Published: January 8, 2015
By Shannon Ayala
The park that billionaire Barry Diller would like to perch above the Hudson River by the remnants of Pier 54 got a nod of support from Community Board 2 at a public meeting last night. But after hearing from a polarized crowd, the Parks and Waterfront committee agreed that concerns—including how the Hudson River Park Trust worked on this plan behind-the-scenes for two-plus years, and transparency from this point on—will have to be addressed.
Initially planning to vote on a resolution, the committee walked away with homework after the second public meeting held on the park so far. The Trust and others involved gave a presentation early in December, just a few weeks after renderings and the idea of the unusual park, called Pier55, first came to light. West Village residents were generally accepting of the design, created by Heatherwick Studio, but skeptical about the future of what would be a privately funded public space. Before then, it was not made public that the Trust worked with a team of people to conduct studies and draw renderings. This turned out to be a more meaningful issue for a committee otherwise happy to accept an amoeba-shaped park as a gift.
Some citizens groups and locals praised the idea with enthusiasm. “We believe that the proposed Pier55 park and performance spaces will be an exciting addition to Manhattan’s west side,” said Alison Brown of the Municipal Arts Society. Clarisse Lappe, a resident of 21 years, compared the park to the High Line, which she said had a big effect on her family’s life for the good. “I see this project as the same thing. It’s almost an extension of that.”
Others were more weary, if not in arms. “Visually, it’s an insult,” said Bunny Gabel, who the Times once described as a spiritual heir to Jane Jacobs and a Westway-wars vet. She called the park “Times Square offshore.” Another woman said, “I really don’t want a 70-foot hill between me and the river.” Other locals raised environmental concerns, including future Hurricane Sandys and how light would be blocked from the river. And though she wasn’t against the design, Marcy Benstock of the Clean Air Campaign Inc., said “It’s the wrong place to subsidize parks because it’s a river. It’s a glorious treasure as it is.”
The issue of funding also came up again. The plan now is that Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation will fund the park for 20 years, and possibly 10 after that, but after then, no one knows. MAS sees the glass half full. “This proposal does more than promise the transformation of a neglected pier… it also includes a pledge by its backers to maintain the park… for the next 20 years.” But committee vice chair Susanna Aaron asked if even the first 20 years is for sure. “What happens with this beautiful project if it gets way too expensive, if Barry Diller goes under a bus tomorrow, if the stock market crashes…?” Assurance came from Madelyn Wils, president and CEO of the Trust. She said “section three” of the lease includes an agreement that monies will be secured regardless of what happens to Barry Diller.
The Pier55 team had an answer for almost everything. That included concerns about how the park would be seen from inland. Until now, renderings were mostly aerial and not from a Manhattan vantage point. Renderings showing the park from the land were passed around.
All the concerns raised will no doubt rise again, but the issue that seemed to perplex residents and the board to the end was the process in which this plan developed before coming to public light and what that means going forward. “Probably the main public critique of this project has been the way that so much of the design was developed in infinite detail before it even became a matter of public knowledge,” said committee member Arthur Schwartz. In that light, he said he wanted to know how much transparency there would be in the planning stages for now on and how much access the community would have to the decisions of the space.
Kate Horton, executive director for programming at the ampitheater said the theater “has to be, absolutely, woven into the community” and there will likely be a community liaison. Wils conceded, “Yes it was an unusual process for this,” adding, “It was a very difficult deal. It was complicated. And we did the best we could under these circumstances to arrive at this very innovative deal.” Bouncing off that, Horton said that before announcing the park plan, “we didn’t have anything to announce. It really took until the announcement before we had anything to announce.”
“These contributions are complicated and they are not made in public,” Wils went on. “That’s just what happens when contributions happen of not just this size, but any substantial size are created.” Later, local resident David Colby said to Wils across the room, in regard to Shwartz question about openness going forward, “You went on and you started to sort of give a speech, but you didn’t answer the question.”
In an interview after the meeting, Wils said, “Given the largess of this contribution, there was a lot of discussion and experimentation with design. It was done quietly because we wanted to make sure it was a viable project before it was announced.” She said, “We don’t want to show projects that can’t actually be built.”
Out of time, the committee left to rework a resolution through email before the full board meets. The resolution might include points about how early the Trust will include the public in designs in the future, said committee chair Rich Caccappolo. “I think it’s really rare though,” that this type of scenario would happen again, he said. The act that determines how the Trust works, “could never consider every scenario,” he said.