Exclusive: Our Banned Critic Flies a Drone Over a $250 Million Island Sprouting on New York’s Hudson River

    An extravagant artificial island set to open in March might help revive New York.

    By James S. Russell

    On a bright November day I ventured down the Hudson River Park esplanade to gaze upon something that I can best describe as Disney meets psilocybin.

    Near West 13thStreet, a forest of mushroom-shaped white-concrete columns — 280 of them to be exact — rose from the river bottom to support 2.4 acres of gardens and performance venues.

    Come spring this long-delayed $250-million plus extravaganza called Little Island, will welcome visitors with towering overlooks, shady spots for contemplation, and small lawns for gathering.

    Behind serious fencing, I could make out a small army of landscape workers putting down paths, tidying up lawns, seeding meadows, and wrestling tiny clusters of trees into place. Trucks threaded their way around bright orange portable toilets and up ramps that will soon convey visitors up the 200 feet or so that separate the island from the shore.

    Little Island’s media handlers firmly deflected all entreaties to step aboard.

    Some day, perhaps in March, Little Island will look something like this model. (Photo: courtesy of Heatherwick Studio)

    So we flew a drone overhead to get a sense of the place as it prepares for the future.

    Little Island completes the transformation of the Meatpacking District, where for decades freight cars delivered animals to slaughterhouses that lined and bloodied the nearby blocks. Now it’s a high-end neighborhood of sleek apartment towers, unaffordable art galleries and fashion retail. The long-abandoned freight viaduct has become the iconic High Line park, while the Whitney Museum of American Art sits just to the south, nudging its grey-metal prow toward the river along Gansevoort Street.

    Behind Little Island are Big Bucks. The private foundation of media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, fashion eminence Diane von Furstenberg, is underwriting most of the cost. IAC — Diller’s company — is headquartered a few blocks northin a billowing glass structure designed by America’s most important architect Frank Gehry, his first freestanding building in New York.

    What the Drone Saw

    The lilliputian garden on Brobdingnag stilts is the brainchild of Thomas Heatherwick, a prodigious, crowd-pleasing, and controversial British designer who produced the spectacularly successful flaming cauldron for the 2012 London Olympics, and an alluring metal-hulled pedestrian bridge that might have arced across the Thames bedecked with trees and flowers. It was a bridge too far, though, succumbing to criticism that its minimal utility failed to justify its great cost.

    Ballooning costs and a surreal legal challenge nearly sank Little Island seen here in November 2020. (Photo: James S. Russell)

    Here in New York, he concocted the overbearing 150-foot-high artichoke-shaped Vessel that looms over Hudson Yards, a much chastised mega-development 20 blocks north of Little Island. For Little Island, he collaborated with the passionately pragmatic landscape architect Signe Nielsen, who is in charge of the soils and planting. Tiny and plainspoken, Nielsen is the go-to designer for uniquely challenging settings. Her New York City firm, Matthews Nielsen, opened up the culverted Saw Mill River to daylight, and restored its habitat, greening the reviving industrial downtown of Yonkers, N.Y. in the process. She roofed a Rockefeller University laboratory with a public garden looking out on the East River — an engineering feat, considering the lab had to be hoisted on mighty trusses above the busy FDR Drive.

    Given that it is her job to bring to life Heatherwick’s vision of an English-style park in miniature, I asked Nielsen to describe how a visitor will experience Little Island. “You will immediately leave the city’s noise and concrete behind,” she promised. After ascending a gently sloping ramp that crosses over the water from the Manhattan shore, and slipping through a short tunnel between the columns, visitors will arrive at a dish-shaped lawn and gathering space called the Play Ground.

    If you pay rapt attention to our drone visage, you will see paths twist up and down the undulating landscape, alternately revealing and obscuring river and city views. Visitors will discover three observation points at the corners, one aimed south along the shoreline, framing views to the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Another looks down a meadow and back to the cityscape from the northwest corner. The highest, perched six stories above water level, opens panoramas downriver where the shimmering surface lazily widens as it enters New York Bay. The stunning contrasts should beinspiring.

    White concrete mushroom columns rise to varying heights to shape Little Island’s undulating topography. (Photo: James S. Russell)

    “The plant selection had to be very carefully calibrated,” Nielsen observes. That’s because the plants face in all directions, thanks to the intricate topography. Some trees must buffer searing winter winds at the park edges, protecting the Play Ground and other gathering places.

    The river-edge weather can be severe, which is why Nielsen’s approach was influenced by Acadia National Park, near Bangor, Maine. “It is a coastal landscape of diverse and tremendous beauty,” she said, “and also encompasses a variety of landscapes.”

    Red cedars and white spruce hold the steep slopes in place, emulating Maine’s seashore bluffs. Coastal and mountainous species of pines rise amid fields of grasses, less than a mile from hipster luxe sushi joints. For shaded woodland areas Nielsen selected redbuds, red oaks, and maples. Understory plants include hellebores, azaleas, and foamflower.

    It’s not only strategically positioned nature that performs on cue; a 700-seat thrust-stage amphitheater is hidden in the western edge of the island, with the river as backdrop. There is also The Glade which dips close to the water and can double as an informal performance space for 200 people. Let’s all pray that happens soon.

    What You Can’t See From Our Drone Is Recent History

    Little Island almost didn’t happen. In 2016, an ancient civic watchdog called the City Club of New York rose from its zombie state and sued, claiming the design was insufficiently concerned with the Hudson River’s habitat. The filings were, it turned out, quietly underwritten by Douglas Durst, a real-estate magnate who was miffed after he was pushed off the board of the Hudson River Park Trust, the public-private operator of the park. After two years, with work stopped and costs ballooning, Diller threw in the towel. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sweetened the state contribution to $23 million, cajoled Diller back to the waterfront and dried Durst’s tears. New York City has kicked in 17 million.

    As the withering cold of winter starts to abate, Nielsen and the landscape contractors are frantically scrambling to finish the plantings. I wish them well. Like so many others, I’m indebted to New York City parks for urban oases that allow me to clear the Covid mental cobwebs as I’ve witnessed the glorious comings and goings of three seasons when the world seems to stand still and nature’s inexorable and welcome progression marches on.

    Little Island’s spring opening could not be better timed, coinciding as it will with the hoped-for diminution of the global Covid nightmare. Though many along the way have looked this gift horse in the mouth, I think people will hunger for its ecological authenticity juxtaposed with whimsical artificiality, even its relentlessly Heatherwickian aim to please. Let’s welcome it as a symbol of what I hope will be a revitalized New York that, like mushrooms, will emerge out of the darkness.

    What’s Growing on Little Island

    Recreate NYC’s new garden in your backyard with this plant guide

    Little Island doesn’t much resemble the average backyard garden, but its multitude of settings holds lessons for gardeners working with unique conditions. The riverside environment of the park is both more extreme than is common in the mid-Atlantic region (because of steady winds much of the year), and less variable because of the moderating effect of the river and Atlantic Ocean. Signe Nielsen chose native plants for their resilience and to reinforce local ecologies. Non-natives that grow in similar conditions were used to enrich the variety of plant textures and forms, and to build resilience against pests and the wear and tear innate to a public place. A selection is listed below. Many are widely available. — J.S.R.

    — Captions by Aerate Staff

    Trees used to screen high winds…

    Japanese black pine, (Pinus thunbergii, aka Thunderhead. The irregular branching adds character to any landscape. In Japan, it is both pruned for Niwaki (sculpted tree gardening) and left untrained as an overstory tree.
    The Balkan pine (Pinus heldreichii) is often labeled as Macedonian pine, but locals from all over the Balkan peninsula prize the resin for its medicinal properties.
    Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra is packed with needles, which is why it’s sought for smaller areas requiring dense shade. A white stripe running down each needle gives it a silvery hue when viewed from afar.

    Meadow grasses…

    Most grasses have hollow stems, but bluestem (Andropogon) has are solid ones that are bluish at the base, giving this prairie plant its name.
    Switchgrass (Panicum) has deep roots, which are crucial for erosion prevention. A white patch of hair where the stem splits into leaves helps distinguish it from other varieties.
    In summer, prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). bursts with seed, releasing a slightly spicy fragrance. They are tasty, too; grains were ground into flour by Native Americans.

    Shaded woodland trees…

    Shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria), also known as the small-leaved oak, has no trademark lobes on it’s greenery, but the species still produces acorns in fall.
    The leaves of the red maple (acer rubrum) are only fiery red in autumn, but you can find them at practically any latitude in the U.S., from Florida to Newfoundland.
    George Washington wrote in his diary about the magnificent blooms of the eastern redbud (cercis canadensis) tree. He would forage saplings for transplanting in his own garden.

    Shaded to sunny woodland plants…

    Hellebores is commonly referred to as Lenten rose for its early spring blooms, and the pale petals are actually sepals, or protective leaves that surround the nectaries.
    Tiny petals and long, showy stamens give the Foamflower (tiarella cordifolia) its frothy appearance. Roots help the species spread, making it excellent ground cover.
    Native azaleas (rhododendron atlanticum) are from the rhododendron family. Unlike Asian varieties, the native shrub doesn’t bloom in bold pinks and purples, but in gentler hues, as pictured.
    The white tufts of Witch alder (fothergilla gardenii) are actually fragrant clusters of stamens. The shrub is deciduous, so leaves turn red and orange in the fall.
    Barrenwort (epimedium) has many aliases, such as bishop’s hat and horny goat weed. The first comes from the miter headdress the bloom resembles. The second, from its use in Chinese medicine to heighten libido.

    (Sidebar photos: Wikimedia Commons)

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