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How New York's Hit New Park Was Designed, Built And Timed To Perfection

For nearly a decade, engineers, contractors, designers and construction laborers worked to make a vision of pot-shaped piers holding a meticulously designed urban garden, called Little Island, a reality. 

Little Island

Construction workers finally started drilling piles into the Hudson River bedrock in the summer of 2018 and again the following year. During the subsequent winters, concrete contractors shipped the pots down Hudson from Albany four at a time on a rectangular, rusty barge as crane operators placed them on top. Meanwhile, the team crafted the twisting and curving green landscape atop the structure, brimming with plants and other features, Little Island Project Executive Celine Armstrong told Bisnow on a tour of the island last week.

The park opened late last month, and it was an immediate hit. New Yorkers, crawling out of their pandemic cocoons with a newfound appreciation for nature and greenery, are lining up to explore the island at Pier 55 off the Hudson River Greenway, near 13th Street.

“I think more than any other time in recent history, because of the pandemic … everyone has come to understand that outdoor space has value in a lot of different ways, whether it's psychological wellness or physical wellness or mental wellness,” said the park's landscape designer, Signe Nielsen, principal at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects.

“I feel as if the park has landed in New York, or it's been opened, at a crucial time when people are kind of coming out from under a rock and I suspect that some of the enthusiasm, timing as much as it is a wonderful place,” Nielsen added. 

The park landed as it did because of a far more destructive landfall. After billionaire Barry Diller — who helped fund the completion of the nature-rich High Line nearby — agreed to help fund Pier 55's restoration, architecture firm Heatherwick Studio won the design competition to reimagine it in October 2012. The night of the announcement, Hurricane Sandy hit, Armstrong said, seriously damaging the pier, which was once a landing place for the survivors of the Titanic and later a hub for outdoor music along the water.

“Everyone had to go back to the drawing table of how do we design a park that can withstand another hurricane,” she said. “Sandy was a one-in-700-year storm, but it's actually probably going to happen potentially sooner than that. So what do you do?” 

So the leaf-like structure began to take shape, designed in “direct response to Sandy,” said David Farnsworth, principal at the engineering firm that led the project, Arup

The island was designed to be separated from the esplanade so that it reached higher than the walkway and other piers, which are 6 feet above sea level. It is also over the 100-year flood plain mark as well as expected sea level rise, Farnsworth said. 

The five-petal pots that meet at a point and varied elevation throughout were also crafted with more than just aesthetics in mind. Farnsworth said they were carefully designed in Arup’s sound lab so they would block out the sounds of the city to create an aural oasis.

“[Arup] worked to see how with slanting and different topographies you could muffle sound or create different shifts,” Armstrong said. “They actually had Mr. Diller come into their office, and they closed the door and said, this is what it'll sound like when a helicopter goes over, this is what it sounds like for the West Side Highway. But if you raise this area, all of a sudden you don't hear it.” 

Little Island Project Executive Celine Armstrong and Arup principal David Farnsworth on Little Island

Each of the petals — constructed by Fort Miller Concrete in Albany — has its own unique shape that reaches a different height, Farnsworth said. They join with the hills on the island to block city sound. 

Flowers are a motif in Little Island's design — nearly 60,000 bulbs from as far away as the Netherlands were planted, and shrubs from nurseries along the East Coast and in Oregon now line the hills of the pier, Armstrong said. 

The floral arrangement has already brought bees and birds to the island, which were planted in the hopes of attracting pollinators, Nielsen said. 

“I was out there today and I think we identified, like, six different kinds of bees,” she said. “Honey bees and bumblebees and all sorts of different kinds of bees.” 

Stairs and pathways wrap throughout the park’s 2.4 green-filled acres.

“I did spend a lot of time thinking about what people would see as they walk up or down the paths or stairs. Sometimes you see the water and sometimes you see the city and sometimes you see the park,” Nielsen said. “I think because of the advantage of topography, you're able to calibrate and choreograph views in a way that you can't do as easily in something that's flat.

"The fact that this is completely fabricated topography is perhaps somewhat innovative," Nielsen added.

Small pieces of artwork, such as an Alice-in-Wonderland type spiral optical illusion and a music board, line the curves of the park. At the farthest point out of the island’s northern end last week, actors were giving a live rehearsal in an amphitheater with acoustics that mimic the theaters New York City is known for. 

“A lot of our acousticians are oftentimes more interested in the indoor quality of a space that's created by kind of the reverberation of the sound off of the hard surfaces around it,” Farnsworth said. “I think with an outside amphitheater, there's a lot to be said for just how do you figure out how to minimize the ambient noise around you so that you can focus on the performance that's happening.”

One of the sloping pathways of Little Island

While Little Island NYC told Bisnow that it hasn't computed dollar figures or job creation numbers, Armstrong said the economic impact of the construction throughout the state was “incredible.” 

“We heard from this one company in upstate, they said, 'You know what, this diner hired more people because all of the truck traffic that's coming back and forth to pick up the pieces that then take it to the port and then people who were then moved there to work on the project,'” Armstrong said. 

The Diller-von Fürstenberg Family Foundation — a philanthropic organization run by Diller and his wife, Belgian fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg — donated a total of $260M toward the project, according to Little Island NYC.

It survived several lawsuits, including one that was reportedly funded by Douglas Durst. Some claimed that the project wasn’t properly reviewed for the impact it would have on the surrounding environment. 

Construction was forced to pause after one court ruling — Diller almost quit on the project in 2017 amid the halt — but restarted after Gov. Andrew Cuomo arranged a deal among the parties.

After the fits and starts, the project’s opening coincides with a time in American life when outdoor space has never been more valuable.

Even before the pandemic, biophilic design was an up-and-coming trend. But since outdoor spaces became a refuge from the airborne coronavirus, they have become even more popular as Americans have a newfound solace in nature

Now, as office landlords rush to renovate their spaces bracing for a return to office in a world that has shifted the nature of work, the top amenity they are working to include is more greenery.

Plants and other greenery on Little Island

“We have a lot more evidence, and there is so much emerging research and scholarship, coming out of public health, environmental psychology and medicine about the power of nature,” said Biophilic Cities Executive Director Tim Beatley, a professor of architecture at the University of Virginia. “Nature is not something just a little extra thing that we add on or an optional thing. We're increasingly recognizing that to be happy and healthy and to lead meaningful lives, we have to have nature.” 

There is a significant economic argument for building with nature in mind or building more nature into cities, he pointed out.

“Just from a real estate value point of view, incorporating these natural elements and biophilic design elements will increase the value ... and the profitability," he said.

Down the street from Little Island, the development of the High Line increased residential property values by 103% between 2003 and 2011 a Miller Samuel report found. The phenomenon has been dubbed the “halo effect.” And while this may be the newest stretch of greenery, parks like Little Island and the High Line have been, at least in part, responsible for making New York City’s real estate as pricey as it is. 

“Cornelius Vanderbilt created [the] world’s most valuable real estate when he did [Park Avenue], and the High Line, when we created public space, created some of the world’s most valuable real estate,” Practice for Architecture and Urbanism founder Vishaan Chakrabarti said in September on Bisnow’s Make Yourself At Home podcast. "When we created Central Park, we created some of the world’s most valuable real estate.”

For Little Island, the greenery is one piece of a digestible design, to make a space for more of the things that city-dwellers crave, in addition to public transportation and skyscrapers. 

“The structural elements have an architectural finish for you to experience,” Armstrong said of the project. "And other than some interesting buildings, you don't see that.”