If you go for a walk along the water on the lower east side of Manhattan, you’ll run into Pier 35. Once a vacant storage space that had previously housed snow plows, the pier has been transformed into a park that hovers over the East River, similar to many other former industrial piers in Manhattan. But Pier 35 has a rather unusual amenity: A habitat designed for mussels.
The habitat acts like a tidal estuary, which is an ecosystem where animal and plant life depend on the rising and falling of the tides. That makes it perfect for blue and ribbed mussels, which are a type of mollusc that thrives along partially exposed shorelines. In addition to being part of the region’s natural biodiversity, studies conducted in the Bronx River suggest mussels can actually help clean the water.
The habitat itself is made up of concrete slabs with ridges that are the ideal width for mussels to wedge inside, and carefully selected granite boulders that provide lots of crevices for these critters and other sea life looking for a home. The concrete slabs were so heavy that they required the largest crane on the East Coast to set into place, and the boulders were hand-placed by the pier’s landscape architects, Ken Smith Workshop. All these rocks are situated at an angle, creating the gradated slopes that you’ll find in natural mussel habitats on Long Island.
Funded in part with a grant from New York Department of State Division of Coastal Resources, the mussel habitat gives East River mussels a new place to live, and is part of a larger movement to restore the natural ecology of the area. Because the habitat is near a storm sewer pipe, the mussels will be inedible, but the pier also an amenity for New Yorkers, offering them the ability to watch the tides change–something that usually isn’t visible because of the sea walls that rim this part of the island.
“It really provides a nice separation between the city and the pier and you walk over the water,” says Ken Smith, the landscape architect that worked on the project. “You experience the water, you could hear the water and see the tide, which is a nice experience that most New Yorkers don’t get very often.”
The habitat echoes other coastal projects that aim to restore the natural ecology of an area. Studies have found that oysters, in particular, can help provide habitats for fish, protect shorelines from erosion, and even clean the water. As part of the Billion Oyster Project, environmentalists have been trying to bring oysters back to New York City’s waters with the goal of habitat restoration. The coastline of another new park, along the Queens waterfront, has been converted into a salt marsh, mimicking the landscape that used to dominate the shores before the land was developed. Conveniently, marshes can also help absorb storm surges.
Ron Aleveras, the ecologist who worked on the mussel habitat for Pier 35, refused to use artificial means to jump-start the mussel colony there, instead preferring that the shellfish find it naturally. “On some projects, mussels and oysters are seeded using crushed shells to speed up the process of colony establishment,” Smith says. But Aleveras wanted to let the mussels colonize the habitat naturally as a way of testing out the prototype habitat.
So far, the team says there is evidence that mussels have already started to take over.
The pier is part of a $165 million masterplan that Ken Smith Workshop and SHoP Architects started in 2005 to transform the eastern waterfront of downtown Manhattan into an esplanade that stretches from the island’s tip under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to Pier 35 (the colossal project will finally be finished by the end of this year). According to the architects, sustainability was one of the features that local residents wanted for Pier 35–and besides the mussel habitat, they delivered by creating what will be the largest green wall in the city. Since Pier 35 is small, at only 28,000 square feet, ShOP’s lead architect on the project, Cathy Jones, aimed to increase that green space by building a vertical, faceted screen that also serves to hide a large outpost of the Department of Sanitation next door to the pier. The 35-to-40-foot-tall screen has been planted with five different types of vines, which Smith says should “race to the top” within the next two years.
Designing the screen, which was engineered by ShOP and the engineering firm Arup, was a delicate operation, in part because its structural beams had to sit directly on top of the pier’s 23-year-old piles. The designers worked with a soil consultant who was able to estimate just how much dirt they needed to support the tall vines, leading to planters that are at least three feet deep. Jones chose a light mesh that the vines will be able to grab onto. The metallic mesh shifts and shimmers based on your vantage point; it had to look visually striking while the vines are still growing.
Ultimately, the park adds much-needed green space to a dense neighborhood. It also has space for events, and Smith anticipates the tai chi practitioners that currently practice underneath the highway that runs along Manhattan’s edge may soon relocate to its grassy lawn. On the far end of the pier, there are large, bench-like swings that will be a peaceful place to enjoy sunny afternoons.
“It’s sort of like the front porch,” says Smith. “It’s a place where you look out at the city and see what’s going on and watch the traffic go by . . . instead of a boulevard of cars, it’s a river of boats.”