11-15-21 | Feature

Hardscape Design Paves Way for State-of-the-Art Park

Signe Nielsen, FASLA, Principal, MNLA | Photography By: Timothy Schenck

Little Island Park is a small 2.4-acre pier that sits over the Hudson River in Manhattan, New York. Landscape Architects with MNLA along with architecture firm Heatherwick Studio designed this collection of 132 individual "pots" made of precast concrete with a white pigmentation that connect to make the island. The square shape of the park was proposed by Thomas Heatherwick to provide a more "park-like" atmosphere than that of a more traditionally, narrow-shaped pier.
A gap in the pots forms a break so people can look down and appreciate the water and observe the very tall pylons supporting the structures. A curvilinear path is laid out to achieve an accessible route to the overlook. Angled stairs intersect the curvilinear path to provide alternate routes up and down. Boulder scrambles offer yet another "short cut" for the hale and hearty to move between paths. Weathering steel marine grade sheet pile retaining walls range in height from 1' to as much as 12' and are used to retain soil to facilitate the topography and create reasonably level areas for planting.
Numerous tree species were incorporated into the projects including Quercus rober Fastigata (in the path curve); Quercus rubra (center and right); Acer rubrum 'October Glory' (at north entry); and evergreens such as Pinus cembra, Juniperus virginiana 'Keteleeri' and Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead'
An amphitheater capable of seating 850 was strategically positioned so that the surrounding trees and landscape would block wind and allow for views of the water instead of the nearby freeway. The seats are made of Native Black Locust and the steps are cast-in-place, exposed aggregated and pigmented concrete.
An esplanade overlooking the pier features 3" x 12" x 3" pavers in four shades of grey. The Landscape Architect chose this color pattern as it creates a pixilated palette that gets increasingly darker heading to the Little Island entry bridges. The pixilation also helps mask dirt and hide utility covers.
Throughout the project the team added a wide variety of plantings that featured 45 different species of bulbs, 145 perennials, 56 grasses and ferns, 15 boulder scramble mixes, 83 shrubs, and 66 trees.
Five individual pieces of precast concrete, referred to as "petals," form the shape of each pot. A red brass railing borders the edge of the park which increases in elevation by 46 feet to the peak of the overlook standing at 62 feet above the main entry plaza.

Little Island is a 2.4 acre, $260M park on a new pier located in the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan next to the Meatpacking District. Both the Downtown Whitney Museum and a slice of the High Line are visible from the park. The pier replaces former Pier 54 where the Cunard Line maintained its primary docking facility for passenger ships. It is best known for receiving the survivors of the Titanic and from where the Lusitania departed on her ill-fated voyage. The pier eventually fell into disuse but when the Hudson River Park Trust took control of the abandoned pier in 1998, Pier 54 became a place for events and concerts. Hurricane Sandy severely damaged the pier, and it was demolished in 2015 while early plans were in the works for its replacement as Little Island. Landscape architecture firm MNLA was hired to create the landscape design for the new pier. All that remains of the historic pier is a large arch that heralds the south bridge entrance to the park and creates a dramatic threshold juxtaposing old and new.
Design Details and Challenges
During the early planning stages, the donor (Barry Diller of the Diller-von-Furstenberg Family Foundation) in partnership with the Hudson River Park Trust embarked on the unique opportunity to reimagine an entirely new type of public space that would create an immersive experience by weaving together nature and art. However, because of federal and state environmental regulations, the new pier could not increase the amount of coverage over the water than that of the former Pier 54. Heatherwick Studio, an architecture firm based in London and led by Thomas, proposed a square shape, rather than the traditional long skinny dimensions of a typical pier, as being more conducive to performance spaces and a park-like experience.

The new pier is set away from the esplanade by roughly 180 feet and is accessed at both the north and south by sloping "bridges" (actually pile-supported gently sloping ramps) that elevate the pier above storm surge and future sea-level rise. Thomas Heatherwick likens these to gangplanks that inspire the sense of leaving the city and being transported to a magical place. The very pronounced undulations of the tulip-shaped structures (pots) sitting atop concrete piles is more than an architectural gesture. The southern two corners are lifted above the water, as much as 62 feet, to allow the low angles of morning and afternoon sun to reach deep under the pier for the benefit of marine life.
The 280 piles capped by pre-cast pots are tied together by a structural slab upon which the landscape sits.
One of the significant challenges of the landscape design, led by MNLA, was to balance the soil depth requirements for the various trees and plants with the load-bearing capacity of the piles so geofoam was used to form the build-up in locations where soil weight might exceed the pile capacity. Adding to the complexity was achieving path layouts and gradients that met accessibility standards as they traverse the park's undulating topography. As cross sections through the pier show, the slab and finished grade are rarely parallel.
The dramatic topography posed other challenges as well, including steep slopes which were retained by weathering sheet pile walls. This material is typical to marine construction yet creates a warm backdrop to the shrubs, vines and perennials that are nested below and atop the crenellated, interlocking steel forms. Walls help to mitigate the steep slopes and retain soil for large trees. A third of the 114 trees planted on the pier range from 8-inch to 12-inch caliper, with some weighing as much as 20,000 pounds. All the trees were craned into precise locations with pre-installed tie-down cables ready to receive the rootballs.
The topography also offers some intentional advantages like shielding an 850-person amphitheater from view when entering the park, buffering winter winds, and screening views of the adjacent highway. Much like a Japanese strolling garden, the choreographed experience while moving through the park reveals both intimate internal views of the park and distant vistas to the skyline, New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
Once the trees were positioned, then began the placement of over a thousand shrubs followed by perennials, grasses and vines and capped off by 66,000 bulbs. Because of the enormous diversity of plant species, the landscape contractor, Brightview, elected to contract grow the more than 300 different species and cultivars of the plants that form the colorful and richly textured tapestry of the ground plane. This greatly facilitated the timely delivery of plants when an area of the site became available for planting. The monumental task of planting nearly 100,000 plants occurred over the course of 10 months, with daily oversight by the Landscape Architects. From the outset of the landscape design, the donor agreed to generously fund 20 years of on-going maintenance for the park; two gardeners are on site daily with supplemental assistance from Brightview's lawn care team and tree consultants, Bartlett Tree Experts.
Specified Amenities
Many of the park's features are custom-designed including the perimeter weathering steel pickets mounted to the inside of the edge pots to form a continuous guard rail, the bronze handrails that line the accessible paths and stairs, and sculptural one-of-a kind black locust benches. The large plaza is paved in seven shades of warm colors that are laid out in wavy, concentric circles that become increasingly dark toward the outer band. Within those bands can be found curving lines of cast basalt volkanite. The trash receptacles and drinking fountains were specified in a brown tone to complement the warm palette of materials throughout the park. There are also surprises throughout the park that delight visitors on their journey including dance chimes, a sound wall instrument and several optical turning circles.
Landscape Architect's Role
MNLA is the Landscape Architect for the project and were responsible for the design, selection and oversight of all geofoam, soils, irrigation, and plant material. In addition, MNLA collaborated with Heatherwick on the design of the park's surface features and were responsible for the detailing, specifications, shop drawing review and construction administration. MNLA's consultants included Arup, structural and MEP engineers, Mueser Rutledge, marine engineers and ICI, irrigation designers.


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