A $170 million park island may be coming to New York, largely dreamed up and paid for by one rich guy. Is this good?

03_Aerial view of Pier 55.jpg

Yesterday I woke up to the above picture of a proposed park island in New York’s Hudson River along with breathless reporting about the very, super, incredibly rich person behind the vision and the money to get it built.

The low down: Media mogul Barry Diller will pay a heart-stopping $130 million of the cost of this park island, while the City, State, and Hudson River Park Trust will kick in another $39.5 million. The park will feature performance spaces that, it seems, Diller has already figured out everything for. He has offered to pay for operating costs for 20 years. Diller originally pledged $35 million to help the Hudson River Park Trust revitalize Pier 54, but then he got some big ideas and his commitment became also big.

And so: park island.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to see such an incredible level of private interest and investment in a public park. But on the other hand, it’s troubling to see such an incredible level of private interest and investment in a public park.

I’m not saying private investment in public spaces is bad–it can do a lot of good for cash-strapped city park departments, but it should be grounded within an open public process and local community needs.

As Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates told NY Daily News: “Diller is obviously being extremely generous, but private citizens are being able to dictate public spaces,” adding that “the public has been completely left out.”

Diller’s own comment made me cringe a bit. “We are so luck as a family that we get to do this,” he said.

It is also interesting to note how this announcement of Diller’s $130 million dollar gift to build a mega-park is almost the perfect mirror image of the $130 million the NYC Parks Department announced a few weeks ago to revitalize 35 community parks in low income neighbourhoods as part of Mayor de Blasio’s new park equity focus.

Now it seems de Blasio has even out-Bloomberged Bloomberg with the park island deal.

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I’m not writing this to be a downer or proclaim that I think that the park island is a bad idea. I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Hudson River Park Trust or the park needs in that area.

But we should be critical and ask questions about very large private investments in public space that come from one person who has dramatically shaped the final result without, it seems, much input from the public.

It’s easy to get starry eyed from dreamy renderings and jaw-dropping proposals, but once we get a chance to wipe the dazzle from our eyes, we should ask ourselves a few questions.

Questions like: How much was the public consulted or not consulted about this idea? How much say did the City have in shaping the proposal? How much say does Diller have in what gets built and how it operates? Will he walk away from the project if changes are proposed? What happens if (when) the cost of the park goes up? Who covers that? How expensive will this be to maintain when Diller’s 20 year operating agreement is up and the infrastructure is old? Who does it serve? Who does it not serve?

Then there are other questions like: is it even smart to build a park island when climate change means more superstorms in New York’s future?

Just because someone offers to pay for something spectacular doesn’t mean you should do it, or even that it’s a good idea. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should just applaud and say go for it. As Croft said, we have to think long and hard about what it means to have one very rich person dictate the shape of our public spaces largely without community input.

Now that it’s out in the public, there will be a debate. And I hope it will be vigorous.

images by Heatherwick Studio

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