Pier 55’s Futuristic Floating Park

View of Pier 55 from esplanade looking west

Long awaited renderings have finally been revealed for Pier 55’s futuristic park above the Hudson River near Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The park is the collaboration of designer Thomas Heatherwick and landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen, who unveiled updated renderings and new details last week.

These newest design details addressed concerns from the community about the park’s recreation space being unsustainable, expensive, and limited in its usability. They also provided a materials update.

Financing for Pier 55 comes from the fashion mogul couple Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, with whom the Hudson River Park Trust signed a 20-year lease. DVF and Diller have described it as their $113 million dollar gift to the city of New York, and are using the explosive popularity of the High Line (to which they donated $35 million) as their springboard for “elaborated outdoor urbanism”.

Nielson’s renderings broke down the design elements that will incorporate the hypermodernist park, which will be elevated up to 70 feet off Pier 55 by height differentiated, funnel-like white stilts that provide a hilly landscape, scenic overlooks and rolling grassy knolls. The corners of the park arch upwards to create “micro-climates” and greenery will be seasonal, and in the winter the sloping lawns can be used for sledding. Benches and seating will be seamlessly integrated into the landscape, and a 200-seat amphitheater will ensure Pier 55 becomes a live event venue.

The park may sound futuristically bucolic, but its proposal has been met with some serious controversy. Not only has it been largely lauded as high-maintenance, limited, and unsustainable, but building on piers is extremely expensive, more so than building anywhere else. There has also been little in the way of public input, with high-powered fashion moguls deciding what the city wants and needs. And regardless of  the $113 million donation from von Furstenberg and Diller, there is still a whopping $35 million of public investment needed to make Pier 55 a reality.

Critics fear this sort of “gift” to the city will come at a cost to the public, and point to London’s Garden Bridge, another of Heatherwick’s designs, as an example. The Garden Bridge closes frequently for events and has suffered extensive overcrowding.

Additionally, Pier 55 isn’t particularly accessible for wheelchairs or strollers, an oversight that wasn’t regarded until two years after the original design proposal. The design also seemed to overlook  basic functionality like bathrooms, trash cans, loading areas for trucks during venues, and seating for food vendors. Not the most imaginative part of the design process, but certainly necessary.

Then there’s the matter of safety. Susanna Aaron, the co-chair of Community Board 2’s parks and waterfront committee, brought up the very real concern about people falling, or jumping, from the park’s perimeters. Currently, the only thing between the park’s edges and a plunge into the Hudson is some shrubbery and the sort of wood slotted fencing typical on beaches. The Hudson River Park Trust echoes this concern. Its president Madelyn Wils stated, “It’s a big issue for us...even on a lower pier, the likelihood of surviving falling into the Hudson is not great." Nielsen explained that the park is not designed for any activity near the edges, but also conceded that the layout has given her pause. What this concern means for any design or architectural alterations remains to be seen.