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A riverside park runs through it
Manhattanites can now stroll along the Hudson

30 June 2007
Financial Times

The white glass curves of the new Frank Gehry building on the edge of Manhattan rise like the sails of a ship advancing down the Hudson. As dusk falls, the building glows pale and luminous, and a mysterious band of changing acid blues, reds and greens emanates from its ground floor as six lanes of rush-hour traffic stream relentlessly by on West Street.

The Gehry building is set between the Bayview women's correctional facility - with a 1970-vintage mural by abstract impressionist Knox Martin - and the warehouse of the Manhattan Mini Storage Company. So Gehry's first commission in New York, the headquarters for internet/retail empire IAC, does require a certain degree of aesthetic focus.

But on the West Side, the traffic goes with the territory: New Yorkers spent more than a decade - from 1973 to 1985 - trying to decide what to do with it after the collapse of the old elevated highway that ran past the numbered shipping piers of one of the world's busiest ports.

Now the river may be getting the upper hand, mainly as the result of the gradual opening of one of the most significant park developments in Manhattan since the opening of Central Park more than a century ago.

The Hudson River Park, funded by the city and private donors, will eventually run from Battery Park in the south, to Pier 99 at 59th Street, giving New York a pleasant access to the river for the first time since about 1770.

It is still a work in progress, a park that comes and goes. Around the Department of Sanitation loading dock and strorage yard at 14th Street, for instance, it very definitely goes. And opposite Gehry's building, the best tactic is to cut through the sheds of the Chelsea Pier leisure complex to a quiet riverside walk, to view the moored assortment of luxury yachts.

But between 14th Street and Canal Street, the often frenetic bike and walking paths run along a leisurely and landscaped riverside promenade. Reconstructed piers equipped with astro-turf lawns and real trees go out about 1,000 ft into the water, and even further away from the traffic.

On a hot summer evening, it is a wonderful place to stroll and to take in the renowned, industrially enhanced New Jersey sunset. In daylight, there are even snacks and perhaps the only well-maintained public toilets below 59th Street.

All around, weather permitting, an extensive range of some of the finest Manhattanites is available for viewing as they cavort on the lawns and generally take the air, with the city in the background and views across the waters to Hoboken and New Jersey, down to the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island.

There's more modern architecture, too. At the end of Charles and Perry Streets stand three matching glass-and-white-steel towers by Richard Meiers, just a few blocks from the tatty brick of the Gotham Discount adult video store and the Mystique gentlemen's club.

But the times, they are a'changing. As the riverside park extends, it is gradually replacing the odd but interesting landscape that emerged after the piers were abandoned by the United States Line passenger steamers and the barges hauling railway cars across from New Jersey. The rough concrete of Pier 54 is still unreconstructed and is used to stage open-air events. This summer, in a Spinal Tap moment, the Cartel rock group spent nearly three weeks there, living in a large perspex bubble and being webcammed while recording a new album.

But Pier 63, a rusting railway barge pier adjacent to Chelsea Piers complex, whose open-air grill serving beers was one of the city's hidden gems, has been closed for renovation, its collection of historic vessels moved up-river. Gone, too, are the police horse stables, now relocated beyond the riverside heliport to the feared car pound of the city's traffic police.

Inland, along 10th Avenue, work has begun on converting one-and-a-half miles of a rusting overhead railway that once carried freight from the long-gone warehouses and piers into a green linear walkway that will run from the meat-packing district to 34th street. The Whitney Museum of American Art is planning a large new art museum at the southern end, on the block adjacent to the west-side highway.

Next door to Gehry's IAC building an ultra-expensive, 23-storey apartment tower designed by Jean Nouvel is going up with a planned facade of multi-faceted panes of glass. It, like the first stage of the High Line, should open in 2008.

By then, strolling crowds will be left with the reincorporated remnants of the past - the old iron bollards and railway track that have become urban sculptures and the ranks of rotting piles that stand in the water and nurture the striped bass, marking the rise and fall of the tide to the not-so-distant rumble of traffic.

Jonathan Birchall is an FT correspondent in New York

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Sounds great. I never thought NYC made full use of its riversides. The views of Manhattan are even better from Queens, but there should be more areas in which to take in those views. With the sun curving around, the skyline is lit up most of the day for great photos of Manhattan across the East River. With the Hudson Park as a model, maybe more park space will be coming to the city.
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