Along the waterfront

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Three entrepreneurs wanted a place to skate and play hockey; at Chelsea Piers, they invited millions to join them


  • Chelsea Piers in 1994. Photo: Beck's Studio

  • Tom Bernstein, Roland Betts and David Tewksbury. Photo: Chelsea Piers

A quarter of a century ago, the piers along the Chelsea waterfront were a forbidding sight. Cyclone fencing, garlanded by barbed and razor wire, hemmed in the few ventures operating in that part of Manhattan: tow pounds, warehouses, parking, some industry.

The water’s edge from roughly between 17th and 22nd Streets contrasted with its heyday, around the 1910s and 1920s, when luxurious trans-ocean passenger ships birthed along the Hudson River’s eastern shore. The Lusitania and the Mauretania had visited, and the Titanic’s maiden journey was scheduled to conclude there.

By mid-century, air travel had supplanted voyage by sea and the piers were, for a time, used mostly for cargo. World War II had brought renewed activity, with troops boarding vessels docked there that then crossed the Atlantic, bound for the European theater.

But by the 1970s, the piers were nearly deserted and largely neglected by their landlord — the state itself.

“The neighborhood was a mess and it was not safe. It was a derelict, abandoned area,” said Tom Bernstein, who, with two partners, Roland Betts and David Tewksbury, would by 1995 keep the piers from near-certain demolition and eventually transform roughly 1 million square feet of riverfront into the sports and entertainment mecca known as Chelsea Piers.

The $100 million facility would eventually not just anchor the neighborhood, but become a touchstone for New Yorkers.

But what emerged from the detritus — a 200-yard driving range, a pool, bowling alley, casual restaurants, events spaces, and, of course, skating rinks, among dozens of other amenities and facilities — was largely unplanned. It was, Tewksbury said, “kind of an accident.”

That unintended realization had begun as a search for a feasible site onto which to build a skating rink to replace the obsolete Sky Rink on West 33rd Street, where Betts and Tewksbury played recreation league hockey, and where one of Betts’ daughters practiced her competitive figure skating routines. That quest brought them to Pier 61, a column-free space large enough to accommodate two rinks.

The state’s Department of Transportation, however, declined to lease just that single pier, insisting that all four remaining structures — Piers 59, 60, 61 and 62 — were of a piece. “It was five city blocks long, 1 million square feet of space,” Tewksbury said of the four piers. “We were like, ‘wow.’”

Although the trio had “a vision, an idea” for the space, Bernstein said, much of what they would eventually build took shape through collective inspiration.

All three stakeholders had attended Yale, but graduated years apart. They would only meet and collaborate later in life. Bernstein and Betts were associates at in the entertainment division of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in the city. They would found Silver Screen Management, producing more than 75 films for the Walt Disney Company. Tewksbury had a successful 10-year stint as a leasing broker with Cushman and Wakefield and had an architectural background.

Before they could get their project underway, the three had some convincing to do. But the developers persuaded residents, elected officials and state authorities that what they envisioned could transform the waterfront for the better. Other challenges remained, though.

“It was pretty difficult to finance and pretty difficult to permit,” said Tewksbury, the executive vice president of Chelsea Piers. Still, within 24 months nearly everything was in place, and construction started in 1994.

The complex started opening in 1995. It quickly became one of the city’s most visited sites, with more than 4 million visits annually.

Bernstein, president of Chelsea Piers, said the venture succeeded because “it met an unmet need, a vacuum, a thirst for this.” Still, he added, it would have been difficult to envision just how much the project would reinvigorate the neighborhood. “New York was cut off from its waterfront,” he said. “We were sort of the catalyst.”

What followed in the two decades since the redevelopment of the piers has been nothing less than a wholesale transformation of Chelsea’s West Side. The construction of signature commercial buildings, such as Frank Gehry’s IAC building, the rehabilitation of warehouses into multi-million-dollar residential lofts, and the creation of Hudson River Park and the High Line have brought renewed vibrancy to a neighborhood that a few short decades ago was largely tumble-down.

But both Bernstein and Tewksbury said, Chelsea Piers stands apart, particularly from the park and the High Line, in that the complex was designed for city residents.

“We’re really for New Yorkers,” Bernstein said earlier this month, following a swim at the complex. “We’re mostly for people who make it a fabric of their life.”

Tewksbury suggests that the facility even played a key part in keeping New Yorkers in the city when they might otherwise have considered moving to the suburbs for the amenities found there.

“We’ve changed the way people have lived in New York City over the last two decades,” he said. “We’re a resource that just didn’t exist before … I think we touch a lot of people’s lives.”

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