Expect play towers and a “Cloud” fountain in a two-block expansion of Bella Abzug Park that’s won State Supreme Court approval. Once named by Politico as “the most expensive park in the city”, Bella Abzug will extend up to the Lincoln Tunnel and the area planned for a future Port Authority Bus Terminal expansion — leading to the eminent domain purchase and demolition of a hotel, modern gallery and aquarium store.
But the history of the area is not forgotten. Although the park extension design includes play areas with large towers, an outdoor performance space with flexible social seating and a “Cloud” water fountain, the “Ruin Walk” on the roof of the comfort station on Block 6 will have stone artifacts from the original slaughterhouses in that area including a cattle head. Other amenities include a shared Citibike station, street trees and flowering plants as well as a woodland walking path connecting the area to the four southern blocks that have already been completed. The new park blocks will be built on a platform over the Amtrak railroad that cuts between 10th and 11th Avenue through Hell’s Kitchen.
Engineers from Hudson Yards Development Corporation (HYDC) and designers Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates presented an extensive proposal of expansion for the 5th and 6th blocks of the park between W37th and W39th Streets to the Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee meeting on February 9.
“I think this is amazing,” said Committee Co-Chair Leslie Boghosian-Murphy. “It’s going to be such a gem in our area.” She praised the extensive play space designs, as well as welcoming new green space in the neighborhood. Fellow committee member David Holowka called the presentation “fantastic” and asked the team to consider Midtown West’s high-wind days when designing the “Cloud” fountain.
MCB4 committee member Chris LeBrón suggested the implementation of chess and checker tables similar to Washington Square Park as well as the reconsideration of the large-scale play towers to be more fluid in the space, while others contested the use of marble, asked for refillable water stations and requested potential redesigns to make the play “bridge” element look “less like the Golden Gate”. The MCB4 committee moved to approve the plan, with consideration to their design feedback at their Full Board meeting on March 1.
Christine Berthet said that the pedestrian advocacy group CHEKPEDS is “very excited about the Park’s expansion. In early comments, MCB4 had asked for these sections to be playful and wild — and this design captures this spirit. We are also hoping that DOT and HYDC will come soon to an agreement to expand Block 5 through the use of a shared street design on the East and West boulevards. This would significantly increase the area dedicated to greenery and pedestrians.”
To make way for the expansion, the city petitioned New York’s Supreme Court to acquire four lots, including buildings housing the Affirmation Arts Center, Manhattan Aquariums and the Midtown Convention Center Hotel between W36th and W39th Streets, to make way for the next section of the public green space. Crain’s reported that the owners of the lots are TF Cornerstone, the Hillman Co., Morlou Realty Associates and a limited-liability company affiliated with Show-Lain Cheng of Northern Star Realty.
The city is legally allowed to acquire private property for public parks and roadways using eminent domain. Property owners can dispute whether their buildings are needed for public use and the city must pay owners market value for any property demolished. The city previously proposed using eminent domain to take over W39th and W40th Streets between 9th and 10th Avenue for a new Port Authority terminal, though the move was ultimately scrapped after protests from legislators and community activists. Those moves to use eminent domain were a reminder for locals of the forced property acquisition of vast numbers of homes in Hell’s Kitchen to build Port Authority’s ramps and the Lincoln Tunnel in the 20th century.
At a 2019 public hearing over the acquisition of the lots needed for Bella Abzug’s expansion, William Hillman of Affirmation Arts testified that he would be willing to “give this building to the people of New York City to share with the world” as long as the building remained a public cultural center (THE CITY). W42ST has reached out to Affirmation Arts for an update on the future plans for the structure, as well as to the Midtown Convention Center Hotel for comment on the park’s expansion and acquisition of the lots.
Manhattan Aquariums building will be bought by the city and demolished. “It’s unfortunate the neighborhood will lose an institution that so many people rely on — we’re a local pet store that’s one of the last vestiges of the ‘old’ Hudson Yards,” Greg, a coral farmer who works at Manhattan Aquariums, said of the city’s use of eminent domain. “We are going to do our best to stay in the New York City area — we survived COVID-19 and we’re not going to let this slow us down.”
Bella Abzug Park was among the first symbols of the “new” Hudson Yards. In January 2005 the City Council approved the once-desolate 60-block area of Midtown West to accommodate 13,000 new housing units, 24 million square feet of office space and 2 million feet of hotel space (Crain’s). Three years after the city began construction on the 7 train line extension to Hudson Yards in 2007, ground broke on renovations to the park, then known as Hudson Park and Boulevard and renamed in 2019 in honor of lawmaker and activist Bella Abzug.
The park’s most recent expansion was last estimated to have a $374 million budget, which at $124 million an acre, led Politico to call it “the most expensive park in the city” — though officials have emphasized that the project is still in process and the final cost is not yet known. The funds are sourced from bonds backed by property tax revenue from the area, which boasts a considerable portfolio of luxury apartments, large-scale offices, a performing arts venue and a retail and restaurant megaplex (which will soon add two new high-end eateries at 20 Hudson Yards).
At the MCB4 meeting, LeBrón pointed out the significance of the project’s cost. “We’re very privileged to be talking about a park in Hudson Yards — considering where the original funding came from,” he said. “We’re talking about a park in between towers of brand capitalism that’s being funded when it should have funded West Harlem and Washington Heights and the development of those Black and Brown communities.” In 2019, Bloomberg reported that Harlem helped finance Hudson Yards, saying: “Without their knowledge, the residents of a number of public housing developments helped to make Hudson Yards possible. The mega-luxury of this mini-Dubai was financed in part through a program that was supposed to help alleviate urban poverty. Hudson Yards ate Harlem’s lunch.”
The park is operated and maintained by the Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance (HYHK) — a West Side Business Improvement District not-for-profit organization. HYHK curates seasonal public programming throughout the space and public art installations, like the recent BIG APPLE statue by Canadian artist Félix Marzel, King Nyani — a four-and-a-half ton gorilla sculpture by Australian Artists Gillie and Marc Schattner, the Photoville summer gallery showing and the recent Shadows, a sculpture series by Fanny Allié, showcasing the park’s maintenance workers.
“Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance was pleased to review the excellent design proposal for Blocks 5 and 6 of the Bella Abzug Park in Hudson Yards,” said HYHK President Robert Benfatto of the expansion. “We look forward to its fruition and to operating the last installment of the park.”