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Inside the $70 million plan to build a beach in Manhattan

James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm behind The High Line, has unveiled a waterfront design that includes everything from a giant ball field to a sandy beach.

Inside the $70 million plan to build a beach in Manhattan
[Image: James Corner Field Operations/courtesy of the Hudson River Park Trust]
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On a squat rectangular peninsula jutting out from Manhattan’s Meatpacking District into the Hudson river, a new kind of waterfront park will soon take shape. With gardens, waterside promenades, a giant ball field and, most uncommonly, a sandy beach with access to the water, the new park is redefining how New York and other cities can embrace the water on their doorsteps.

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Part of a four-mile network of waterfront spaces that make up the Hudson River Park, this newest element is known as Gansevoort Peninsula. A public-private partnership funded primarily by the city, construction on the $70 million project is beginning this spring. It’s scheduled to open to the public in 2023.

[Image: James Corner Field Operations/courtesy of the Hudson River Park Trust]
It’s part of a project that has been in the works for 20 years, with dozens of new public facilities on piers and the edge of Manhattan. Though mostly narrow sites poking out over the water–and one controversial artificial island funded by billionaire Barry Diller–the park is trying to make the most out of a variety of disused sites. Once a fort used during the War of 1812, and later occupied by the New York City Department of Sanitation, the site has a long history as a part of the city’s active waterfront. This new part of the park does the most to bring people close to and even into the water.

[Image: James Corner Field Operations/courtesy of the Hudson River Park Trust]
It’s the first and only public sandy beach in Manhattan, though the water access is mostly intended for use by kayakers. But for Manhattan residents who would otherwise spend hours on public transit to get to a sandy shore like at Coney Island, the park’s beach is providing a rare amenity.

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“From the get-go, the Gansevoort Peninsula was a prize imagined for the overall park,” says Noreen Doyle, acting president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, which was established to design, build, and operate the network of parks along the river. Altogether, the parks see around 17 million visitors a year. “The idea of being able to be close enough to the water so that you can actually sit along its banks is just inspiring to people.”

[Image: James Corner Field Operations/courtesy of the Hudson River Park Trust]
The park’s design comes from the landscape architects at James Corner Field Operations, known for their work on the High Line. A variety of uses has been wedged onto the 5.5-acre site, including a beach and kayak launch, linear gardens and a dog run. Though the design emphasizes connections to the water, its undeniably dominant element is a ball field that takes up almost half its area. There are no other big fields for sports like soccer and baseball in this part of Manhattan.

“Having a field of this size was hugely important to a huge number of people here,” says Doyle. “That in its own right was a challenge, to see whether that kind of use could be placed there while still giving voice and opportunities to other people who wanted to not play sports and be in a place that didn’t feel like just a sports field.”

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[Image: James Corner Field Operations/courtesy of the Hudson River Park Trust]
Doyle says the design manages to create a sense of separation between very different but very closely packed spaces–an active sports field, a contemplative garden, a calm boardwalk, and a fun beach. This mix of spaces, and the types of large trees and landscape forms possible there, are unique to the site. “It’s one of the very rare occasions along the entire water’s edge that we actually are on land. It’s not a pier condition like most of Hudson River Park is,” says Sanjukta Sen, a landscape architect at James Corner Field Operations. “The uses that we are able to bring in are really a product of that condition.”

The water itself was also a guide. “How the river interacts with each edge is very different,” says landscape architect Karen Tamir. Hydrological studies of the site helped the designers to realize that the north end of the park had calmer waters more suitable to a salt marsh and submerged estuarine habitat, while rougher waters on the south end required the beach side to have a more robust transition of concrete ledges and riprap. “You couldn’t just have a sandy beach going all the way to the water because the waves would it eat it completely,” Tamir says.

[Image: James Corner Field Operations/courtesy of the Hudson River Park Trust]
Though the water access is intended to be used by seasoned kayakers and maybe people hoping to cool their feet, the park is less about getting people into the water than putting it up close in different ways. Though long disparaged for its pollution and the sewage overflows that sometimes run into its waters, the river has become significantly cleaner in recent years. The park’s access points build on that improvement. “The opportunity really was to design something that would be a gradient and not a hard separation between land and water,” says Sen.

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The park will also include a major piece of public sculpture by the artist David Hammons. Taking the form of a ghostly outline of a large shed, the piece is an homage to an earlier and unsanctioned artwork in a building that once occupied the site by artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who cut holes in the structure to create portals for people to experience the waterfront. The new sculpture, and the park itself, are intended to continue that effort.

Doyle from the Hudson River Park Trust says the design aims to honor the history of the site, while also giving it a new purpose. “It will feel like it is a part of a city that is still on a journey,” she says. “It will reconnect people to the water in a way that I don’t think people thought would have been possible 10 or 15 years ago.”