Step Inside the ‘Little Island,’ Barry Diller’s $260 Million Public Park
(Bloomberg) -- From Manhattan’s West Side Highway, the “Little Island” looks like a cluster of giant white flower buds sprouting from the Hudson River. But the 2.4-acre park—conceived and mostly paid for by billionaire Barry Diller through his Diller - von Furstenberg Family Foundation—is actually an undulating platform of grass, trees, and winding pathways mounted on concrete piles where Pier 54 used to be.
When it opens to the public on Friday, May 21, visitors will be able to enter from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. year-round via two, boardwalk-sized bridges that connect the structure to the Hudson River Greenway and roughly correspond to 14th and 13th streets. The most dramatic approach is from the southern entrance through an arch covered in plants and trees.
Once visitors cross the water and come inside, they’ll discover that Little Island was designed for exploration, novelty, and discovery. “That’s a really thoughtful aspect of the design,” says Trish Santini, executive director of Little Island. “There are different views of the city, views of the water, views of people, and views of the landscape. You’re digesting a different element of the experience” as you move through the space.
The origins of the project date to 2013, when Diller, the chairman of IAC, became involved in fixing up Pier 54, which had fallen into disrepair. Instead of rebuilding the pier, Diller and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, commissioned architect Thomas Heatherwick—designer of the infamous Vessel in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards—and the landscape architecture firm MNLA to design an entirely new structure.
The result was a sprawling layout intended to evoke a “leaf floating on water.”
That doesn’t quite come across, but the island’s base is an undeniable showstopper: the 132 concrete “tulips” that make up the park’s structure.
Every concrete tulip is unique, fabricated by Fort Miller Co. in Greenwich, N.Y., trucked to a location on the Hudson River, assembled on land, “and then each tulip was lifted by a crane onto a barge,” says Santini.
“We floated four at a time down the Hudson to come to the site. So that’s just one example of how complex the work was.”
The designers used the flexibility of the piles’ various heights to create an almost mountainous topography. The result is that, even though the park is comparatively small, multiple discreet spaces feel separate from the rest.
Visitors will first encounter a sort of courtyard area called the Play Ground.
The bad news is that there isn’t an actual playground. It’s a large, oval area laid with tumbled concrete pavers, and features outdoor seating and food vendors. “It’s our central social space,” says Santini.
The designers “wanted it to feel playful and relaxed and casual and just as welcoming for kids by day and adults by night.” Savory Hospitality will run the stalls, which will serve coffee and baked goods in the morning, sandwiches and salads during the day, and shareable small bites, beer, and wine in the evening. “It’s a great place to come hang after work,” she says.
The space will host a series of pop-up performances and events, including drag bingo, late-night DJs, and, “cabaret-style performers,” according to a press release. (All programming at the Play Ground will be free.)
Unlike the nearby High Line, which has a highly prescribed way for visitors to experience the space, visitors are encouraged to walk and play on the Little Island’s multiple lawns. That said, there are restrictions you won’t find in other city parks: No dogs, (with the exception of service animals), bikes, or scooters are allowed.
At least initially, Santini says, they’ll be capping attendance on the Island to about 800 people. “We’ll do timed entry from noon until 8 p.m. every day, to help keep everybody safe and make sure people feel comfortable and not worried about overcrowding.”
The amphitheater seats 687 people with standing room for 50. It’s rigged with high-quality lighting and acoustics so theater and performance can take place against the Hudson River backdrop. Throughout the summer, the Little Island will host various concerts and festivals, including performances by Broadway Inspirational Voices and American Ballet Theater. In August, New York Pops Up will hold 20 days of free programming on the island.
Perhaps in part because of criticism that the Little Island is a billionaire’s folly, organizers have made an aggressive push to ensure that the majority of the park’s programming will be free or heavily subsidized.
Rehearsals will always be free; for actual performances, 30% of the tickets will be free and distributed to nonprofits, including Hudson Guild, Westbeth, Greenwich House, The Door, PS 33 in Chelsea, and New York’s Department of Youth and Community Development. A further 40% of the tickets will cost less than $25 and be distributed through the Theater Development Fund; the final 30% will be priced at $65 for adults and $25 for seniors and children under the age of 12.
The Island is designed to have a series of micro-climates. There are 65 species of shrubs, and 290 varieties of grasses, vines, and perennials. Currently, the park has 114 trees, represented by 35 different species. (Some trees, organizers say, are anticipated to grow from 50 to 60 feet high.)
Santini says that MNLA’s landscape design was conceived with the riverfront exposure in mind. “You had to take a lot of natural elements into play,” she says, “wind being one of them.”
In addition to the $260 million that the Diller - von Furstenberg Family Foundation has already donated to the project, it committed an additional $120 million to the park’s maintenance for the next 20 years. (New York City and New York state contributed a further $17 million and $4 million, respectively.)
The Diller - von Furstenberg Family Foundation’s pledged funds will go to pay for the Island’s 110 full-time and part time employees, and it will also help subsidize the park’s public programming in locations throughout the park.
The Island has four “artists in residence” who will take turns performing, directing events, and curating festivals in the park. They will also serve as panel reviewers for submissions to Perform in the Park; various artists can apply to do (paid) performances throughout the park.
The first season’s artists are actor, singer, and music director Michael McElroy; tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel; playwright and director Tina Landau; and the theatrical group PigPen Theatre Co.
The far West Side of Manhattan, where the Little Island is located, has already undergone a series of transformations over the last few years. The Whitney Museum, High Line, Hudson River Park, and tech giants including Google have moved in and wrought seismic demographic changes.
Various reminders, including the waterlogged piles from the old piers, remain. Nearby, the thin, steel frame of David Hammons’s permanent installation Day’s End follows the precise dimensions of the now-demolished Pier 52.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.