Anybody who wants to make a mark on the New York City landscape always faces questions from those who live in it. Monday night it was Barry Diller — billionaire chairman of IAC/InterActive Corp — and his $130 million dollar plans for a park that would float on the Hudson River at West 13th Street that drew community members to the Clinton School for Writers and Artists. The meeting was, organizers stressed, the first of many open forums to come in a project that has drawn flack for being too secretive.
The park, called Pier 55, will replace the deteriorating Pier 54 with 2.7-acres of greenspace and performance venues elevated by mushroom-shaped supports and separated from the shore by a 186-foot walkway. Panelists at the meeting on Monday were part of the group in charge of arts programming for Pier 55: George C. Wolfe, former artistic director of the Public Theater, Stephen Daldry, British film and theater director and producer, and Kate Horton, British theater executive. “I live about two blocks from Pier 55,” Daldry said, addressing the crowd of at least 60 people. “It did seem that [Pier 55] was a fantastic opportunity to do perhaps something else rather than just being a place for presenting commercial, money-making artistic enterprises … To try to have a new idea about what a park could be— a performance park could be.”
Construction on Pier 55 is set to begin in 2016 with a projected opening in 2018. Wolfe in particular expressed his enthusiasm about the opportunity the park, and Diller’s financial commitment, would provide for artists to experiment without fear of consequences. “One of the things that I absolutely, completely and totally loved when I was running the Public was the idea that I had X amount of money that I could give to artists and that they could go into a room and play,” Wolfe said. “And that success wasn’t required, you know. Risk was required.”
Though most attendees at the meeting were supportive -- if cautiously -- of the park’s proposed impact on the local arts community, the same concept of risk that excites Wolfe is one that worries others. Mel Stevens, who said he was with a group called Save Our River, had a simple question for the panel: “Why in the river?” He went on to protest the new intrusion into the Hudson. “It’s a navigable waterway, it’s a natural resource. This can be done on land,” Stevens said. Other concerns brought up by attendees included noise control, environmental sustainability, LGBT outreach and accessibility to all kinds of art, from spoken word to playwriting.
Most of the feedback, however, was positive. “The river will be loved and used if it is loved and used, and therefore the more we give to the river the more people will love the river,” said another community member who did not give her name. “I was here when there were dead bodies in the river, and the fact that we use the river with love and affection now, and we have so many things going on, has made the river cleaner and better.”
Several parents asked about how Wolfe, Daldry and Horton planned to interact with local schools. In answer to one parent who asked about the funding of partnerships between schools and the park, Daldry responded that he is “not interested” in having parents bear any of the cost. “I mean, it seems to me that part of our function is to add resources to the schools,” he said. Since the park is still in such early stages of planning — the lease agreement on the pier was only approved in February — the meeting’s purpose was mostly to get ideas from the community on what they’d like to see. One person suggested a community garden; many hoped for their kids to be able to work with the park’s artists on things their schools don’t allow time for.
For Horton, the most exciting aspect of Pier 55 is the park’s flexibility as a public space that will be around for a long time. “One of the things I love about the amphitheater is that that can be ... completely self-sustaining,” she said, in comments after the meeting. “We’ve developed the design in a way where actually, in the mists of time that none of us can guess at, it doesn’t have venues that have to be filled. … In a hundred years’ time people could be doing something completely different with it, and that’s fine.”
Though no further community meetings are scheduled at this time, the audience was assured many times that their voices would not be forgotten.