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Controversial Pier 55 design is at the Cooper-Hewitt

Written by
Howard Halle

One of the (very few) upsides to living in a New York made ungodly expensive by billionaires and zillionaires is that the city has been building spectacular public spaces over the past 15 years. The High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park are two examples, and soon, perhaps, they’ll be joined by a futuristic “island oasis” for the MePa leg of Hudson River Park. In fact, a billionaire, former Expedia and IAC/InterActiveCorp Chairman Barry Diller, is funding the lion’s share of the venture’s estimated $117 million cost through a foundation he created with his wife, ’70s fashion magnate Diane von Fürstenberg.

The project is the brainchild of British architect Thomas Heatherwick, whose provocative designs—which includes a streamlined reworking London’s iconic double-decker buses, as well as the Olympic cauldron for the 2012 London Games—are currently the subjects of a survey at the Smithsonian Institute’s Cooper Hewitt Museum. His proposed park, though, will probably be of most interest to New Yorkers.

The 2.7 acre facility, known as Pier 55, is slated to replace the rotting remains of Pier 54 at the foot of West 13th Street (where the Carpathia brought back the survivors of the Titanic in 1912). It will be built atop a series of 341 elevated concretes piles reaching 15 feet in height. Some, however, rise higher than others to create an undulating topographical landscape sitting 186 feet offshore. Among the amenities will be a 700-seat amphitheater hosting arts events and performances run by The Social Network and Moonrise Kingdom producer, Scott Rudin.

This being New York, however, Pier 55 is up in the air in more ways than one. Though the project has been green-lighted by The Hudson River Park Trust and the local community board, the City Club of New York filed suit last June to halt construction until the project underwent additional environmental studies and received approval from the State Legislature in Albany. The City Club’s beef was that planning for Pier 55 had been conducted secretly to avoid transparency and “meaningful public scrutiny.” In early November, their case seemed to gain steam when the Federal EPA issued a preliminary finding that “the proposed project may result in unacceptable impacts to an aquatic resource of national importance.” A few weeks later, however, the agency reversed itself, withdrawing its complaint after further review, though it did request that the design reduce the size of the shadow it cast to lessen the impact on fish habitats. (A concern which didn’t seem to matter so much a century ago when steamships pulling up to Pier 54 regularly discharged fuel and garbage into the Hudson.)

Billionaires usually don’t like to hear no, especially when they’re spending their own money—in Diller’s case, $100 million. It’s easy to imagine the city steamrolling the process to spare him and his wife the indignity of having the hoi polloi look over their shoulders. But it’s just as true that Pier 55 looks cool, and that people will flock to it once it’s open. Brooklyn Bridge Park got built over the objection of local civic groups, and in all likelihood, so will Pier 55.

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