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Barry Diller-Funded Pier55 Plan: Pocket Gadget, Meme-tecture, or Something More Nefarious?

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Rendering via <a href="http://www.heatherwick.com/pier55/">Heatherwick Studio</a>
Rendering via Heatherwick Studio

Pier55 is a gadget. Pocket-size, stuffed with event spaces and paths to point you at the view, it will dangle off the southwestern edge of Manhattan like a Leatherman on a wallet chain. There's a scenic overlook, a 200-seat amphitheater, a tunnel designed to give you an eyeful of designer Thomas Heatherwick's signature mushroom piers, varied in height, holding up the molded surface of dirt, concrete and grass. Underneath the lawn, the plaza, and the pre-ruined staircases must be a theaters-worth of lights, wiring, speakers, electronics veiled in a skim-coat of plant life. As a design, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg's "$113 million dollar "gift" to New York City, is the culmination of two forces: private funding for public parks, with the High Line as reference point for elaborated outdoor urbanism, and architecture as online popularity contest, where good publicity is in direct relation to the amount of engineering required to make your park or your pool.

Presented to the public as a handful of gauzy renderings (no plans or sections) intended to dazzle, Pier55 combines elements of Heatherwick's Garden Bridge for London and his Al Fayah desert park for Abu Dhabi, as well as earlier investigations into crinkled surfaces and terraforms, landscape as a designer crust. It worked on most: Lisa W. Foderaro's New York Times play-by-play on the island is peppered with unsophisticated, reaction quotes from a variety of highly-placed officials who knew this park was in the pipeline years before the rest of us. "It was very cool looking," says Diana Taylor, chairwoman of the Hudson River Park Trust's board of directors. "It showed the amount of work he put into it—his imagination," says Madelyn Wils, the trust's president. "This is New York City, and what's important in New York is glamour," says Tobi Bergman, chairman of Community Board 2.

But great cities are not made through gold stars awarded for imagination. The last thing the West Side of Manhattan needs is another financially unsustainable, high-maintenance, passive recreation space. (And besides, Heatherwick and Nelson Byrd Woltz are already designing such a space at Hudson Yards.) The last thing the Parks Department needs is another expensive, limited-use bauble, one that costs the same amount to build as the city is currently investing in 35 community parks. Yes, the Diller-Von Furstenberg Foundation has pledged to take care of its operating costs for 20 years, but that means the whole thing will be outdated, stylistically and technologically, once it becomes part of the Parks Department portfolio. Gadgets are not for the ages, and good design would take that into account from the get-go.

Building on piers is also the most expensive way to make a park: just ask Wils, who originally approached Diller asking for a donation to fix the pilings of long-closed Pier 54. (Pier 40, further north in Hudson River Park, also requires $104 million to fix its concrete pilings.) Their discussions morphed from him helping the trust with an existing but unglamorous infrastructure problem, to him adding a new pier to their portfolio. A pier, like the High Line (to which the couple donated $35 million), that is an extremely elaborate machine for sitting and strolling and looking. It's a square, but Heatherwick's design turns it into a series of paths and stairs.

More disturbing than Pier55's meme-tecture, however, has been the minimal public process. Who are Diller and Von Furstenberg to set priorities for the Hudson River Park or indeed, for open space in New York City? Why are we, the public, so often the audience and not the client? Why can't we set the agenda?

The problems with this kind of gifts have been enumerated, in far more vigorous language than we typically use in the American design press, in the debate about London's Garden Bridge, also designed by Heatherwick, also a thin layer of vegetation over a lot of engineering, also a "gift" that turns out to come at public cost. Like the Garden Bridge, Pier55 could be closed frequently (up to 5 times a month) for performances; like the Garden Bridge, Pier55 has only two routes on and off the island, and could become overcrowded or require "queues."

Only during the six-day public review process after Pier55 was announced in November was the lack of accessibility for wheelchairs and strollers of some of its scenic lookouts addressed. It wasn't too late, but it was definitely belated, given the fact that Diller had a design for the pier in 2012. Many good, critical questions were asked during that review, focusing on access and closure for private events, the closed-door planning process and the still-significant public investment of $35 million to make this project a reality.

The upshot of that limited process was more precise language about how often the park could be closed for events, and a reduction in the height of its peak from 71 feet to 62 feet. The specificity of that tweak seemed an indication of how far along this design really is: despite the fact that the public has only seen renderings, this is not an idea but something close to the actual design. Also: where are the bathrooms? The trash cans? The seating for those food vendors? Where would trucks for the performances load in and performers shelter?

The High Line has struggled since its inception to appeal to and attract neighborhood residents looking for more open space and more play options, so it seems bizarre to build more. At the hearing, the argument seemed to be that events specific to the community would be part of the programming (in the hands, at least for now, of Scott Rudin, George C. Wolfe, Stephen Daldry, and Kate Horton). It would be better if the landscape itself held some local appeal. On the flip side, why would anyone planning events want to be far from the subway, no parking, and only two entrances and exits?

Hudson River Park, like Brooklyn Bridge Park, was supposed to be self-sustaining, generating funds for its upkeep through real estate deals and concessions. From the beginning there have been questions about this model. It sounds good, but it privileges sites where adjacent real estate values are already high. And when parks can't support themselves after all, the city and the state basically have to step in. City Councilman Mark Levine, chair of the Park Committee, as well as advocacy groups like New Yorkers for Parks, have been pushing for more park funding in the city budget (currently at 0.55 percent). Such money would allow the parks department to maintain and plan for the parks we already have, rather than reacting to billionaires.

But we also need different strategies for channeling private money to public parks. Philanthropy doesn't have to be as grand, selective and secretive as recent donations suggest. I've written in the past about the idea of Neighborhood Parks Conservancies, which would allow people to give to the local, less glamorous parks they use every day. To prevent the rich park/poor park problem at a smaller scale, such conservancies could raise funds for sets of parks that are adjacent, but serve different populations, considering needs across the zone. The Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn already does this for Community District 1.

We also need to change the conversation around what is a sexy donation. It's not surprising, really, that Diller would rather pay for a gadget than for underwater repairs. But we know that small and medium parks, not-Manhattan parks, parks that are good for play can also be cool-looking, imaginative and even glamorous. Let's use narcissism for good. Any of the city's architecture nonprofits could, after consultation on what the city's real park priorities are, have a design competition for a particular park. If it is water that attracts dollars, there are plenty of other shores: Ridgewood Reservoir in Queens, reimagined as a wetlands shaped for exploration; Queensbridge Park remade to showcase its waterfront views, as with the anchorages further south on the East River; giving the residents of Greenpoint the park they were promised adjacent to Bushwick Inlet. Activists in the Bronx have been working to clean up and create access to the Bronx River for decades.

A couple of current projects point the way. The Design Trust for Public Space is currently working with the Parks Department and the Queens Museum on a community-based creative process for Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The New York Restoration Project's Haven Project, launched last fall, is looking at a series of underused open spaces in Mott Haven in the Bronx. The master plan that results from their work could easily have some spectacular moments, albeit spectacle aimed at getting the residents of Mott Haven outdoors and exercising, not watching performances. Or what about a new playground model -- an accessible, reasonably-priced, low-maintenance model –- that would be more challenging and use a more varied materials palette and could be deployed across the city? Some of these younger billionaires have children, and must understand the existential dullness of the off-the-shelf playground. What's sexier today than scalability? If meme-tecture teaches us anything, it is that ego-buffering publicity rests as much on visuals as it does on location. We, the public, should be the clients for cool design that serves our needs now and in the future. Don't try to give us a present that's just going to break.

· All Pier 55 coverage [Curbed NY]
· All Thomas Heatherwick coverage [Curbed]
· All Hudson Yards coverage [Curbed NY]
· Village Residents Express Skepticism Over Futuristic Pier55 [Curbed NY]
· America's Billionaires Are Turning Public Parks Into Playgrounds for the Wealthy [The New Republic]
· How to Fix New York City's Parks [New Yorker]