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How Hudson River Park Helped Revitalize Manhattan’s West Side

Twelve hundred tons of sand arrived last month at Hudson River Park, a green space on the west side of Manhattan, and it took only a quarter of a century to get there.

In 1998, when Gov. George E. Pataki signed the law authorizing the park’s creation, he vowed there would be a beach. Today, on the 25th anniversary of the Hudson River Park Act – which transformed a strip of dilapidated warehouses and rotting piers along the city’s mightiest river into a sprawling park system – West Siders will finally be able to wiggle their toes in the sand.

The beach is part of a larger effort to complete the park and connect its disparate sections, which have been developed in 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 which will feature a large playground.

The largest park built in Manhattan since Central Park, Hudson River Park attracts 17 million visits a year and has helped spur real estate development on the West Side. Developers have invested billions of dollars in transforming neighborhoods along the park, a former industrial zone, attracting companies like IAC, a digital media company, and Google, as well as legions of residents to the new towers gleaming which face the river.

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

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

Manhattan’s West Shore, below 59th Street, was the teeming center of New York’s maritime economy at the turn of the 20th century. The ships brought goods from around the world and took away the products of the city’s factories. Immigrants and visitors flocked to a passenger terminal at Pier 97.

But much of this activity disappeared in the 1970s, after the decline of manufacturing and changes in transportation methods. Abandoned piers and warehouses have attracted beachgoers, artists and members of the LGBTQ community. But the collapse of a section of the elevated West Side Highway, parallel to the river, drew attention to the squalor of the riverside area, which was highlighted in the film’s opening scenes. Taxi Driver” from 1976.

A plan emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to renovate many piers into park spaces, allow commercial activities on others, and build a plaza and bike path connecting them all. The city and state would fund capital improvements, and the commercial piers would provide revenue for operation 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, near Christopher Street in the West Village, opened in 2003. The other piers took longer to transform. City agencies had set up operations on some and were slow to move, and there were structural problems in others: deteriorated wooden piles beneath them had to be replaced with concrete.

Funding problems have also slowed progress: When the economy deteriorated, as it did during the 2008 financial crisis, liquidity dried up.

But with the destruction of abandoned waterfront buildings and the rebuilding of the West Side Highway at ground level – and the river finally visible – inland properties have become more desirable.

A pair of waterfront condominium towers on Perry Street in the West Village – designed by Richard Meier and gleaming amid brick buildings and cinderblock warehouses – was one of the first signs of change in course.

“That really stood out,” said Connie Fishman, executive director of fundraising partner the Hudson River Park Trust, the public corporation that develops and manages the park.

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

In 2016, neighborhoods along the park were at the forefront of Manhattan’s development: their growth in built area between 2000 and 2014 accounted for more than a quarter of all new development in the borough.

Zoning changes on the West Side, allowing for taller residences and buildings, also spurred development, as did the High Line, the former landscaped railroad line, which attracted crowds of strolling tourists and gave rise to with luxury buildings next to it.

A parade of remarkable buildings by renowned architects has arisen facing Hudson River Park. Entertainment mogul Barry Diller hired Frank Gehry to design IAC’s headquarters with a white glass facade curved to evoke the sails of a ship. “I wanted to be near the water,” Mr. Diller said.

A Jean Nouvel condominium with irregularly sized windows angled in all directions stood directly north of IAC. And the Durst Organization hired Bjarke Ingels to design a pyramid-shaped apartment building to maximize river views.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, an Upper East Side staple, has moved to a battleship-colored building designed by Renzo Piano on a site across from the Gansevoort Peninsula. The museum worked with the park trust to place along the peninsula a monumental sculpture by David Hammons that traces the contours of the pier shed that once stood on site.

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

Today, two blocks away is Little Island, a mini-park based on tulip-shaped concrete pots planted on the site of another old pier. It was financed by a foundation established 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 now feels like a crossroads.”

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

Park and inland real estate were further linked when the sale of unused commercial wharf development rights was permitted. Air rights from Pier 40 off West Houston Street added floors to the top of a 1934 cargo terminal that was transformed into more Google offices.

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

For Pier 97, !melk, a design firm, used a lightweight building material called geofoam to vary the topography of the nearly two-acre pier, creating a lawn that rises to a shade structure angular on its north side. 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 an entire family.

“The community wanted something cool,” said Jerry van Eyck, founder and director of the company.

Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm that reinvented the 5 ½-acre Gansevoort Peninsula, also added a large soccer field in addition to a dog run, picnic tables and spacious chairs.

“We were trying to incorporate a variety of experiences,” said Lisa Switkin, associate at Field Operations.

Beyond a pine forest crossed by a promenade, the beach occupies a large part of the south side of the peninsula. Filled with 35 truckloads of buff-colored sand from a quarry near Cape May, New Jersey, it’s dotted with blue umbrellas, Adirondack-style chairs and river birch trees. The logs are scattered as if a powerful wave had washed huge pieces of driftwood onto the shore.

Ms. Switkin took off her shoes during a recent tour. “It’s great,” she said, pivoting in the sand.

Points of interest in the park

1) Pier 97: The pier will have a large play area, a slide for all ages and a sloping lawn.

2) Chelsea Docks: The first revenue-generating commercial zone in the park. It opened in 1995.

3) Pier 57: A recently renovated historical monument. It now houses Google offices and a food hall.

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

5) Gansevoort Peninsula: A new area which will have a public sandy beach.

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

Buildings along the West Side Highway

7) St. John Terminal, 550 Washington Street: Bought 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 and opened in 2002.

9) Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street: The new museum house, 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 built from 1980 to 1986 and named for the U.S. senator from New York.

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