New York Revives Its Waterfront With Paean to the Stairmaster Age

Golfing, rock-climbing, Rollerblading, all within a subway ride of Broadway

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Most weekends, Alex Carone and his "overworked" friends let off steam by knocking golf balls toward New Jersey. Or, if they're not on the driving range, they may play a game of soccer. Or try a little rock climbing. Or sand-pit volleyball.

To do any or all of those things, they go to the same place: Chelsea Piers. It's New York's paean to the age of the Stairmaster - a sprawling, 30-acre, $100-million indoor sports and entertainment complex.

"This place is amazing," Mr. Carone says at the driving range. "New York needed this. Now we don't have to go to the Hamptons or Berkshires."

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Built atop four, 900-foot piers jutting into the Hudson River, Chelsea Piers is part of a concerted attempt by the city to revive the once bustling Manhattan piers that have fallen into disrepair.

It mirrors an enduring movement in many cities - including other parts of Manhattan - to develop long-neglected waterfront areas. Chelsea Piers is unusual, though, in that its focus is entertainment and exercise.

"We've made no use of the waterfront," says Roland Betts, the film executive who helped create Chelsea Piers. "It's pathetic. You can live in Manhattan your entire life and lose track of the fact that you're on an island.''

Some 3 million people have visited Chelsea Place to date. The facility has opened in stages over the past year. Many, like Carone, are awed by its size. Outdoor Rollerblading rinks, indoor soccer fields, basketball courts, swimming pools, a gymnastics center, a running track, a swimming pool, a health club, spa, and a fabricated rock-climbing wall. Future plans call for a bowling alley, sailing and kayaking schools, and a conference center.

But, from a historic perspective, Chelsea Piers is more than a Disney-style sports fanatic's fantasy. The piers loom prominently in New York's past, as the arrival point for tens of thousands of immigrants in the early 1900s and for soldiers returning from both world wars. They were also the departure and destination points, respectively, for two doomed oceanliners: the Lusitania and Titanic.

Today, Chelsea Piers sits amid a five-mile stretch once intended to be an ambitious waterfront park, called Westway. But politics doomed the project. A scaled-down version of Westway will now allow commercial ventures to build on the waterfront, and pay rent to the state. Chelsea Piers now pays $2.5 million a year to the state.

Chelsea Piers is not yet profitable, and won't be for some time. Even so, Charles Gargano, New York's economic development commissioner, says he and Gov. George Pataki believe the project's success will allow the state to build its park with private money.

"New York City is the greatest city in the world, with probably the worst looking waterfront I've seen anywhere," he says. "That's certainly something the governor and I are trying to improve.''

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