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A first look at the amazing floating island park coming to the west side of Manhattan

The futuristic-looking park is set to open this spring.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

Come spring 2021, New York City will have a new outdoor performance space, verdant garden and floating park on the Hudson River. 

Little Island at Pier 55, which is part of Hudson River Park, is hard to miss—its giant piles rise up out of the river like ancient trees and its “tulip pots” curve up toward the sky. Despite the pandemic, the park is still on schedule to open next spring.

Conceived in 2012, the park is the project of billionaire Barry Diller and his wife Diane von Furstenberg. When unveiled at the Cooper Hewitt in 2015, the plan by English designer Thomas Heatherwick envisioned an undulating configuration created by a series of "pods"—concrete pilings formed into tulip-shape supports—set at varying heights. The effect was meant to evoke a "leaf floating on water."

As is standard in NYC, however, the $250 million project was met with swift legal action: a lawsuit underwritten by real estate developer Douglas Durst for the City Club led to the cancellation of the park's building permit in 2017. Later that year, Andrew Cuomo brokered a deal between Douglas and Diller and construction resumed.

So with work coming along, the two-acre park has reached a milestone. “Significant progress” has been made in its landscaping, reps say. To celebrate, its landscape architect and a founding principal of landscape architecture firm MNLA, Signe Nielsen, took us on a private walkthrough of the park to point out what people can expect when it opens this spring.

Rendering of Little Island
Photograph: Courtesy MNLA

Overall, Little Island will be home to 35 species of trees, 65 species of shrubs, and 270 varieties of grasses, perennials, vines and bulbs. Essentially, it will be like going to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where you don’t have to be a horticulturist to enjoy being there, Nielsen said.

Nielsen has been practicing as a landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978, and MNLA has designed dozens of spaces in NYC including ones at Industry City, Hudson River Park, the Flatiron Plaza reconstruction, Piers 25 and 42, the Queens Museum and more.

Nielsen has seen the Little Island project through since its inception, first working on 3D models of the space, to now, when she can physically walk through the space. She says the landscaping is about half-way done, but already she’s seeing it come to life before her.

“I hope they feel it’s very beautiful...I hope they’ll see something they’ve never seen before,” she told us.

Little Island
Photograph: Courtesy Michael Grimm Photography

 Once visitors walk through the vaulted opening of Little Island, they’ll walk into an open lawn and get a 360-degree view of the park, where they’ll see a gradient of colors and plantings that change as the elevation changes, from shrubs and vines to 40-foot trees, Nielsen said.

Visitors can opt to walk up to Little Island’s highest points via walkways, or they can do a bit of light scrambling up boulders, much like at The Hills on Governors Island. Along the way, Nielsen and her team have planted a variety of perennials and grasses, 70 percent of which are native to New York and many of which are pollinators to help the bee population thrive. Some plants were chosen to flop over the top of industrial sheet piles that divide the space into curvilinear paths and mimic the round shape of the huge piles holding up the park, creating a cascade of greenery. The overall effect is to have people feel “engulfed in plants,” said Nielsen.

Once at the top, parkgoers will get incredible views of Manhattan, the river and across to New Jersey. 

Little Island
Photograph: Courtesy Michael Grimm Photography

 Of course, being on the Hudson River means the park’s plantings will be subjected to brutal high winds. Nielsen and MNLA have planned for that and are using evergreens to block winds and more hearty shrubs and plants that can withstand it. Even the soil’s makeup is made with erosion in mind, she said.

Despite the logistics, the landscape is full of thoughtful artistic decisions. In one area, for example, yellow and gold plants compliment purple and lavender ones and plants are repeated along the way to keep interest.

Whether you come in the evening for a show or walk its paths in the morning, Little Island offers something different depending on when you’re there and will be beautiful to look at any time of day and even across the year, Nielsen said.

“You’ll see relationships between things you might not have seen in the morning that you see in the afternoon,” she said.

There will also be three main lawns that visitors can sunbathe on (because let’s face it, New Yorkers love to catch some rays), and a secret garden full of only white blooms—from birch trees and crepe myrtles to roses and anemones that you can get to by walking through an arched trellis.

Next to the secret garden, a small amphitheater called The Glade will host shows and other events with the river and neighboring pier as its backdrop. Similarly, the main amphitheater will hold bigger performances right on the water.

In fact, Little Island just finished taking applications from performers, artists, buskers, merrymakers, entertainers, troupes, bands and players of all disciplines to help shape its programming for spring 2021. Of course, the state of the world next could have a large impact on the exact types of events and performances that come to fruition.

Little Island
Photograph: Courtesy Michael Grimm Photography


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