urban design

New York City’s Newest Park Redeems a Wasteland

The new Hunter’s Point South. Photo: Lloyd/SWA/courtesy of SWA/BALSLEY

For most New Yorkers, it takes imagination, rather than memory, to summon a time when the boroughs were ringed with teeming piers and the constant churn of ships. The post-industrial bleakness that came after is starting to fade too. Now, the city’s coastline is getting slowly redrawn with a dotted green line of parks, greenways, and esplanades. This strip of leisure has no consistent character. Manically utilitarian play zones give way to high-speed corridors, tourist magnets, skate parks, and platforms for preening.

The newest portion of this green outline, at Hunter’s Point South, furnishes us huddled masses with something we hardly knew we needed but that turns out to be crucial: a romantic, poetic landscape, full of choreographed surprises. A park can be a way to get just enough distance from city life to bring its insanity into focus. Day after day, as we carom through the city’s passageways, enveloped by heat and fetor, urban dwellers can feel like pieces of luggage being being tossed from one conveyor belt to the next.
Responsibilities, anxieties, and the day’s dose of toxic news cling to the commuting body in motion like particles hanging in the humid air. The new park is an antidote to all that.

Jutting out into the East River’s widest point, where Manhattan swivels at the hip, the park occupies the sort of site that makes architects go weak at the knees. It splits a 180-degree panorama into two equally exhilarating halves. Turn upstream, and the view sweeps from the United Nations, past Roosevelt Island and Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to the Triborough Bridge. Round the headland in the other direction, and you’re looking toward the Williamsburg Bridge and the World Trade Center.

The design redeems a wasteland. The little bulge of Queens where Newtown Creek meets the East River was formed by construction rubble, roughed up by industry, and left desolate for decades. The Bloomberg administration, hoping to draw the 2012 Olympics to New York, envisioned the area first as the site for an athletes’ village and then as a platform for affordable rental towers. The park snaking along the rim was conceived as a come-on to the real estate market, a signboard for all the below-ground infrastructure that the city installed. In some neighborhoods, developers fix up the wedges of waterfront directly in front of their new condos. Here, the city took the lead, commissioning and paying for a park up front, and trusting that rental towers would follow. They will. For now, though, the newly sculpted waterfront backs onto open skies and dirt fields. That emptiness makes Hunter’s Point South resemble the High Line a dozen years ago, before it was hemmed in by buildings and clotted with crowds. Nothing in New York is more fragile than a contemplative escape.

To civilize one of the city’s last wild waterfronts is a terrible responsibility. The designers, SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi, met the challenge with finesse that looks like love. Using simple ingredients —mounds of dirt, off-the-shelf railings, native grasses, and a kind of treated lumber that endures like tropical hardwood but leaves rain forests intact —they have fashioned a finely detailed landscape that restores both the shoreline and the soul. A narrow walkway sails between marsh grasses, tacking now right, now left, its sharp bends meant to discourage anyone looking for speed. The slowness is deliberate. Other parks are designed as places to do things; this one is conceived for thinking. (The trouble comes when too many thinkers converge on the same zigzagging track, at which point it becomes an airport security line.)

Keep the river on your right and your eye on a marshy channel to the left, where tall grasses ripple even in a barely perceptible breeze. City folk don’t pay much attention to the tide, but here it marks the rhythm of the landscape. On a regular schedule, the low wetlands fill with brackish water, turning the paved ridge into a causeway and a finger of earth into a tiny island. Cities are segmented by obvious boundaries: turnstiles, gates, curbs, bulkheads, and fences cleave public from private, car traffic from pedestrians, asphalt from nature, land from sea. These categories have their weaknesses, though. A hardened shoreline can try to beat back a Sandy-like surge, but it will either fail or redirect the sea’s energy to the more vulnerable neighborhood a few blocks over. Here, the architects have crafted a changeable, permeable topography that can roll with a storm, absorb a flood, and keep the upland dry. The blurred edge also soothes the visitor, giving the serrated city an unexpected softness.

The park has muscle, too. A set of concrete terraces steps down from the street to the path, like patios at a Mediterranean modern hotel.
More spectacularly, a sleek, brawny prow shoots out toward Manhattan, a pier or a cruise ship about to take flight. This tough, sleek object cantilevered out over the newborn wetlands makes it clear that this is no delicate bauble but a thoroughly urban place, ready for wedding shoots, Fourth of July crowds, film screenings, unauthorized skateboarding, and other forms of punishment.

Where the path forks, one spur spirals toward the river, curling around New York’s newest island. Please tell nobody about this magical spot; for a few minutes one afternoon I had it to myself. Young trees, shrubbery, and a long curving bench enfold a clearing that opens out toward the Manhattan skyline.

A series of smooth white concrete mounds arcs across the disc of lawn, storing up sunshine that it gives up again after dark. The artwork, Nobuho Nagasawa’s Luminescence, represents the phases of the moon reflected in the curved earth, and this retreat, illuminated only from beneath the bench, is dark enough for the muted glow to speak. There are other nooks farther along: a small platform pointing south, a bench nestled among vegetation in an outdoor room of its own, a set of bleachers overlooking the kayak launch. This is the rare New York architectural project that merges sophisticated design with wisps of wilderness, fusing artifice and nature.

Hunter’s Point South is not the only fresh bit of waterfront greenery. Brooklyn Bridge Park has opened Pier 3, a spacious public estate of meadow, hedges, and young trees. And the developer Two Trees has adorned its growing New Domino megaproject with a $50 million open-air fun zone, designed by Field Operations. This is a lavish work of public architecture, which preserves hunks of sugar-refining machinery like archaeological finds. Rusting syrup tanks, gantries, overhead conveyors, and mooring bollards have all been redeployed as sculptural features. It’s an inviting place and the crowds have flowed in on call. On one blistering summer day, kids darted through jets of water and vanished into a bank of artificial fog, while their minders consulted their phones in the scarce shade.

Domino Park. Photo: Photo: Daniel Levin

Compared to Hunter’s Point South, Domino Park packs copious forms of leisure packed into limited square footage, like a miniature resort. Beach volleyball — step this way. Tacos over here. Deck chairs down the block.
Parents, please pilot your under-10s toward the sugar-themed, cheerily industrial playground. Teens, feel free to sprawl on the fake lawn. The city needs such idiosyncratic and efficiently managed entertainments, sorted by age and built for safe adventure. But I prefer to linger amid the reedy quiet at Hunter’s Point South, eking as much tranquility as I can before the foretold forest of towers rises next door, and thousands more New Yorkers make the park their own.

Hunter’s Point South: NYC’s Newest Park Redeems a Wasteland