By replacing Long Island City’s industrial waterfront with native grasses, Hunters Point South Park stands ready to withstand any storm surge.
Tom Balsley was showing off the effects of the slowly zig-zagging lower path of Hunters Point South Park on a Wednesday afternoon in September. It slows you down, and as you descend, a hill isolates its visitors from the rest of the booming waterfront of Long Island City, Queens. The East River, meanwhile, flows between the park’s edge and midtown Manhattan, its bustle just out of earshot.
This, said Balsley—his voice rising to compete with the chopping of a fast-approaching helicopter—is where it gets quiet and serene.
Balsley, the founder of SWA/Balsley, is one of the park’s principal designers along with Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, co-founders of WEISS/MANFREDI, and ARUP, the infrastructure designer. By the time he’s shouting, he recognizes the irony with a smirk. And, incredibly, here in this verdant oasis in the middle of New York City—once the helicopter is out of earshot—his voice competes only with the rising din of crickets and the small waves flowing through the grass and mud.
Once a hodge-podge of industrial sites, the waterfront where Newtown Creek empties into the East River has transformed into an 11-acre greenery replete with native wildlife, marshlands, a ship-like scenic overlook of Manhattan’s skyline, a cafe, playground, dog park, kayak launch pad, outdoor gym, and more.
But most notably, Hunters Point South Park features something New York City sorely wants: storm resilient design. Phase two just opened last June, but the first half of the park has already been tested.
As phase one neared completion in 2012, Hurricane Sandy and its 4-foot storm surge inundated the entire thing. And then, calmly and with great precision, the water drained right back out into the river at a pace the sewer system could handle, leaving the park intact. Construction resumed just days later.
Phase two of the park boasts similar storm resistant design. Instead of concrete walls and buttresses guarding the plot from the river, this park is the river’s friend. Twice a day, as the high tide rolls in, Hunters Point South Park becomes a marsh.
Between the riverside path and the park’s main promenade, a small creek develops through the long grasses—tall and native—built to survive the brackish onslaught. Part of the park, a peninsula in low-tide times, becomes an island when the river comes up.
Instead of concrete buttresses that once dominated the riverside, Hunters Point South Park’s relationship with the river is dominated by slow, rocky descents into the sea, and a tide that works with the landscape.
The idea, according to Balsley and Weiss, was to pay homage to the landscape that likely dominated this area 200 years ago. Only back then, the land atop which sits Hunters Point South Park didn’t exist. It’s largely infill, piled with the carved out innards of tunnels that snake beneath the city. Governor Mario Cuomo designated the land a public park in the 1990s, but it was largely fenced off and ignored.
Years later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg envisioned the park as an Olympic Village in New York’s bid for the 2012 Summer Games. When that didn’t work out, he set it aside for middle- and low-income housing. In the coming years, 5,000 apartments will rise above the marshlands and river below.
The sleek, curved walkways, eco-friendly awning and jagged, serene footpaths lead park goers through a variety of scenes: Low-lying grasses, an overlook at the New York City skyline, the installed outdoors workout stations and even a boat launch, where folks can put their kayaks in the river.
“This is a park for everyone,” Balsley said. The one problem this may pose? Capacity.
While the walk paths weren’t inundated on this tour, the main field was covered with school children playing sports, and the playground and dog park seemed near full. This is all before thousands of housing units right next door come online in the near future.
“We’ll see,” Balsley said. Either way, the popularity of the park is certainly a good omen.
On a bench overlooking the river, Desiree and Ruben Camacho were eating ice cream. Ruben had first proposed to Desiree 15 years ago, near the abandoned industrial properties. Now, most days, they sit in the new park as they wait for their son to get out of school.
“Finding a spot like this on the other side? Impossible,” Ruben said, pointing to Manhattan, its hustle and bustle just out of earshot. Desiree added in: “Not going to happen.”