Blame it on trepidation after the punishing recession of 2008-09 or general suspicion of billionaire philanthropy post-Bloomberg, but many West Village residents were uneasy about the massive $130 million donation from Barry Diller to radically transform a crumbling Hudson River Park pier into a floating, futuristic park.
The redevelopment of the pier, currently known as Pier 54, has been in the works since 2012 when Manhattan's Community Board 2 passed a resolution to that end, but anemic government funding (the city is giving $17 million to the project) led the Hudson River Park Trust to seek private donations to make the new Pier 55, which would replace Pier 54, a reality. Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, stepped up to the plate, having donated to the High Line and the new Whitney Museum. British design firm Heatherwick Studio was enlisted, as well as landscape architect Mathews Nielsen, and voilá a new pier was envisioned that turns the long, skinny, barren pier into a lush island that will host performances in its 700-seat amphitheater.
Residents responses' to the design itself were largely positive at last night's CB 2 meeting. One woman remarked, "This is a beautiful vision," another long-time resident called the presentation "fantastic" and said, "If it works out well I'd be really interested." She nonetheless expressed skepticism about future funding despite the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation's commitment to a 20-year lease with an option to extend for 10 more years (which means the park will have funding for operation and maintenance for up to 30 years), possibly beyond the foundation's initial $130 million contribution.
That fact did little to allay the fears of locals like Zack Winestine who didn't want the pier dependent on the whims of the wealthy. He wondered what would stop Diller from changing his mind in five years. Madelyn Wils, President and CEO of Hudson River Park Trust tried to assure him and the other attendees that there was documented commitment, which guaranteed funding for at least 20 years. But Winestine also lambasted what he saw as an "undemocratic process" in designing the park, saying, "This plan has been presented as a fait accompli." Hudson River Park Trust emphasized that the process was just beginning and that there would be another public hearing on January 12 where everyone could weigh in on the design, lease, and whatever else came to mind, to which Winestine responded that "feels like window dressing, I hope to be proven wrong."
Wils attributed the public feeling left out of the process on the very nature of negotiations around private donations, which don't usually become public until the money is actually pledged.
Other residents were concerned about noise from the park affecting quality of life but both Mat Cash of Heatherwick Studio and Kate Horton, executive director for programming at the future amphitheater, explained that the pier would be designed in such a way to minimize noise. Since the absolute maximum the pier could accommodate for a show would be 3,500 people, noise would not be an issue.
Horton, and former Public Theater director, George C. Wolfe (who will be one of the new amphitheater's directors) said they planned to keep the vast majority of performances smaller (1,000 people and under). Perhaps in response to the accusations of lack of democracy for the larger pier project, they said the theater would be fully democratic. Wolfe in particular said he wanted to cultivate "a sense of connection" to the community. They don't foresee the theater being a place for big, splashy rock concerts, they see it as a place for artists to experiment, creating mostly new works from the ground up. Wolfe also emphasized that while he supported tourists' attendance, he wanted it to be a New York-centric space: New York artists for a New York audience. Horton cited her experience as a director and administrator for public theaters in the U.K. (which are fully government-funded) for fostering her commitment to making theater for locals that would be free or low-cost. Her vision is to use the pier "to engage the community in fantastic art."
Wolfe also plans to involve the city's youth in the theater in some capacity: as interns, ushers, or involved in the creation of performance projects with artists that would be featured during the season. This drew praise from at least one parent in the audience. Jim Bose, a West Village resident for 15 years, likes the idea for the new pier and sees it as "a natural progression in terms of bringing the arts into the community."
But in the end, it came back to funding. When asked what happens to the park after 20-30 years, Wils responded "It's hard to say who may be inspired by this project to not only raise money in the future," but "increase awareness." With no sign of government funding for public parks rising, billionaire philanthropy might just become the norm in NYC. Wils said we should "applaud Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg for what they're doing." One other local agreed, "I love this idea," she continued saying private philanthropy is a good thing and the only way this will happen.
· All Pier55 coverage [Curbed]