How Hudson River Park Helped Revitalize Manhattan’s West Side

Twelve hundred tons of sand arrived last month in Hudson River Park, the sliver of green space on the western edge of Manhattan, and it took only a quarter-century to get there.

In 1998, when Gov. George E. Pataki signed the law authorizing the creation of the park, he vowed it would have a beach. Now, on the 25th anniversary of the Hudson River Park Act — which turned a strip of dilapidated warehouses and rotting piers along the city’s mightiest river into a sprawling park network — West Siders will finally get to wriggle their toes in the sand.

The beach is part of a larger effort to complete the park and knit together its disparate sections, which have been developed in bits and pieces over the years. The newest projects expected to open soon are Gansevoort Peninsula, a recreational area off Gansevoort Street that includes the beach as part of a $73 million overhaul, and Pier 97, a $47 million project off 57th Street that will have a big playground.

Hudson River Park is the largest park built in Manhattan since Central Park.
“Day’s End,” a sculpture by David Hammons, traces the outline of a pier shed that was once on the site.

The largest park built in Manhattan since Central Park, Hudson River Park draws 17 million visits a year and has helped spur real estate development on the West Side. Developers have poured billions of dollars into transforming neighborhoods along the park, a former industrial area, attracting companies like IAC, a digital media firm, and Google, and legions of residents to the shiny new towers that face the river.

“It’s like they said: ‘Build the park and development will follow,’” said Robert Freudenberg, a vice president at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit.

Hudson River Park came about to solve a problem: what to do with a moribund waterfront after industry and commerce had left.

The western shore of Manhattan below 59th Street was the teeming center of New York’s maritime economy at the turn of the 20th century. Ships brought goods from all over the world and carried away products from the city’s factories. Immigrants and visitors streamed through a passenger terminal on Pier 97.

At Pier 97, new playground equipment …
… and a view of Manhattan.
A sculptural shade structure at the top of the sloping lawn on Pier 97.

But much of that activity was gone by the 1970s, after the decline of manufacturing and changes in transportation methods. The abandoned piers and warehouses drew sunbathers, artists and members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But the collapse of a section of the elevated West Side Highway, which ran parallel to the river, drew attention to the seediness of the waterfront area, which was highlighted in the opening scenes of the 1976 movie “Taxi Driver.”

A plan emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to refurbish many of the piers as park spaces, allow commercial enterprise on others, and build an esplanade and bike path stringing them all together. The city and state would fund capital improvements, and the commercial piers would provide revenue for operations and maintenance of the 550-acre park, which stretches from Chambers Street in TriBeCa to West 59th Street in Hell’s Kitchen.

The first green space, Pier 45 off Christopher Street in the West Village, opened in 2003. Other piers took longer to transform. City agencies had set up operations on some and were slow to budge, and there were structural problems with others — the deteriorating wooden piles under them had to be replaced with concrete.

Funding issues also slowed progress: When the economy took a turn for the worse, as it did with the financial crisis of 2008, cash dried up.

But with derelict buildings on the waterfront cleared and the West Side Highway rebuilt at ground level — and the river finally in view — inland properties became more desirable.

A pair of condominium towers facing the water at Perry Street in the West Village — designed by Richard Meier and gleaming amid the brick walk-ups and cinder-block warehouses — was one of the first signs that change was afoot.

“That really stood out,” said Connie Fishman, the executive director of a fund-raising partner to the Hudson River Park Trust, the public corporation that develops and runs the park.

The condominiums at 173 and 176 Perry Street were designed by Richard Meier.
VIA 57 West, designed by Bjarke Ingels, is across from the new park at Pier 97.
Near Pier 57 lies the IAC Building, second from right, which was designed by Frank Gehry; and to its left, a condominium by Jean Nouvel.

In 2008, the Regional Plan Association documented how the West Village portion of the park was spurring property sales, corroborating other studies on how parks add value to neighborhoods. Beyond their intrinsic recreational and environmental benefits, parks also play an economic role by increasing the worth of adjacent real estate.

By 2016, the neighborhoods along the park led Manhattan in development — their growth in built square footage from 2000 to 2014 represented more than a quarter of all new development in the borough.

Zoning changes on the West Side allowing for residences and taller buildings also stimulated development, as did the High Line, the landscaped former rail line, which attracts droves of strolling tourists and spawned luxury buildings alongside it.

A parade of striking buildings by top architects sprang up facing Hudson River Park. The entertainment mogul Barry Diller hired Frank Gehry to design the headquarters for IAC with a facade of white glass bowed to evoke a ship’s sails. “I wanted to be near the water,” Mr. Diller said.

A condominium by Jean Nouvel with irregularly sized windows slanted every which way rose directly north of IAC. And the Durst Organization hired Bjarke Ingels to fashion an apartment building shaped like a pyramid to maximize river views.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, a staple of the Upper East Side, moved to a battleship-colored building designed by Renzo Piano on a site opposite Gansevoort Peninsula. The museum worked with the park’s trust to place alongside the peninsula a monumental sculpture by David Hammons that traces the outline of the pier shed that once stood on the spot.

The new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, seen from a boardwalk on Gansevoort Peninsula.
Little Island, seen from Gansevoort Peninsula, opened in 2021.

“When we started looking at the site around 2007, it still felt like an industrial neighborhood,” said Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director. “There were the nightclubs, a handful of meatpackers left.”

Now, two blocks away is Little Island, a mini park that rests on tulip-shaped concrete pots planted on the site of another old pier. It was paid for by a foundation started by Mr. Diller and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.

“There’s Hudson River Park, then us, then the High Line,” Mr. Weinberg said. “It feels like a crossroads now.”

As new structures went up, old ones were renovated. Pier 57, an engineering marvel from the 1950s at West 15th Street that is on the National Register of Historic Places, has a new food hall and Google offices. Since the food hall opened in April, pedestrian crossings into the park have more than doubled, according to MRI Springboard data gathered for the Meatpacking District Management Association, the neighborhood’s business improvement district.

The park and inland real estate were further entwined when the sale of unused development rights from the commercial piers was allowed. Air rights from Pier 40 off West Houston Street enabled floors to be added atop a 1934 freight terminal building that has been turned into more Google offices.

When Pier 97 and Gansevoort Peninsula open, the public portions of the park will be 95 percent complete, said Noreen Doyle, president and chief executive of the park’s trust. The latest projects “really catapult us forward,” she added.

Pier 45, which opened in 2003, was the first pier to be renovated as green space in Hudson River Park.
Pier 57, home to Google offices and a food hall, has a rooftop open to the public.

For Pier 97, !melk, a design firm, used a lightweight construction material called geofoam to vary the topography of the nearly two-acre pier, creating a lawn that rises to an angular shade structure on its north side. The landscape architects also laid out winding paths, filled planters with catmint and other saltwater-tolerant species, and designed a polished-granite slide wide enough for a whole family.

“The community wanted something cool,” said Jerry van Eyck, the firm’s founder and principal.

Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm that reimagined the 5 ½-acre Gansevoort Peninsula, also added a sizable soccer field in addition to a dog run, picnic tables and roomy chaises.

“We were trying to pack in a variety of experiences,” said Lisa Switkin, a partner at Field Operations.

Beyond a pine grove with a boardwalk running through it, the beach occupies much of the southern side of the peninsula. Filled with 35 truckloads of buff-colored sand from a quarry near Cape May, N.J., it is dotted with blue umbrellas, Adirondack-style chairs and river birches. Logs are scattered about as if a mighty wave had washed massive pieces of driftwood ashore.

Ms. Switkin kicked off her shoes on a recent tour. “It feels great,” she said, swiveling in the sand.

Picnic tables at Gansevoort Peninsula in Hudson River Park.

Points of interest in the park

1) Pier 97: The pier will have a large playground, an all-ages slide and a sloping lawn.

2) Chelsea Piers: The first revenue-producing commercial area in the park. It opened in 1995.

3) Pier 57: A historic landmark that was recently renovated. It now houses Google offices and a food hall.

4) Little Island: A mini park supported by tulip-shaped concrete pots that opened in 2021 with funding from a foundation started by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.

5) Gansevoort Peninsula: A new area that will have a public sand beach.

6) Pier 45: Opened in 2003, it was the first pier in the park to be renovated as green space.

Buildings along the West Side Highway

7) St. John’s Terminal, 550 Washington Street: Purchased by Google in 2021, it is part of the tech giant’s campus.

8) 173 and 176 Perry Street: Twin condo towers designed by Richard Meier that opened in 2002.

9) Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street: The new home of the museum, designed by Renzo Piano.

10) IAC Building, 555 West 18th Street: The headquarters of IAC, a digital media company, designed by Frank Gehry.

11) Jacob K. Javits Convention Center: The structure was constructed from 1980 to 1986 and named to honor the U. S. senator from New York.

12) VIA 57 West Apartments, 625 West 57 Street: Shaped like a pyramid, this residential building was designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, a Danish firm.

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