Review of the new rooftop park at Pier 57
The Pier 57 rooftop park.
Photo: Brett Beyer
It took me a minute – or more like 15 – to find the new Google Park. It’s technically called the Pier 57 rooftop park, and it’s the city’s newest public park, albeit due to its location (literally above Google’s new offices), funding (by private developers), its relative inaccessibility, and, as I discovered once I finally found it, the sheer number of built features, it feels like one of the less public (and less resembling) parks a park) of New York.
But first I had to find him. How hard could that be? I had googled (sorry) “google park hudson river” and figured out it was at the intersection of 15th street and the river. But as I walked down 15th Street toward the Hudson River, past the busy Chelsea Market, past the newly unionized Starbucks Reserve Roastery, past what I remember was Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak ( RIP), just across from what used to be Morimoto (RIP), on West Street, newly brought to life, you might say, by Thomas Heatherwick’s Little Island, I just couldn’t find it. I didn’t think it would be so difficult to find what I saw as Manhattan’s hot new public park, one that had been in development for over a decade. I was wrong.
Normally, it takes me enormous effort to leave the house; I just like being at home. But during the pandemic, when parks were among the few places that felt safe, I grew attached to a number of them. I spent hours at the start of the pandemic with my then-new boyfriend at Herbert von King Park in Bed-Stuy, where the energy feels relaxed and the fashion-focused people-watching was enough to keep us busy during the seemingly endless pre-vaxx summer hours. Sometimes we would go to McCarren, where our people watching took the form of sky-high body fat percentages and extraordinary public yoga sequences. Occasionally we found ourselves at the water’s edge at Marsha P. Johnson State Park, which had fewer people to watch but turned out to be an indulgent off-leash paradise for our dog. We took a stressful turn through Domino Park, which felt over-determined and crowded with tricky walkways and towering volleyball courts with a warning sign every few yards. More recently, I walked along the wide concrete walkways of Brooklyn Heights Promenade, occasionally stopping to sit on one of the seemingly endless benches and gaze out at Manhattan. There, the stretches of grass aren’t the highlight, but it still feels like a park due to the clarity of the path, the nearby natural features, and the crowds.
Despite my recent enthusiasm for the park, Google Park, or Pier 57’s rooftop park, was hardly on my radar. Usually, when a new public space opens in New York, I only discover it by osmosis: an Instagram post from a friend, a sponsored advertisement by browsing the news. But this rooftop space arrived without the praise or criticism that has come with recent openings, like Moynihan Station or the Manhattan West development, which has been plastered on every billboard. It’s part of a larger renovation of a historic pier that’s been largely empty since a Transit Authority depot closed in 2003. As one of the piers the Hudson River Park Trust can lease for commercial purposes, it was leased to a team of developers. made up of RXR, Young Woo & Associates and Baupost Group, which invested $410 million in the renovation. The overall scheme (which was the subject of earlier plans by the much more theoretically inflected firm Lot-Ek in 2009) is led by Handel Architects, who are doing many tall, mostly innocuous towers, while the park on the roof itself is designed by !melk. Inside the pier building, under the rooftop park, Diller Scofidio + Renfro is designing the spaces for the largest tenant, Google, to add to what it already has at Chelsea Market and will have at the St John’s. So while it’s not actually Google Park, when employees move in, it might feel like it. City Winery is already there, taking up a large corner of the first floor, and soon there will be a 50,000 square foot “public” space inside that will include a food hall supported by the James Beard Foundation. But I didn’t know all that when I went, and I doubt most visitors do. All they’ll know, and all I knew, is that there’s a new two-acre park on top of a building that could be fun.
Pier 57, seen from the Hudson.
Photo: Brett Beyer
Trying to locate the park, I crossed Tenth Avenue and saw Little Island to my left. I thought about how I had dismissed it at first – it felt like another one of Thomas Heatherwick’s one-note follies, like the ship at Hudson Yards, but less thoughtful. Its bulbous concrete supports reminded me of towers of champagne glasses or an overdetermined cake, a showy design that seems to demonstrate form for form’s sake. But then I remembered that I had taken a nice Thanksgiving walk on Little Island with my family, when I realized that although it looked like you had to see it from below, to appreciate the structures in the shape of a tulip, you really had to experience it from inside the park itself, which allows moments of wonder and discovery, exploration and refuge, overhang and encounter. As we climbed the steep paths, I had to admit that, in spite of myself, I loved being on Little Island, as long as I never had to see it from the ground. Would the rooftop park also be like this?
Finally, I saw a sign with arrows, which I followed to a building with stairs and an elevator. I took the stairs (should have taken the elevator) and exited onto a wide walkway. And there, finally, I saw what I’ve come to think of as the park itself, a small patch of grass detailed with circular skylights that reminded me of the pandemic circles painted on other parks. public. There were at least a dozen other people up there with me: a group of teenage girls; a couple of parents with their children; a few couples lying on the grass, comparing clouds. Everyone seemed to be in their own world, their own private Google Park. I walked as close to the edge as I could and looked across the water at Little Island. There were so many more people there, and I thought maybe it was because of all the extra things to do on Little Island. I decided to change my perspective and sat down on the grass. I rolled my eyes until it got boring, then I got up and decided to walk the perimeter. I kept staring at the river – which seemed to be the main feature of the park, its high view of the Hudson. But my view kept getting interrupted by the railing. In the middle of the park, I found a large stadium-style staircase rising from the grass that reminded me of the now old OMA-designed Prada store staircase that now seems to be everywhere. It faced the city but led nowhere, and again I felt Google’s overwhelming presence; the only thing I could really imagine taking place on the staircase was a general company meeting (it will eventually host Tribeca Film Festival screenings, which doesn’t sound much different).
I kept trying to find points of interest among the flower boxes, the different viewpoints, the concrete walkway, the patch of grass and the sky. Eventually I realized there wasn’t much else to see. It struck me that the most interesting thing about it had been trying to make it happen; the productive tension between my panic that I would never find it and my relief when I finally found it. The green space itself seemed so cramped, sandwiched between the two walls lining the roof. The planters were a bit sparse and small. The concrete walkways seemed too wide. All the hard paved surfaces of the structures intended to support the offices below looked like outdoor rooms, blocking the movement of people. In the end, it didn’t feel like a park – which I realized I had always defined (perhaps incorrectly) as an expanse of open space that wasn’t overly planned or programmed. I thought of the nearby High Line, an extremely constructed closed loop, a park that asks us to get uncomfortably (or deliciously) up close to the homes of some of New York’s wealthiest. But at least the elevated railway park invites us to go somewhere, to pass each other, to continually meet strangers and, sometimes, friends. Google Park seems to be primarily in the service of privacy and seclusion – understandable, but still an odd choice for a park perched on a river that could, in another world, be a gathering place. Maybe, like Google’s parent company Alphabet, the pier wants to cover so many bases – Green Space! Opening ! Privacy! A footbridge ! Office equipment! A view from above! — that it is impossible for him to establish an identity. I kept trying to figure out what would make this park more like a park and I couldn’t. Going down, in the elevator this time, I came across a group of tourists. One of them, a child, asked, “Can’t we just go to a normal park?”