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How NYC’s abandoned piers are being transformed into public spaces

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The working waterfront has become a space for recreation

Photography by Max Touhey

Last week, Brooklyn Bridge Park unveiled the transformation of Pier 3, one of its final piers turned public space, and the latest example of the adaptive reuse of the city’s waterfront real estate.

For years, New York’s piers served as the main entry point for immigrants to the city, as well as a hub for the working waterfront. Then, as the city’s industrial backbone shifted away from the rivers, many of the city’s piers became obsolete. But in the past few decades, they’ve seen a renaissance; areas once left to decay have been transformed, as is the case with Hudson River Park—which is the longest park of its kind in the country—or Brooklyn Bridge Park, both of which utilize the pier infrastructure in their respective designs.

The transformation of piers to parks continues, with high-profile projects like Thomas Heatherwick’s so-called “floating park” finally underway at Manhattan’s Pier 55, and more pieces of Hudson River Park in the works. Here, get the details on how these projects have remade the waterfront.

Pier 57.
Max Touhey

Pier 57

When it opened in 1952, Pier 57 served as a shipping and cargo terminal for the Grace Company, but by the late 1960s, the company was wrapping up its shipping business, and the pier was sold to the city. The New York City Transit Authority ran its Hudson River Bus Depot from the terminal for three decades beginning in the 1970s, ending its use of the space in 2003.

The Pier remained vacant until 2009, when the Hudson River Park Trust asked developer Youngwoo & Associates to redevelop the site. The so-called “Superpier” was born from that proposal, and will now be home to another Google office; the tech giant will lease 350,000 square feet within the new structure. (It was originally supposed to include a food bazaar by the late chef Anthony Bourdain, who nixed those plans prior to his death.)

In terms of public space, that will include an outdoor rooftop terrace, and spaces to host educational programming and cultural events. There will also be a smaller food hall at the development along with retail and restaurants.

The Pier 55 construction site.
Max Touhey

Pier 55

Just a few blocks south, British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick has designed a fantastical park that will perch above the Hudson River, sitting on support columns that look like pots. The three-acre park has largely been funded by billionaire Barry Diller and is now under construction, aiming for a late 2019 completion.

It’s being built on the remains of the once-crumbling Pier 54, which served as the port for the Cunard-White star line. Passengers that survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 docked on board the Carpithia at Pier 54, and it’s also where the doomed Lusitania—then the largest passenger ship in the world—took off for the first time.

The park hasn’t been without its hiccups—it was entirely called off at one point—most of them coming in form of lawsuits filed by the City Club of New York, which were funded by developer Douglas Durst. In the end, the warring sides made up. It’s also been the subject of criticism, including from Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange, who questioned the sustainability of the park’s operations.

Once complete, Pier 55 will be home to walking paths, rolling hills, seating area, and open lawns. The park will also provide educational opportunities for students and have three performance spaces including a waterfront amphitheater.

An aerial view of Pier 17.
Max Touhey

Pier 17

Over on the East River, the Howard Hughes Corporation is transforming Pier 17 into an upscale dining and concert venue (along with offices) designed by SHoP Architects. The pier originally served the South Street Seaport’s ports up until the 19th century. Prior to its most recent transformation, the pier was also home to a slightly less upscale mall.

The venue partially opened in April this year, and its outdoor rooftop space—due to debut in August—will double as a concert venue that will have standing room for 3,400 people. There will be seating all around the pier on the lower level with views of the East River and the Brooklyn skyline. It’ll also be home to a few restaurants, including ones by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Andrew Carmellini, and David Chang.

A rendering of Pier 26.
Hudson River Park Trust

Pier 26

This Tribeca pier, which is part of Hudson River Park, is currently in the midst of a transformation into an eco-friendly space that supports education and play. Some of the features of this multi-purpose pier include two junior soccer fields, a wetland tidal pool area, a deck with city views, and a large lawn. Olin Studio is designing the space.

Rafael Viñoly Architects are also designing an education center called the Estuarium, close to the entrance of the Pier, but that won’t begin construction for some time. Work on the remainder of the park will wrap construction in the fall of 2020.

Pier 26 is also home to the restaurant City Vineyard, a dog park, and offers up kayaking opportunities during the summer months. For nearly two decades, the pier functioned as a marine field station for the River Project; the original pier was demolished in 2005, and the River Project was moved to Pier 40, where it currently resides.

The Pier 2 developments will take place on the lower left of the image.
Max Touhey

Pier 2 Uplands

In Brooklyn, a formerly industrial stretch has been transformed into the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, which includes not just green space, but housing and shopping complexes. The Park has opened to the public in several sections over the years, and only a few now remain.

One of them is the Pier 2 Uplands, which will add 3.4 acres to the existing parkland. Currently, the space is home to the wildly popular pop-up pool; once its season concludes, construction on the uplands will begin, with an estimated opening date of 2020. Its features will include a water garden, and a 6,300-square-foot lawn that will feature seating made with granite from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Prior to its transformation, the piers along Brooklyn Bridge Park served the 19th century warehouses that lined the waterfront in this area. These warehouses were largely used for coffee storage until they were abandoned in the 1960s.