One Mans is an Island

Not all the neighbors love Barry Diller’s Hudson River fantasy.

By Alex Ulam

Credit: Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio
Some argue the funding for the Hudson River Park could be put to better use elsewhere in the city.

Barry Diller is a billionaire who has committed to underwriting the lion’s share of a $130 million plan for the construction of Pier 55, a 2.7-acre island of undulating parkland and performance venues that would rest atop mushroom-shaped pilings in New York City’s Hudson River Park.

The city’s power brokers have enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, which also includes a 20-year lease under which Pier55, Inc., a nonprofit Diller founded with his wife, the designer Diane von Furstenberg, would pay for the pier’s upkeep and oversee its programming. And quite possibly, the Pier 55 project would help bail out the chronically cash-strapped Hudson River Park Trust, the quasi-public entity charged with running Hudson River Park and raising funds for its maintenance.

However, at a community meeting last week in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood, which abuts Hudson River Park, many residents had a host of concerns about the Pier 55 project. They questioned its futuristic aesthetic, its environmental impacts, and its contribution to the larger public realm. They also questioned whether their input would be considered during the design process and what trade-offs the Hudson River Park Trust was making in exchange for accepting what reportedly is the single largest private donation to a public park in the city’s history.

Several residents even rejected the whole idea and said that Diller’s largesse could be put to better use elsewhere. “This city is becoming increasingly unequal,“ said Zack Winestine, an independent filmmaker who lives in the area. “We already have the High Line. We are getting the Whitney Museum. And we have this park [Hudson River Park].”

Placating restive West Village residents will be a major challenge for Pier 55’s designers, Heatherwick Studio and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. The Hudson River Park has played a role in the West Village’s turning into one of the ritziest neighborhoods in the country, but at the meeting many people were aging activists left over from the days when Jane Jacobs, a former resident, squared off with the likes of Robert Moses. One attendee, Marcy Benstock, the key leader in the successful campaign to defeat the $4 billion Westway project three decades ago, was among those raising a raft of objections to the project.

The Diller deal comes at a time when big gifts by plutocrats are increasingly coming under attack in some quarters for creating perceived iniquities in the ways that public parks are funded and maintained. Another criticism is that such gifts are self-interested—Diller, an Internet and media tycoon, and von Furstenberg  operate their businesses in the area. Last fall, New York City elected officials sponsored state legislation that would require park conservancies with operating budgets of more than $5 million to contribute 20 percent to neighborhood parks throughout the city.

However, in a phone interview after the community meeting, Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, said that redistribution schemes were not the answer. “If someone wants to give away money, they are entitled to give it wherever they want,” she said. “It is an all-or-nothing deal. Barry is not going to say, ‘I forgot about Mott Haven’ (a low-income neighborhood in the South Bronx). That is not going to happen.”

Alex Ulam is a frequent contributor to LAM.

Credit: Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio

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