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Once-Neglected Pier 57 Prepares for Its SuperPier Moment

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of an ongoing series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits Pier 57, the future SuperPier.

[The SuperPier, an enormous market designed by YoungWoo & Associates, is scheduled to open in 2015 inside Chelsea's historic Marine & Aviation building. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Pier 57. The SuperPier. The World's Most Modern Pier. Guantanamo on the Hudson. The Marine and Aviation building at West 15th Street has had many names over the years, and many different functions. Opened in 1952 after an epic feat of engineering, the pier was designed to be fireproof, immune to erosion, and practically indestructible. It faithfully served as a Grace Line shipping terminal and cargo warehouse until the 1960s, when it was transformed into an MTA bus depot. In 2003, this enormous shell was abandoned by the city, only to gain infamy during the 2004 Republican National Convention, when it was used as a jail for thousands of protestors. In the years since, few have accessed all of this impressive structure, from its hollow concrete bunkers deep beneath the Hudson River to its mossy 3.5-acre rooftop.

But that may soon change, as construction is now underway for an enormous market at Pier 57. Designed and developed by YoungWoo & Associates (YWA), the SuperPier hopes to bring thousands of visitors to this colossal industrial relic, much like its nearby neighbor The High Line. "When I first visited the building I was humbled by the scale of the structure," said Zachary Beloff, the director of marketing and leasing for YWA and one of the few people who has explored the entire structure. "I had passed the building for years and always hoped to see the interiors," said Beloff, who is now actively seeking tenants to fill the SuperPier's 270,000 square feet of leasable space. YWA is planning to install a creative mix of businesses here, some housed inside hundreds of shipping containers, some underwater in the caissons, and others outside on roofs and decks. Tenants could range from a rock climbing gym to a beach club to boutique cinemas, a bathhouse, or a live music venue. "We have more retail space than Nolita," said Beloff. "We are curating a neighborhood."

The empty halls of the Marine & Aviation building will be filled with 460 shipping containers, housing many of the SuperPier's stores and food stands. This second floor space is slated to become a 19,000-square-foot Asian food market.

Once populated by MTA buses, the pier has long been empty, although several private events have taken place here in the last few years, including the New York City Wine & Food Festival and galas for the Whitney and the High Line.

"There will be 90,000 square feet of food and restaurants," said Zachary Beloff. "We're targeting something for everyone."

Pier 57's original design included vertically receding doors and a wraparound terrace at water level, offering plenty of natural light and waterfront access. 

Glass windows provide light to some of the building's wings. This space was once a bridge to another pier, and now fronts a 6,000-square-foot rooftop courtyard.

The former Dock Master's office "was originally occupied by the Grace Line shipping company and cruise line," according to Beloff. "There is no better place to watch the sunset, it literally feels like you are on the back of a ship."

Many of the old rooms in the Marine & Aviation building were left to rot when the MTA moved out in 2003. Some were used by police in 2004 to detain thousands of protestors arrested during the Republican National Convention, earning the building a nickname of "Guantanamo on the Hudson."

The remains of a holding cell are still located inside the Dock Master's office. "They put us in a temporary enclosure—it was like a large cage made out of chicken wire," said one former detainee. "There may have been 15 or 20 of us in one enclosure. Some of us sat on the floor which was covered in some kind of oil that immediately got on all our clothes and hands."

A lawsuit from this episode was finally settled this week, awarding $18 million to the hundreds of protestors detained inside the building. "We were in the enclosure about five or six hours at least," according to the former detainee, before being moved to the Tombs, which "was much nicer."

Several of the old rooms inside Pier 57 will be demolished to make way for SuperPier tenants, including this space. "A lot of the pre-construction work has already begun," said Beloff.

Demolition is set to begin on this structure in the next few days. Some of the spaces slated for destruction include offices and meeting rooms.

Down in the caissons, 56 steps under the Hudson River, the only sound is of water lapping overhead. Three huge, empty concrete boxes support most of the weight of the pier's structure. They were originally used for cargo storage in the 1950s.

This caisson is 360 feet long by 82 feet wide and nearly 33 feet tall, according to The Villager, and it weighs 27,000 tons. The pier is the city's only one built on "floating concrete boxes."

The SuperPier nickname comes from a 1952 article in Popular Mechanics celebrating these caissons. YWA's modern SuperPier hopes to put a bathhouse, a rock climbing gym, and a children's playground inside these underwater spaces, which contain 40,000 square feet of leasable space.

Up above water level, a lamentation is scrawled along a deck overlooking the Hudson River. Some of the oldest graffiti in the building dates back to a Halloween celebration in 1988.

The signage for the Marine & Aviation building is still in good shape. Much of the building's exterior will remain intact during its renovation.

YWA's ideas for some of the building's smaller decks and roofs include creating a private beach club and spa with an outdoor pool. In the meantime, the terraces remain unused. Some are covered in debris.

The building's main rooftop will be a park open to the public. "The roof is capable of having 3,000 people for events," said Zachary Beloff. "This is about 3.5 acres up here."

Moss and trees are slowly taking over the roof, but "originally the rooftop was used to store cargo for the vessels that called the pier home," said Beloff. "When the building was occupied by the MTA they actually parked cars on the roof."

Few have visited the roof in the past decade, according to Beloff, who is looking forward to the day when YWA opens it up to the public. "Six stories above the Hudson," said Beloff. "It's going to be spectacular."
—Nathan Kensinger
· Pier 57 coverage [Curbed]
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]