Too Costly and Ambitious, Plans Scaled Back for Tribeca's Pier 26 Estuarium

Rendering of aerial view of the ecologically themed Pier 26, due for completion at the end of next summer. There is no design yet for the estuarium, which will be built on the upland section of Hudson River Park, between Piers 26 and 25. Rendering: OLIN and Hudson River Park Trust

Oct. 29, 2019

It was too ambitious to be true. 

Nearly five years ago the Hudson River Park Trust announced its plans for a $50 million, 20,000-square-square-foot river study center, or estuarium, for Tribeca’s ecologically themed Pier 26. A preliminary plan for the two-level building included a 3,300-square-foot exhibit space, cafe, bookshop, classrooms, lounge and more. And while more than $40 million still needed to be raised (the Port Authority was contributing $9.5 million), it seemed like a sweet deal. The chosen operator, Clarkson University, in Potsdam, NY, which would have held classes in the estuarium, promised to pay the $1.5 million in annual operating costs.

But over the years, as the rest of the pier was designed and is now under construction, with completion expected at the end of next summer, fundraising for the estuarium stalled. Clarkson is now out and the Trust will be the operator of a much scaled-down facility.

“They [Clarkson] have a great program,” Madelyn Wils, president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, said in a phone interview. “But at this point, a smaller facility will be easier to get built sooner.”

“This allows us to simplify the program and get back down to basics,” she added. 

At about half the size (8,000 to 10,000 square feet) and half the construction costs ($25 million), the smaller building is expected to include a wet lab for classes and research, a touch tank with live animals and a mechanical flow-through system to bring river water into the tanks. There may be outdoor tanks as well. Ten million dollars still needs to be raised for that building, and next April is set as the deadline. Wils said the Trust will be looking to the state for the money, but whatever funds have been raised by the spring will dictate the size and scope of the building. “We’ll know how much we have and we’ll design the facility to that,” she said.

The source of operating costs is still uncertain, Wils said, but that expense may be supplemented by other users of the facilities.

The building can’t be designed, Wils noted, until the “back of the house” mechanical requirements for the aquaria are determined. In the next few months the Trust will issue a request for proposals from aquaria designers.

In the meantime, “the great news,” Wils said, is that there will be two places in the park for river study, the second to be in the cultural and educational space of Pier 57. “There will be slightly different work but they’ll be both for the purpose of celebrating the estuary research as well as exhibit space and classrooms.”

Earlier this year, the Trust announced that The River Project, the marine science field station now based at Pier 40, is being merged into the Hudson River Park Trust. Founded by Cathy Drew in 1986 on the old Pier 26, The River Project was a pioneer in estuarine research and educational programming designed to promote the well-being of the city's waterways.

Wils said that over the past four years the Trust has expanded its own river education and research with public programming that annually reaches nearly 30,000 people.

“These facilities will allow us, along with the River Project, to reach even more people,” she said.