Carpathia brought survivors of the Titanic to Pier 54. It had become a venue for outdoor concerts in recent years but started to crumble and had to be closed. Park officials approached Diller — his headquarters are in the neighborhood — and in turn Diller enlisted Thomas Heatherwick, the English designer and billionaire whisperer. New Yorkers may recall Heatherwick devised the Vessel at Hudson Yards.

I won’t dawdle over the mess that followed the island’s announcement. A real estate titan who had bones to pick with the Hudson River Park Trust supported a series of legal challenges. At one point, seeing no end in sight to the court fights, Diller backed out. A deal brokered by New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, ultimately rescued the project and also delivered public commitments to enhance protections for wildlife habitats and improve other parts of the four-mile-long, 550-acre Hudson River Park.

So, credit the complainers, I suppose — and Diller, obviously, for not giving up. A win-win for New York.

The city works in strange ways sometimes.

The concept Heatherwick sold to Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust looks largely unchanged since it was unveiled in 2014: an undulating platform, extravagantly planted with beautiful trees, flowers and grass, detached at a jaunty angle from the bulkhead and organized around performance spaces, including a spectacular 687-seat amphitheater overlooking the water, custom-made for watching the sunset while sipping Bellinis.

The engineering firm Arup figured out how to balance the whole thing on the columns. Signe Nielsen, a co-founder of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, designed everything green and flowering that visitors will see, smell, lay a blanket on and walk past.

I’ve become a Heatherwick skeptic lately, but his contribution here is in the theatrical vein of 18th century English garden follies — not least because Little Island can remind you more of a private estate than a city park. It’s clearly going to cost a king’s ransom to maintain, a burden the Hudson River Park Trust (which is to say the public) would have to bear absent other arrangements.

Fortunately, Diller has promised that his family foundation will pick up the tab for the next 20 years. That’s not forever, but it includes programming costs, Diller told me — until the programming (mostly free, not a moneymaker) can find nonprofit funding to “stand on its own.” He estimates he may end up spending $380 million all in — no doubt the largest private gift to a public park in the city’s history, maybe in the planet’s.

The other day I climbed to the topmost point on the island, a grassy crow’s nest with a 360 panorama. A lovely path shaded by dogwoods and redbuds, perfumed by woodland azaleas, snaked up the hillside. The views shifted from city to river, garden to grassland.

Heatherwick’s columns peek through a hill here or there, but you don’t really focus on them once you’re on the island, save for the great arch of giant tulip bulbs at the entrance, which required a year of tweaking to get the curves just right and to accommodate soil for Nielsen’s trees on top.

When you’re on the island you focus mostly on her plantings, the water and skyline. I had spied a mother duck on an earlier visit, brooding a clutch of eggs near the crow’s nest. She was roosting in the nook of a weathered steel retaining wall just below the top of the hill. The island’s warm palette of materials provides a subdued backdrop for the trees and flowers, and it helped camouflage the duck.

What will the park feel like when everyone arrives and performances start?

Hundreds of free and modestly priced concerts, dance and children’s programs are planned to get underway this summer. Trish Santini, Little Island’s executive director, told me that her staff has been working closely with community organizations to ensure free and inexpensive tickets get into the hands of underserved groups and neighborhood schoolchildren. A second stage, called the Glade, at the base of a sloping lawn, tucked into the southeast corner of the park and framed by crape myrtle and birch trees, is custom made for kids and educational events. The main plaza, where you can grab a bite to eat and sit at cafe tables under canvas umbrellas, doubles as a third venue.

It’s on the route between the two gangways that link the island to Manhattan — and a stone’s throw from the High Line — so it’s sure to be mobbed. Santini also said the island will do timed reservations to prevent overcrowding. Little Island will need it, I expect. At 2.4 acres, it is half the size of a city block.

This stretch of the West Side waterfront is changing swiftly. Just to the south, a former sanitation garage is being turned into Gansevoort Peninsula, with ball fields, a sand beach and a sculpture by David Hammons, donated by the Whitney Museum of American Art to Hudson River Park, which traces in steel the outlines of bygone Pier 52.

North of Little Island, Pier 57 — where Google is leasing new quarters — will soon open community spaces, a food court and its roof deck to the public (City Winery is already up and running there). Piers 76 and 97 are also getting makeovers.

Now bourgeois central, the West Side used to be the busiest port in the Americas, a clangorous maelstrom of swinging cables and breaking booms, bulging warehouses and stevedores’ bars. A titan’s comb of piers stretched from the Battery as far north as the eye could see, the air choked with particles of grain and bone dust when “skyscraper” was a word that still referred to the topsail of a clipper ship. Decline started after the Second World War, as air travel made ocean liners obsolete. Industry fled the city. Huge new containerized ships were too big for New York’s docks. By the 1960s, a district where the RMS Lusitania berthed before its fateful voyage became a shamble of auto salvage shops, tow pounds, S&M bars and taxi garages.

Communities of artists and LGBTQ residents colonized some of the crumbling wharves. But when a section of the elevated West Side Highway collapsed in 1973 (beneath a dump truck that was carrying asphalt to repair a different part of the road), the political impetus to “clean up” the West Side gathered momentum in the form of an urban reclamation plan called Westway.

I mention all this because adversaries who sued to stop Little Island claimed, among other things, that it would wreak havoc on fish habitats in the Hudson. That was the strategy that derailed Westway in the 1980s when a federal judge agreed with opponents who challenged reports by authorities over whether the project would inhibit the mating habits of juvenile striped bass.

This time environmental agencies determined that Little Island would cause no harm to fish, and the strategy didn’t work. But I recall Westway for another reason.

Probably the most ambitious city renewal plan of the postwar era, it envisioned replacing the crumbling West Side Highway with an interstate tunneled below the Hudson River. Hordes of cars and trucks would be removed from streets, disused warehouses and piers torn down, and the waterfront redeveloped and extended into the river on hundreds of new acres of landfill, creating a vast green esplanade with bike lanes and parks all the way from Chambers Street up to 59th Street.

The architecture firm Venturi, Scott Brown was enlisted to design the esplanade. The Reagan administration agreed to pay to move the highway. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted Westway would do for the city during the 20th century what Central Park had done in the 19th. A series of New York governors and mayors throughout the ’70s and ’80s (not to mention the architecture critic of The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable) also sang Westway’s praises.

But this was the dawn of the environmental movement and of community activism in reaction to the Powers That Be and the highhanded tactics that had been employed by the city’s former planning czar, Robert Moses. Westway galvanized a coalition of neighborhood organizers, architectural preservationists, public transit riders and wildlife advocates. They manned the barricades to protest rapacious development, creeping privatization and money going for highways not subways.

Whether their ultimate victory was a loss for the city is debatable, in retrospect. But it paved the way for, among other things, the Hudson River Park Trust, created in 1998 by New York authorities to accomplish what Westway didn’t — namely, redeveloping and pacifying Manhattan’s West Side waterfront. Money to operate the park was to be raised through the commercial leasing of refurbished piers like Pier 57 and via private donations.

Which gets us back to Diller’s island. In the end, Diller didn’t have total free rein, having to work with the trust and public agencies. But should a billionaire decide what is built on public land?

A century ago, the banker Elkan Naumburg paid to install a band shell in Central Park and even hired his nephew to design it. The Delacorte Theater was constructed in 1962 with money from George Delacorte and his wife, Valerie, after the producer Joseph Papp and actress Helen Hayes petitioned for an amphitheater to stage Shakespeare in the Park. And of course the Metropolitan Museum of Art, privately endowed by wealthy New Yorkers, occupies a big chunk of public parkland.

Little Island is nothing new, in other words. From the beginning, for better and worse, this is how the city has worked.

I returned to Little Island the other day to retrace my steps on the winding paths, which are choreographed along routes that prove why the requirements for wheelchair accessibility are a design opportunity not a burden. I climbed back up the hill to the crow’s nest, and there she still was.

Huddled against a sunny morning gale, the mother duck was tending her eggs.

The ducklings, I learned, just hatched this week. They’ve started paddling in the river.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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