Making of Paths to Pier 42: an Interview with Leroy Street Studio

Shade Structure panorama

The Pier 42 shade structure and site from above.

Interview with Kate Bedford, Architectural Designer at Leroy Street Studio

By Kara Kohn-Gardner, September 12, 2013 

Leroy Street Studio and dlandstudio served as the master site advisors on the Paths to Pier 42 project. The firms designed and implemented a site strategy, which in collaboration with five commissioned artists, the project team, advisory committee, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, transformed Pier 42 into a vibrant and accessible waterfront park for the community.

Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) had the opportunity to ask Kate Bedford, Architectural Designer at Leroy Street Studio, about her experience working on the Paths to Pier 42 project. Kate Bedford joined Leroy Street Studio in 2012, where she has worked on private residencies, public parks and community partnerships. Previously, she worked in Seattle on commercial, residential, and retail projects with a focus on holistic design and sustainable, healthy spaces. Before moving to New York City, Bedford wrote and implemented a grant to help the University of Texas improve its urban environment for bicycling through education, advocacy, and campus planning.

Halina Steiner from Dlandstudio on left. Lori Schlabach and Dylan House from Hester Street Collaborative, center. Kate Bedford at Right

Halina Steiner from Dlandstudio on left. Lori Schlabach and Dylan House from Hester Street Collaborative, center. Kate Bedford at Right

LMCC: What was your firm’s approach to the Paths to Pier 42 project? How is the project connected to past projects and the values that motivate your firm?

Leroy Street Studio has a long commitment to public work and community engagement. In 2002, Leroy Street Studio founded Hester Street Collaborative, a nonprofit community group that specializes in transforming public space through participatory design and long-term community advocacy. Through the partnership with Hester Street Collaborative, Leroy Street Studio has found that when community members are given the opportunity to be involved in the creation of their environment, it dramatically improves the relevance of the design work and helps create more equitable and sustainable neighborhoods.

As an architecture firm, Leroy Street Studio approaches each project with a set of core values and questions in mind. For example, how does the project at-hand serve the immediate and long-term needs of the community?  How can we make the project physically, environmentally, aesthetically, and economically meet these community needs?

In approaching the Paths to Pier 42 project, the team used an inclusive strategic planning process, which allowed the community members to become directly involved in the planning of the new recreational space. The larger vision in realizing this temporary park was to establish new connections within the community and to enable a deeper practice of neighborhood inclusion in the overall planning process for public projects within these communities. With this process, we hope that Leroy Street Studio’s work serves as a model for other architecture firms through their community outreach, public engagement and creative partnerships. My personal experience and interest in the site grew out of a similar desire to continue to problem solve an ever-evolving set of community needs.

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How do design and function co-exist in your work at Pier 42? What strategies did you use to maximize, time, space, materials and community participation?

Working directly with community members and artists involved in Paths to Pier 42, Leroy Street Studio set out to create a site strategy that would combine “design, function and practicality,” with community needs. Although functional needs – such as seating, enclosure, and shade – were of primary importance, elements of design provided added aesthetic and artistic value to the site. In this way, the shade structure served not only as a beacon to attract new visitors, but also as an anchor for on-site programming by providing a sheltered space for classes and activities.

The form and materiality of the shade structure references the past and present mythology of the NYC waterfront: nautical flags, vinyl billboards and suspension bridges. The use of nautical flags highlights the history of the site as well as its present connection to the East River, while the shape of the shade structure beautifully frames the bridge and park site. However, the real driver of the design was the wind. Wind is a constant feature of the site and the shade structure captures the natural element of the wind visually and acoustically, as the sound of the flags helps to disguise the noise of the highway.

Building the shade structure

Building the shade structure

For budgeting reasons, the structure had to be made of the most inexpensive materials possible. These materials – shipping containers, steel wire, repurposed vinyl billboards, and bubble tea straws. To minimize costs, maximize efficiency and increase public interest, the process of construction was considered equally alongside the structure’s function and design. We wanted a collaborative process to maximize community input and involvement.

We came up with a design that could be built by a lot of people working together on very small pieces and contributing to different parts of the construction process. For example, in the early stages of making the shade structure, local kids helped to cut the billboards at Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Later, on Community Build Days, volunteers helped paint the shipping containers and assemble the shade structure.

How did the site strategy evolve over time? In what ways did advisory committee meetings, planning meetings with artists and community build days contribute to the final site strategy?

The Pier 42 Advisory Committee – a group comprised of community board members, artist administrators, tenant association leaders, community partners, artists, neighborhood groups and local leaders – provided critical support to our strategic planning process. Advisory Committee meetings afforded us an opportunity to interact with community members and various project representatives, understand their needs, receive feedback, and observe the development of the artists’ projects.

By communicating with the artists at each stage of the project, we were able to make sure that the overall site strategy responded to the artists’ pieces, allowing us to create an appealing backdrop without interfering or competing with their work. Our strategy also reflected many of the suggestions that came out of community meetings and work sessions.

Community Build Days were helpful when it came to the construction of the site and creating concrete community engagement. Community volunteers helped with the painting of the containers, the assembly of the shade structure and the painting of the pavement. They also helped build and paint the seating elements and planters, and plant flowers and grass.

Advisory Committee Meeting

Advisory Committee Meeting

Is there anything specific about this project that changed the way you think or approach your work?

We have never worked on such a broad scale with such a diverse neighborhood. For Leroy Street Studio and Hester Street Collaborative, this project set a new benchmark with regard to the ability to bring a very large group of people around a public space project.

Likewise, through the artist selection process, the Pier 42 project space was reimagined for the benefit of the community with the knowledge, participation and input of the community itself. It makes you wonder: What kind of city would we have if all public space design were approached this way? Finally, the intimacy that the community was able to have with the process was a very unique element and a very valuable one: volunteers, community members, and artists can see the finished park, enjoy it, and say, “I helped make that!”

For me personally, this process reaffirmed the importance of community involvement in public work, and the importance of access to public park space in our city.  In order to truly change things in the long term – in order to understand community needs – the community voice must be engaged and the process itself must be challenged. Hopefully, by serving as a model for community engagement, Paths to Pier 42 will influence how architects on the broader scope tend to think about public work.

HSC1K_Site Plan

Paths to Pier 42 Site Plan

What was each firm’s specific role in the project?

Leroy Street Studio and dlandstudio served as the master site advisors on the Paths to Pier 42 project. The firms designed and implemented a site strategy, which in collaboration with project teams, advisory committees, artists, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, transformed Pier 42 into a vibrant and accessible waterfront park for the community.

Together, the firms collaborated on the site design and construction of the park as a whole.  In addition, Leroy Street Studio’s primary role was the design, coordination and construction of the shade structure. dlandstudio worked on creating seating and planters, and designing the landscaping for the park. An important part of accomplishing the site strategy work was the significant amount of donated materials that the partners were able to secure for the project. Many elements of the site strategy were locally donated: the scaffold board which was used for the planters and benches was donated by Build it Green and the hay bales and the asphalt paving was a donation from the New York City Parks Department and Department Of Transportation.

Is there a favorite moment or anecdote from the project that you’d like to share?

It was amazing to see the park coming together. One of my favorite moments on site was during our first day building the shade structure. The structure required 33 (wire rope) flag cables – that first day, we installed 8. After working all day in the hot sun, it felt amazing to stand underneath the structure in the cool shade!

Pier 42 Shade Structure

The Pier 42 Shade Structure fluttering in the breeze.

“Making of Paths to Pier 42” is a series of interviews with the artists and designers behind the creation of the Pier 42 park.