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A Judge Just Sank Thomas Heatherwick’s Controversial Floating Park

The Heatherwick-designed darling, which would have been built over the Hudson River, faces an uncertain future after a judge’s ruling.

The plans for Pier 55, a floating park proposed on the Hudson River, always sounded far-fetched. In 2014, British landscape designer Thomas Heatherwick proposed a lush, undulating oasis balanced above the Hudson River on concrete piers. Designed to become an entertainment and arts destination for people seeking a retreat from the busy city, and financed by fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and developer Barry Diller, the park has been embroiled in legal controversy because of its location in an environmentally sensitive area.

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But a March 23 ruling from the United States District Court vacated permits issued for the park’s construction–essentially driving the final nail into the concept’s coffin.

Judge Lorna G. Schofield ruled that the park would interfere with fish and wildlife in Hudson River Park, a 550-acre park that stretches along the west side of Manhattan, as well as public enjoyment of the river. She also ordered a review of alternatives for the park that don’t involve its construction over a marine sanctuary.

[Image: Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio]
While politicians like Mayor Bill De Blasio and the Hudson River Trust (the organization responsible for the park’s stewardship) supported the park, public interest groups opposed the design. The City Club of New York argued that the funding structure (driven mostly by private business), the lack of public involvement with the design and review process, the park’s scale, and its impact on the Hudson River ecosystem (which wasn’t properly addressed when the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit) made it a bad deal for the city.

“We’re very happy,” Michael Gruen, president of the City Club, told The Architect’s Newspaper. “It looks like this ruling may be very beneficial for the public in terms of finally being done with a project that would obscure the view of the water and could very well go somewhere else.”

When the park was first proposed in 2014, it drew comparisons to the High Line, an elevated park built on an abandoned railway. The High Line was initially lauded for turning an urban blight into a destination, but its ripple effects–namely, rampant gentrification–have cast it in a different light in recent years. Pier 55 seemed to follow a similar, but accelerated, trajectory: First celebrated for its design creativity, it was quickly challenged due to its relationship with, and seemingly preferential treatment of, the 1%.

In a written statement, the Hudson River Park Trust said: “We have won four challenges in four courts on this project. Not one of those decisions determined the proposed project would harm the environment—and neither does this one. But even if largely procedural, we are deeply disappointed by this ruling, and are reviewing it carefully to determine our next steps.”

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As it stands, the park’s vision, as Heatherwick designed it, is unlikely to ever be built.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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