At Pier 55, a fight over public spaces 2015/2016

| 28 Dec 2015 | 05:37

Work has begun on an ambitious, privately funded entertainment pier in Chelsea that will either A. solidify the neighborhood’s standing as the pre-eminent cultural destination in the city, or B. mark the tipping point in the loss of our great public spaces to private money.

As we turn to 2016, both may prove to be true.

Pier 55, as the project is known, is the pet of media mogul Barry Diller and will mark the capstone to the Diller-funded redevelopment of the formerly derelict Hudon River piers. The High Line, which Diller and his wife, designer Diane von Furstenberg, willed into being, has become the most-visited tourist attraction in the city, an ultra-manicured, perfectly designed walkway that has become so popular that developers have configured apartments so that their residents can commune with High Line tourists as they have their moning coffee. The High Line will connect to Pier 55, which connects to the glorious new Whitney, which feeds into the Meapacking District and, soon, the Hudson Yards.

But not everybody is on board for Pier 55 -- and the objections shine an interesting light on the corporatization of public spaces in the city.

Aesthetically, people like New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz find them too sanitized for a city like New York, which once throbbed with messy, disjointed spaces -- almost all of which have since been shaved down.

Saltz calls the High Line and Pier 55 “ersatz, privatized public spaces built by developers; sterile, user-friendly, cleansed adult playgrounds with generic environments that produce the innocuous stupor of elevator music; inane urban utopias with promenades, perches, pleasant embellishments, rest stops, refreshments, and compliance codes.”

The other objection to such places -- and the area most likely to pick up steam in 2016 -- has to do with the way they are approved and permitted in the city.

The City Club, an advocacy group, has filed a lawsuit over Pier 55, arguing that even though it juts out into a public waterway, the project nevertheless has proceeded with very little community input, inadequate environmental review, and a lack of transparency given the scale of the project.

The lawsuit is winding its way through the courts.

The objections over Pier 55 are only in part because of the way it looks and feels or because of how it came to be.

At the core of the complaints is an uneasiness over the pace and strain of development in the city, where buildings can be allowed to zoom over Central Park without a public hearing.

In 2016, Pier 55 could well become a test case of how far -- and whether -- we are willing to let that kind of development proceed.