It took me a minute — or more like 15 — to find the new Google park. It’s technically called the rooftop park at Pier 57, and it’s the city’s newest public park, though because of its location (literally on top of the new Google offices), its financing (by private developers), its relative inaccessibility, and, as I discovered once I finally found it, the number of built-up elements, it feels like one of New York City’s least public (and least park-like) parks.
But first I had to find it. How hard could it be? I had Googled (sorry) “google park hudson river” and figured out that it was at the intersection of 15th Street and the river. But as I made my way down 15th Street toward the Hudson River, past the busy-again Chelsea Market, past the recently unionized Starbucks Reserve Roastery, past what I remember used to be Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak (RIP), right across from what used to be Morimoto (RIP), out onto West Street, newly enlivened, one could say, by Thomas Heatherwick’s Little Island, I just could not find it. I didn’t think it would be that hard to find what I’d seen billed as Manhattan’s hot new public park, one that’s been under development for over a decade. I was wrong.
Normally it takes me enormous effort to leave the house; I just like being home. But during the pandemic, when parks were among the few places it felt safe to gather, I became attached to a number of them. I spent hours of the early pandemic with my then-new boyfriend at Herbert von King Park in Bed-Stuy, where the energy feels relaxed and the fashion-oriented people-watching was enough to occupy us during the seemingly endless pre-vaxx summer hours. Sometimes we went to McCarren, where our people-watching took the form of ogling peoples’ extremely low body-fat percentages and extraordinary public yoga sequences. Occasionally we found ourselves by the water at Marsha P. Johnson State Park, which had less people-watching but turned out to be an indulgent off-leash paradise for our dog. We took one stressful turn through Domino Park, which felt overdetermined and crowded with harsh walkways and imposing volleyball courts with a warning sign every few feet. Most recently, I walked along the wide concrete walkways of Brooklyn Heights Promenade, stopping every so often to sit on one of the seemingly endless benches and stare at Manhattan. There, swaths of grass aren’t the highlight, but it still feels like a park because of the clarity of the path, the natural features nearby, and the crowds.
Despite my recent park enthusiasm, Google park, or Pier 57’s rooftop park, was hardly on my radar. Usually when a new public space opens in New York City, I only find out about it by osmosis: an Instagram post by a friend, a sponsored ad while browsing the news. But this rooftop space arrived with none of the advance praise or criticism that’s accompanied recent openings, like Moynihan Station or the Manhattan West development, which was plastered on every billboard. It’s part of a larger renovation of a historic pier that has been mostly empty since a Transit Authority depot there closed in 2003. As one of the piers that the Hudson River Park Trust can rent out for commercial uses, it was leased to a developer team comprised of RXR, Young Woo & Associates, and Baupost Group, who put $410 million into the renovation. The overall project (which went through some earlier plans by the much more theoretically inflected firm Lot-Ek in 2009) is helmed by Handel Architects, who do a lot of big, mostly inoffensive towers, while the rooftop park itself is designed by !melk. Inside the pier building, below the rooftop park, Diller Scofidio + Renfro is designing the spaces for the biggest tenant, Google, to add to what it already has at Chelsea Market and will have at St. John’s Terminal. So while this isn’t actually Google park, when the employees move in, it may feel like it. City Winery is already there, taking up a large corner of the first floor, and soon, there will be a 50,000-square-foot “public-facing” space inside that will include a food hall supported by the James Beard Foundation. But I didn’t know all that when I went, and I doubt most visitors will. All they’ll know, and all I knew, is that there is a new two-acre park on the roof of a building that might be fun.
Trying to locate the park, I crossed Tenth Avenue and saw Little Island to my left. I thought about how I’d dismissed it early on — it felt like yet another one of Thomas Heatherwick’s one-note follies, like the Vessel at Hudson Yards, but less thought through. Its bulbous concrete supports reminded me of towers of Champagne glasses or an overdetermined cake, a showy design that seems to demonstrate form for form’s sake. But then I remembered that I’d had a lovely Thanksgiving walk on Little Island with my family, when I’d understood that even though it looks like it should be seen from below, to appreciate the tulip-shaped structures, it really should be experienced from within the park itself, which allows for moments of delight and discovery, prospect and refuge, overlook and encounter. As we made our way up the sloping paths, I had to admit that, despite myself, I loved being on Little Island, so long as I never had to see it from the ground. Would the rooftop park be like that too?
Finally I saw a sign with arrows, which I followed to a building with stairs and an elevator. I took the stairs (I should have taken the elevator) and stepped out onto a broad walkway. And there, finally, I saw what I came to think of as the park itself, a small patch of grass detailed with circular skylights that reminded me of the pandemic circles painted onto other public parks. There were at least a dozen other people up there with me: a group of teen girls; a couple of parents with their kids; some couples lounging on the grass, comparing clouds. Everyone seemed to be in their own world, their own private Google park. I walked as close to the edge as I could and looked across the water at Little Island. There were so many more people there, and I thought it might be because of how much more there is to do on Little Island. I decided to change my vantage point and sat down on the grass. I looked up at the sky until it got boring then got up and decided to walk the perimeter. I kept looking at the river — which seemed to be the park’s main feature, its elevated view of the Hudson. But my view kept being interrupted by the railing. In the middle of the park, I found a big stadium-style staircase rising from the grass that made me think of the now-ancient OMA-designed Prada store staircase that now seems to be everywhere. It faced the city but didn’t lead to anything, and again I felt the encroaching presence of Google; the only thing I could really imagine taking place at the staircase was a corporate all-hands meeting (it will eventually host Tribeca Film Festival screenings, which doesn’t feel very different).
I kept trying to find points of interest among the flower boxes, the different outlooks, the concrete walkway, the patch of grass and the sky. Eventually I realized there wasn’t much more for me to see. It struck me that the most interesting thing about it had been trying to get there; the productive tension between my panic that I would never find it and my relief when I finally did. The green space itself felt so narrow, sandwiched between the two walls bordering the rooftop. The planters were a little straggly and small. The concrete walkways seemed too broad. All the paved, hard surfaces of the structures meant to support the offices below felt like outdoor rooms, blocking the flow of people. Ultimately, it didn’t feel like a park — which I realized I’d always defined (maybe wrongly) as a tract of open space that wasn’t overly planned or programmed. I thought about the High Line nearby, a supremely built-up closed loop, a park that asks us to come uncomfortably (or deliciously) close to the homes of some of New York’s richest. But at least the elevated railway park invites us to go somewhere, to pass one another, to continually encounter strangers and, sometimes, friends. Google park seems to be mostly in service of privacy and isolation — understandable, but still an odd choice for a park that’s perched on a river that could, in another world, be a gathering place. Maybe, like Google’s parent company Alphabet, the pier wants to cover so many bases — Green space! Openness! Privacy! A walkway! An office amenity! An elevated view!— that it’s impossible for it to establish an identity. I kept trying to figure out what would make this park feel more like a park and I couldn’t. On the way down, in the elevator this time, I ran into a group of tourists. One of them, a kid, asked, “Can’t we just go to a normal park?”