East River Begins to Rival the Hudson as a Waterfront Destination
Although the Hudson River Park has emerged in recent years as a focus of Lower Manhattan community life, it increasingly faces competition. Planning and development for an East River waterfront park are roughly a decade behind the political dialog and physical construction surrounding the West Side’s network of piers and esplanades, but are nonetheless gathering momentum. A case in point is the impetus to create a grand public space at Pier 42, an eight-acre stretch of abandoned warehouses and parking lots between Montgomery and Jackson Streets on the Lower East Side, located roughly midway between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges.
On November 29, a delegation of public officials presided over a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Pier 42, marking the end of construction for the second phase of a decade-long project to transform the facility into park, complete with a playground, restrooms, and picnic area, along with a bike path, soccer field, basketball and tennis courts, adult fitness equipment, and picnic tables, all surrounded by shoreline access and waterfront views.
The newly opened section of the Pier 42 project, which was budgeted at $26.1 million, has revamped the structure’s 2.8-acre deck, once an industrial maritime site, into a public space outfitted with a turf soccer field, tennis courts, half-basketball courts and a variety of other amenities.
“The opening of the new recreational deck at Pier 42 is truly a cause for celebration, as it will provide the residents of the Lower East Side with greater access to the waterfront while providing green and recreational spaces for people of all ages,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh.
“Activating our waterfront for increased public use helps make sure our neighborhood’s biggest assets and best views aren’t reserved for parking and storage,” added New York City Council Member Christopher Marte.
Pier 42 has long been seen by community activists and urban planners as a site with almost unlimited potential. Built in 1967 as a newsprint terminal, Pier 42 later served as an import station for Dole bananas. By the time it closed in 1987, it was the last working cargo pier in Manhattan. In the decades since, it has functioned primarily as a parking lot.
The first phase of the transformation of the dock, completed in 2019, focused on the abatement of hazardous materials and the removal of a vacant shed from the pier’s deck, along with preservation of five structural steel bays. The most recently completed segment of the project added public amenities, while also continuing the ongoing repair of the pier’s bulkhead, and incorporating resiliency infrastructure that will provide flood protection for the surrounding community. The third stage of the project (budgeted at $33.6 million) will focus on the creation of an upland park—which will include a garden, playground, and public rest rooms—and is slated for completion in late 2023. That portion will also feature a network of walking paths inspired by the flow of water. Public art pieces will include seal, crab, and turtle sculptures. When finished, Pier 42 will represent a public investment of more than $60 million.
The overall design has been created by the highly regarded firm of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, whose work will be familiar to Lower Manhattan residents from projects within the Hudson River Park, such as Pier 25 and Little Island Park.
The Lower East Side’s waterfront renaissance was most recently highlighted in April 2019, when the nearby Pier 35 was transformed into the “Eco-Park”—a 28,000-square-foot facility that includes lawns, swings, and Mussel Beach, a restored marine habitat of ridged concrete that encourages the growth of mussels and other water-filtering shellfish. This tableau is dominated by metal screen, 35 feet tall and 300 feet long, that anchors climbing vines and hides a nearby Department of Sanitation storage facility. The screen guides both the eyes and the footsteps of park visitors, tracing a graceful arc as it leans forward and stretches toward the water, where it becomes a shade barrier that also supports swings—creating an enclosure that resembles a porch, overlooking the river and framing views of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Before its current incarnation, Pier 35’s last significant use was as a mooring spot for a prison barge, part of a short-lived penal experiment launched in the early 1990s by the administration of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
All of these projects are part of a larger vision, called the East River Blueway, which supporters hope will create an unbroken string of parks stretching along the waterfront from the Battery up to East 38th Street, while also incorporating flood protection and resiliency measures.