Diller Island: Private Park Funding Gone Overboard

Consider for a moment that a billionaire is planning to literally reshape the shoreline of Manhattan by funding a floating island park, just a short walk from his office. Maybe, just maybe, private funding for parks has gone too far.

Media tycoon Barry Diller and his wife, fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg, have pledged $130 million from their foundation—around 75 percent of the total bill—to create a 2.4-acre park that will hover off the Hudson shore. 

While there’s been widespread concern about outsized influence of the wealthy on New York’s public spaces following huge donations to Central Park and the High Line, this one takes things to a whole new level. 

Related: The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

The park started as a plea from the Hudson River Park Trust to help salvage the deteriorating Pier 54 on the lower west side, but grew into the massive project to construct a hovering island that will house multiple performance spaces, the New York Times reports. Of the $170 million price tag, the remaining $40 million will be provided by the city, the state, and the trust. 

The island, called Pier 55, would be operated by a nonprofit created by the foundation, leased from the park trust for 20 years, and programming would be overseen by Hollywood power players such as producer Scott Rudin. 

Since it was announced, there have been many words to describe this plan—ambitious, bold, futuristic, spectacular. But frankly, this all seems kind of insane. 

Granted, this thing has more procedural hurdles to clear, and it’s understandable why the trust and the city would welcome $130 million to solve the problem (the governor and the mayor support it, despite de Blasio’s concerns about parks equity). But the deal has some seriously troubling aspects, not the least of which is the glaring symbolism of the way wealth is changing the city.

Related: Parks for the People, Not for the Privileged! What de Blasio Means for Parks Philanthropy

There’s the fact that the thing came virtually out of nowhere. Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick was the first to protest the secrecy of the project, which had already held an informal competition among architects to choose a design; planners were setting up funding plans. “It is deeply disturbing that the trust failed until now to disclose what it is doing,” she told the Times

With such a major partnership, you'd want to see, baseline, transparency and public involvement. They’ve been working on the plan for two years. Hearing that kind of shock from an elected official upon its unveiling is, indeed, disturbing.

Then there’s the Disney factor. I don’t live in New York, so I’m not going to go on about the way it used to be. And whatever your opinion of the High Line (btw, the Dillers are also the largest donors to that project), its strength is the way it celebrates the landscape of the city. But looking at the renderings of this project, Pier 55 barely looks like a park. It looks like actual Disneyland. Some have pointed out that it calls to mind the alien villages in Avatar. 

You have to wonder if this is what New York City's public wants or needs. There’s also debate about whether more performance spaces are even needed, given other competing projects going up at the same time.  

But most troubling is the influence Diller seems to be having on the plan. The project started as a $35 million pledge to help with the ailing pier. The Times quotes Hudson River Park Trust Chair Diana L. Taylor as saying, “Somebody’s got to pay for it. We don’t have the money.” And when the trust’s director suggested a new structure along the shore, “Mr. Diller was intrigued, but challenged the trust to think bigger and quickly set up an informal competition among four architects.”

He accepts credit/blame for the ambition of the project, but why should he get to drive this car?

As Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates told the Daily News: “Diller is obviously being extremely generous, but private citizens are being able to dictate public spaces. The public has been completely left out.” 

We talk a lot about finding a responsible role for philanthropy in public parks, and this sounds like… not that. It's hard to know exactly what went on during that two-year planning process, but this sounds like a public space desperate for funds, being heavily steered by wealthy donors.