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The Origin Story of the Hudson River's $130M Avatar-Like Pier

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[Images by Luxigon.]
[Images by Luxigon.]

In November, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg announced they were donating at least $113 million to construct a new pier off Hudson River Park around West 13th Street. The undulating elevated structure, designed by British architectural heavyweight Thomas Heatherwick, would include an amphitheater, more art space, walking paths, and plenty of greenery. But the story of how Pier55—which is inching towards reality—came to be is more complicated than "Two famous philanthropists wanted to build an amoeba-shaped park, and so they're going to." The Times breaks down how the Hudson River Park Trust got Diller and von Furstenberg on board to make the largest parks gift in New York City history via a three-year negotiation process, putting a spotlight on some of the pier's critics in the process.

Arriving at the vision rendered above took awhile. Trust officials first approached Diller in early 2012 with a vague idea for a pier that would replace Pier 54, which shuttered in 2011 due to structural problems. He wasn't immediately enamored, but follow-up meetings were scheduled and Diller brought in boundary-pushing designers to collaborate, with a mindset Hudson River Park Trust chairwoman Madelyn Wils recalled as: "Look, if I'm going to be interested in this, we have to do something ambitious architecturally."

Later, when he got really into it, Diller actually constructed a model of the pier:

In 2013, Mr. Diller summoned Ms. Wils and Mr. Heatherwick to a field in Islip, on Long Island, to see a mock-up of the pier, using ropes to delineate the amphitheater, a piazza and the width of paths. The design now resembled the one that was presented to the public last fall: an offshore pier turned diagonally to the bulkhead, its elevation ranging from 15 to 70 feet above the water. Raising the pier above the new, post-Hurricane-Sandy flood plain allowed light underneath to improve fish habitats and offered views of the river and the skyline. On Long Island, Mr. Diller was hoisted up over the field in a cherry picker. Mental note: If you're going donate many millions of dollars to an extravagant public project, definitely rent a cherry picker to make sure that the river and city views suffice.

The enormous gift from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, though, has attracted criticism from many corners. 1) Why spend so much money on a completely new pier when other parts of the park, like the crumbling Pier 40, need work? 2) Why did negotiations over the donation go on behind closed doors? Can there be more transparency? 3) Let's make sure that the pier and its events and performances are accessible to everybody. 4) How will the construction affect marine life in the Hudson?

Despite all the concerns, some community members seem to understand that the flashy nature of the project is part of the reason big-name donors get involved in the first place—even if Hudson River Park itself is only 70 percent complete and needs some $175 million more to get done. Wils said of attracting monies to repair Pier 40: "If anyone knows a donor willing to cover the cost of pile repairs, we're all ears." One step at a time.
· How Diller and von Furstenberg Got Their Island in Hudson River Park [NYT]
· $130 Million 'Pier55' Park Looks Like Something Out of Avatar [Curbed]
· The Hudson's Bonkers $170M Park Is Inspired By Rotting Piles [Curbed]
· Village Residents Express Skepticism Over Futuristic Pier55 [Curbed]
· Board Likes Ambitious Pier55, But Wants More Transparency [Curbed]
· Futuristic Floating Pier55 Park Moves Toward Reality [Curbed]
· All Pier55 coverage [Curbed]