Newly opened for public recreation thanks to a $20 million investment by New York State in June 2021, Pier 76 also tells an interesting story about the evolution of public space along the New York City waterfront.
As early as the 18th century, the city began selling water lots along the land’s edges to accommodate the explosive population growth that followed the Revolutionary War. This method of urban expansion created opportunities for entrepreneurs to reclaim useable land near the shoreline—including the area near Pier 76.
Completion of the Hudson River Railroad in 1851 accelerated the industrialization of the area surrounding Pier 76, now known as Hell’s Kitchen. Tanneries, meat-packing plants and horse barns opened up shop, attracting laborers and dock workers seeking employment. After World War II, longshoremen found work along the flourishing waterfront, which soon became the freight hub for the United States Lines.
United States Lines was a shipping company providing transatlantic travel for both freight and passengers between today’s Piers 76 and 86. Completed in 1952, the company’s flagship S.S. United States still holds the record for the fastest recorded transatlantic passenger ship at 241,785 horsepower and is the largest ever made in the USA. Today, Pier 76 houses one of the legendary ship’s four unique propellers, weighing in at 30 tons and designed by pioneering female engineer Elaine Kaplan.
By the 1950s, containerized shipping and air travel were rendering smaller piers and traditional shipping companies along the Hudson River waterfront obsolete. In response, the New York City Department of Marine and Aviation oversaw the redevelopment and revitalization of Pier 76 during the administration of Mayor Robert Wagner. The project was completed in 1964, resulting in the second largest pier on Manhattan’s Hudson River. (Pier 40 is the largest.)
At the same time, Manhattan’s continuing rapid growth was posing challenges for public parking. The New York City Parking Violations Bureau was established in 1970 to control widespread illegal parking. In 1977, Pier 76 became the home of Manhattan’s only impound lot.
In 1998, the Hudson River Park Act was passed, inclusive of an intent for the pier to become part of Hudson River Park once the tow pound could be vacated. In January 2021, the New York City Police Department removed this operation, and New York State committed funding to create interim, public, open space on the pier. In only 81 days, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation removed most of the old building and introduced new pavement, railings, lighting, seating, decorative paint, plants and interpretive plaques focused on the pier’s history and ecology. On June 9, 2021, Governor Cuomo opened 245,000 square feet of new, public, open space for the public’s enjoyment. The original steel support structure has been left in place, creating a unique setting and providing partial shade. You can view Governor Cuomo’s press release celebrating the opening of Pier 76 here.
Today, the Hudson River Park Trust is operating Pier 76 as interim, public, open space as part of the overall Park, and the public is enjoying the spectacular views available from the pier. Hudson River Park has a long history of hosting public recreation, including creative guest events, on piers awaiting their turns for permanent Park construction, and was delighted to host the Tribeca Film Festival’s 2021 series as part of the pier’s inauguration. Watch for more fun events at the pier in the future.
Eventually, Pier 76 will need to be fully reconstructed. Pier 76 presents an important opportunity for the Trust to create both new parkland and a new source of revenue to support ongoing Park operations and maintenance costs. The Trust will be considering the timing of such redevelopment, but it is certain to be a lengthy process. This makes the new, interim, open space on the pier even more valuable for the Park community.