One of my former bosses would gleefully proclaim that “life is change” as if that phrase answered all our issues. Although I thought it a bit flippant at the time, I’ve come to realize that it embodies more truth than we wished to acknowledge. Nowhere is this axiom more accurate than the waterfronts of New York City, where change continues to engender theoretical confusion and unusual alliances.
From bustling center of trade, industry and corruption (both entrepreneurial and environmental) to abandoned wasteland to playground of locals and tourists alike, development of the west side’s downtown waterfront has physically and socially transformed its surrounding areas in ways that can be difficult to comprehend by those who’ve known its previous incarnations. The announcement of a new proposed public park, more specifically, a floating island conceived, designed and paid for by the power couple, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, to be part of Hudson River Park, has sparked heated reactions on all sides of the political landscape. Questions about the roles of government and private philanthropy, community input, unequal allocation of resources, and last but not least the very nature of a park all come into play over this proposed $170 million, 2.7 acre man-made island anchored almost a city block from the river’s edge.
Pier 54 at West 14th Street, formerly operated by the Cunard Line, was built for cruise ships that docked along “Luxury Liner Row” and ferried travelers on their Grand Tours. For over 10 years the pier was used by the Hudson River Park Trust (the joint New York City-State public benefit corporation “charged with the design, construction and operation of the five-mile Hudson River Park”) as its major public event space presenting weekly film showings, concerts and other programming, mostly during the summer. As the pier’s piles deteriorated, the Trust finally had to close a large portion of the pier and began a search for funding sources to refurbish it. Barry Diller, chairman and senior executive of IAC/InterActive Corp and his wife, the fashion-industry guru, Diane von Furstenberg, have a deep connection to this neighborhood. A few blocks north of the pier is Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters, one of the best new buildings in the area. Closer to 14th Street and the High Line is Furstenberg’s corporate headquarters. They both gave generously to the development of the High Line.
Of the proposed $170 million cost, Diller will provide $130 million to construct and run the park for 20 years and provide entertainment programming created by Scott Rudin. The Trust and the Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation will enter into a contract for the project with the City and State providing additional funds. The British firm Heatherwick Studio and landscape architect Mathews Nielsen designed the proposed island. As presently envisioned (pre-environmental review by the various Federal, State and City agencies) the park is a pod-like structure supported by 341 concrete piles of various heights that create a varied park surface as well as to allow more light under the platform. There will be three performance venues including a 700-seat amphitheater as well as stands of trees, paths and open areas. It will be slightly north of Pier 54, whose metal arch and wooden piles will remain (fish habitats), and dubbed Pier 55, or P55.
Despite, or perhaps because of the generosity of this gift, accusations about the public sector’s ceding its role to provide public space and programming to the highest bidder were rife. As soon as these charges were leveled, others hastened to list the iconic New York landmarks now deeply imbedded in the City’s DNA that were donated to the City by former magnates of industry (often looking for redemption): Carnegie, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden’s contributions to the New York Public Library system; J.P. Morgan’s Library; Henry Clay Frick’s Museum; the founders whose names have been lost to history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and of course, the various Rockefellers who founded such institutions as its eponymous Center and the Museum of Modern Art.
For most of the time that public parks existed in New York, their creation and upkeep were considered City and/or State responsibilities—whether funded directly or through single-purpose foundations. From the late 1960s, urban financial hardships combined with the fear of crime in public spaces caused urban parks to fall into disrepair. Then, around 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was created by concerned New Yorkers to rescue and maintain Central Park—in effect filling in for what the City couldn’t or refused to do. It not only used public funds, but also raised private money and has done a stellar job at turning around the park’s fortunes. Today the Conservancy is responsible for more than 75% of the park’s annual expenses and controls all improvements. In 2012 John A. Paulson gave $100 million to the Central Park Conservancy, half of which will go toward its endowment and the remainder to fund capital improvements.
Throughout America, cities have relinquished responsibility to build and maintain their public spaces, ceding that authority to independent managers and single-purpose organizations. As a result, the bike paths and clean benches in parks that serve the city at large, especially those in wealthier neighbors, are beacons of civic pride while the basketball courts and sliding ponds of many neighborhood parks remain sad indicators to urban neglect. Some not-for-profit groups such as NYC Park Advocates and Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project try to redress this disparity. Some cities have initiated city-wide conservancies that would raise money for projects throughout the city. Late last year, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced a new program that would channel $130 million of public funds into 35 neighborhood parks in some of the poorest pockets of the City.
That budgets have shrunk is only part of the issue. For as much as people claim to love parks, few wish to pay for them. In New York City, much of the funds for local use are discretionary and are directed to any project the council person wanted. For the past two years, the City developed a “clap for Tinkerbelle” approach, called it Participatory Budgeting and asked voters in each district to choose among projects the council members identified, thus supposedly “giving the community real decision-making power” over public money. It is meant to “increase civic participation and community engagement.” In this case it means that air conditioning in a branch library goes head-to-head with a new athletic field in a school park.
Hudson River Park is a contestant in this fight for cash. Although it receives public funds, much of its annual revenue comes from fees such as parking income and contributions. In addition, an independent nonprofit organization called Friends of Hudson River Park, a private advocacy group that supports fundraising activities, looks for contributions from private philanthropies. The announcement of P55 took most people by surprise. The City was handed a fait-accompli, and some press coverage bemoaned the lack of transparency in planning and programming of P55.
But who could blame the Trust or the donors? Hudson River Park is the very model for community obstruction. Thirty years ago, a judge stopped a 14-year legal battle against a highway and adjacent park. After much hard work and political juggling, that park is now Hudson River Park, which started in the early 1990s. From that original idea of a waterfront park in the late 1960s through the early 1990s when Hudson River Park started, much in that neighborhood and the city had changed. And Hudson River Park has learned how to play the game by the new rules.
Special thanks to Heatherwick Studios for permission to use their images and renderings.