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Little Island in NYC ‘turned out far better than I had hoped,’ Barry Diller says

·Assistant Editor
·5 min read

It took over six years and a personal donation of $260 million to make one billionaire’s vision for a fairy-tale park come to life.

On May 21, 2021, New York City's Little Island park finally opened to the public. 

“With this Little Island project, for me, from the very, very beginning, I had hoped that ... we could build something that was an icon, visually, on the waterfront of New York,” Barry Diller, chairman of IAC and Expedia and former CEO for Fox and Paramount, told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview (video above). “It has turned out far better than I had hoped.”

Diller's gift to the city is a 2.4-acre man-made island and public green space that was built over the remnants of Pier 54, which suffered severe damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. With a 687-seat amphitheater and a second stage area called 'The Glade,' the park plans to “pile it on” when it comes to live performances and events.

Little Island opens to the public this weekend in New York City. Photo by STRF/STAR MAX/IPx
Little Island opens to the public in New York City. (Photo by STRF/STAR MAX/IPx, AP)

The park's debut also coincided with New York City's reopening. In its first six-and-a-half weeks, the park has welcomed 500,000 visitors, according to Diller.

“I can just tell you, having been there endless amount of times since we opened, that just the look on people's faces as they cross the bridge ... and they go over to our little Oz, their faces just light up so,” Diller said. “It does seem to me that there is this ... exuberance coming out of people. Being able to just go to a public place without masks, without social distancing, is euphoric.”

Little Island's shaky start

After designs for the park were unveiled in 2014, the project became mired in court battles that almost derailed it entirely.

“There was a time when, because of litigation by these dissidents who were mostly saying that ... the reason we shouldn't build this island is because the American eel needs sunlight,” Diller said. “To which I did respond that: 'Well, tell the eel to go a block north, or south, or east, or west because there's plenty of places, whatever.'”

He added that the situation got so contentious that we actually abandoned the project for about two months. And I thought it was all over."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 14: People visit the Little Island park on June 14, 2021 in New York City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted pandemic restrictions on May 19th. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
People visit the Little Island park on June 14, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

In 2017, New York Governor Cuomo stepped in to broker a deal between various groups, which included a commitment for wildlife protections at the Hudson River Park. A year later, construction on the park began.

But has that initial opposition carried into the present?

“I mean, there certainly are people — very few, thankfully — who are negative about it,” Diller said. “And they are negative about it partly because they think, why should a benefactor be able to build something like this on public space, et cetera?”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 25: A man looks on with the Little Island in the background on Pier 55 as summer entertainment returns on July 25, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
A man looks on with the Little Island in the background on Pier 55 as summer entertainment returns on July 25, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

One reason the park met resistance was the cost to maintain the park over the long run. The Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation agreed to fund the park for 20 years until it can find alternative backers.

"Overwhelmingly, it has been positive,” Diller said. “We're doing 500 performances between June 10 and September. All of these performances so far — and we're just beginning with it— have been incredibly well-received.”

“You know, I got nothing other than happiness,” he added.

Diller 'still discovering' the whimsical park

Little Island was built to stand apart from other green spaces.

Although the park sits upon 132 massive concrete 'tulips', it appears to levitate above the Hudson River. The tulips' varying heights also give the park a sloping topography furnished with trees, shrubs, lawns, and flowers — a product of Signe Nielsen's meticulous landscape design.

View of 'Little Island', a new, free public park in Hudson River Park on May 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)
View of 'Little Island', a new, free public park in Hudson River Park on May 21, 2021, in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)

“I wanted something that was not some cookie-cutter pier or park,” Diller said. “We wanted something that was surprising. We wanted something that was whimsical. We wanted it to be friendly. We didn't want it to be pretentious.”

He said that the designs for the park by its primary architect, Thomas Heatherwick, came “out of that cauldron.” 

The park is a total of 2.7 acres, and also features a 687-seat amphitheater for live, performing arts events.

The number of people at the park at once is regulated in order to keep from overcrowding (reservations can be made online). 

“It may not be to everyone's taste,” Diller said. “But certainly, it ain't easy for you to say, ‘Oh, this is just like that.’”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: People enjoy the Little Island public park in Manhattan on May 21, 2021 in New York City. The Little Island public park on 13th Street in Hudson River Park opened for the first time to the public today. The features 350 different flowers, trees and shrubs. A 687-seat amphitheater with independent arts programming starting in June. The park also has space for seating for food and beverages from vendors.  (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
People enjoy the Little Island public park in Manhattan on May 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

And because the island is located on Manhattan's west side, it offers visitors a panoramic view of the sunset each night. 

For Diller, he said he is "constantly discovering new little angles" in places throughout the island park that he hasn't seen before, which was one of his objectives when the place was still being engineered.

“We designed it so that whenever you turn your view, there would be some surprise or something that was different from turning the other way," he said. "And so, I'm still discovering.”

Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance and a UX writer for Yahoo products.

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