Edited by Kathryn Cooperman
When I first glimpsed the Little Island construction site from the High Line in October 2020, I knew I would have to come back to see it when it was completed. Construction on Manhattan’s newest green space began in 2018 and it opened on May 21st of this year.
Designed by Heatherwick Studios (of Vessel infamy) and landscape architect Signe Nielsen, Little Island was largely financed by billionaire Barry Diller and his wife Diane Von Furstenburg, who also helped to fund the nearby High Line. However, the island was partially financed using public funds. In 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged $50M to the project on the condition that the City of New York match this contribution. The final budget for Little Island was reported as $260M.
The overall design of Little Island is a square floating above the Hudson River with two main walkways connecting the island to the docks. The island itself is supported by 132 unique concrete tulips that rise above the crumbling remains of the historic Pier 54, which had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy. There are walking paths, space for concession stands at the entrance, and an open air amphitheater that can seat up to 850 people. The crowning feature of Little Island is a man-made “mountain” on the southwest corner of the island.
I went first thing on a Monday morning, so thankfully I did not have to reserve a timed entry ticket (which has been in exceptionally high demand this summer). At the summit of the “mountain,” I had a relatively good view of One World Trade Center and downtown Manhattan, which was the highlight of my visit. But I found Little Island to be surprisingly small. During my visit, I was able to traverse most of the island in under 30 minutes. But since I was constantly bumping into people, I didn’t find it to be a particularly leisurely experience and felt no motivation (or truly, space) to sit and enjoy the ambience.
In terms of an experience, Little Island is fairly pleasant but not stimulating enough on its own to merit being a proper tourist attraction. Once in the park, I found it to be somewhat underwhelming, better observed from afar than within. Inevitably, I could only think about the other New York green spaces I’ve visited throughout the years. I found it to be less novel than the High Line, exponentially smaller than Central Park, and with no more impressive views than those seen from Roosevelt Island. While I consider my visits to the other parks to be formative New York experiences, I don’t know if Little Island made enough of a unique and lasting impression.
As I left the park and made my way through the surrounding neighborhood, all I could think was: “Could another area of New York have benefited more from incorporating a green space and amphitheater?” It’s true that we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but Chelsea is an affluent neighborhood, which already has access to a beautiful greenspace in the form of the High Line.. New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman told CBS Sunday Morning that although he views the park as an asset to the city, “We can’t just rely on rich people…to build a fair and healthy city.” Hudson Yards and the Meatpacking District have been the sites of much urban revitalization in the last decade, so I could only wonder if this space actually serves an unmet need for the community, and whether there are other areas of New York that could have benefited more from this type of addition.
As a visitor, what disappointed me the most was the extent to which Little Island was overhyped on Instagram and by local news outlets. It is a place that I wish I stumbled upon and been pleasantly surprised by. But in reality, I found it by seeing gorgeous pictures on Instagram and making a special trip to go visit. And although the tickets are free, it was such a hassle to potentially reserve them weeks in advance. If I lived or worked in the community, I could easily see myself becoming annoyed that I would have to wait for weeks to visit what used to be a public part of the waterside. (NB: I’m not sure if the reservation system is an artifact of the pandemic and will eventually be phased out. For the democratization of the space, I hope it will be)
Little Island meets the basic objectives of a park and is aesthetically unique when compared to other nearby parks and landmarks. I have and will always believe that greenspaces have a pivotal role to play in urban design, particularly in the era of COVID when we need to come together in socially distanced ways. But, seeing that taxpayer dollars were partially allocated to the project, I have to question whether “good enough” is actually good enough.