Public Weighs in on the Future of Tribeca's Long Stalled Pier 26

Wendy Chapman, mother of three, tells a Pier 26 forum, held Oct. 19, that she would like the pier to be a place for both science and sports. Next to her is Lucinda Sanders of the landscape architecture firm OLIN, which will design the pier. Also listening is Hudson River Park Trust President Madelyn Wils, far left, and trust board member Pam Frederick. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Oct. 20, 2015

"It's all up for grabs now."

That was the remarkable invitation to the public about some 80,000 square feet of prime Tribeca real estate, right on the river, ready to be designed.

Standing before a group gathered at the Downtown Community Center Monday evening, Lucinda Sanders of OLIN, a landscape architecture firm, was soliciting ideas for Pier 26, the largely barren slab of concrete jutting more than 800 feet into the Hudson River.

Finally, after years, the public planning process has begun, with this first meeting led by OLIN, the pier's designers, and sponsored by the Hudson River Park Trust and Community Board 1. (Helping to move the project forward was a $10 million grant from Citigroup, whose corporate tower overlooks the pier.)

Throughout the evening, one question emerged above all others. What is this pier for: Active play? The quiet enjoyment of nature? Or both?

Only one building, housing the Downtown Boathouse and a future restaurant, City Vineyard, now occupies the site. A two-level, 20,000-square-foot river research and exhibition complex, or estuarium, to be run by Clarkson University and the Beacon Institute, is expected to open in 2019. Its predecessor, the River Project, a marine science field station (now on Pier 40), had occupied the former Pier 26 for nearly 20 years before the pier was torn down in 2005. It was the environmental activities of that institution that had helped inspire a 2002 Hudson River Trust concept plan, which imagined not only a new estuarium but also a refuge for nature study, with observation platforms, a wetland area, “science learning lawn” and wild grasses.  It would be the pier for "passive" recreation and a counterpoint to the minigolf, volleyball, sports field and playground on neighboring Pier 25.

But the neighborhood has changed, as several people at the forum pointed out.

"You have to consider that a large portion of our community is families with young kids—this is the new emerging Tribeca," said Elizabeth Lewinsohn, chair of Community Board 1’s Tribeca Committee and the mother of two small children. "A lot of these families will want active recreational space and I think that we do need to give some thought to what that active recreational space is."

Andrew Zelter, president of the Downtown Little League, painted a more urgent need, saying that the league is turning children away because of lack of field space. "I would put a case forward that active recreation space would go a long way towards serving the needs of the community," Zelter said, noting that a flexible field, like the one on Pier 25, would help.

Trust President Madelyn Wils dashed any hopes of a regulation ball field. “We don’t have room for regular ball fields on Pier 26,” she said. “Our park, all four miles of it, could not have enough ball fields.”

But for some, ball playing and other active recreation has no place in the pier's future.

"I think there are other places where active works really well, said Marcha Johnson, a landscape architect who has worked with The River Project. "In my opinion this is a place where active recreation could be in conflict."

"Some children are interested in nature and some are interested in physical exercise," said Roland Gebhardt, a longtime Tribeca resident. "And there is very little in this park right now that gives opportunity to the children who are interested in serene forms of education."

"We really need both because I have kids who are interested in science but they also play sports," said Wendy Chapman, a Tribeca mother of three. "Honestly, I just want it as open as possible and not too programmed, so it's very, very flexible."

“We’re getting younger but we’re also getting older,” said Jean Grillo, a 45-year Tribeca resident. “Those of us who are getting older want access to the river where you can have quiet. But we’d like to bring what’s going to be our grandchildren, too. So there has to be a balance.”

One way to do that, suggested George Olsen, another Tribeca resident, would be to extend the Pier 25 play area to the “upland” area, which runs along the side of the bike path, and leave Pier 26 as "quiet" space.

The notion that “active” recreation is necessarily tied to sports was called into question by some who spoke.

"If we're going to have active recreation on the pier, it should be tied to the ecology," said Donna Stein, a board member of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which is planned to dock at the pier and provide educational programming. "Let the kids dive and have active recreation. Let the kids climb up onto a bird pole."

Cathy Drew, the founder and executive director of The River Project, whose role with the new estuarium remains uncertain, said that she imagines a "little paradise" on the pier where a freshwater feature and native plants attract flocks of monarch butterflies and dozens of bird species.

"Can we and our children learn a way to behave around them where we don’t scare them all away so easily?" she asked. "And can there be a mystery and a beauty to this pier that's brand new to New York City and probably to the whole world in an urban setting? I really think we have the brainpower in this room and outside to do it."

Wils said the trust would take the group’s opinions and work with the community board as the design process with OLIN unfolds. In the meantime, she cautioned, "We have 80,000 square feet here to do probably a half million square feet of programming."

"I know that people's hopes and wishes would be for a lot more than we have here," she added, "but this is a great start."