They Unpaved Paradise and Took Out a Parking Lot

September 2011
Bronx, New York

New parks are opening and old parks are being revitalized at a pace not seen since Robert Moses’s heyday.

By Fred Bernstein

They Unpaved Paradise and Took Out a Parking Lot
Photo by Jeff Mermelstein

Click the image above to view a slide show of New York's new parks and public spaces.


The corner of 157th Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, just south of Yankee Stadium, is a good place to examine the results of New York City's decade-long park-building binge.

Photo by Jeff Mermelstein

In the video above, we visit Brooklyn Bridge Park with Michael Van Valkenburgh.

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Two former parking lots have become playgrounds. One, for toddlers, features fountains activated by the motion of the elevated subway line nearby, a device that makes the once-unsettling urban experience playful. The other, for teens, is a skateboard jungle of half-pipes, ramps, stairs, rails, and ledges bearing the influences of Isamu Noguchi and Zaha Hadid. (Both were by Patricia Clark, a landscape designer for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.)

But these two pocket parks, swirling with activity on a recent afternoon, are just the foreground. A pop fly away is the astonishing Heritage Field Park (on the site of the original Yankee Stadium), nearing completion in time for local kids to hold their own World Series. From there, a plaza opens onto Macombs Dam Park, a recreational facility with the crisp design of an Olympic training center. A highway overpass leads to the new Mill Pond Park, with 16 tennis courts and waterfront trails that make the Harlem River suddenly approachable.

And to the north, the Depression-era John Mullaly Park, is emerging — with its rose gardens, Louis Kahnesque bathing pavilions, and ingenious playground equipment — from an extensive but sensitive renovation.

And that's just in one small section of the Bronx. All over New York, new parks are opening, and old parks are being revitalized at a rate not seen since Robert Moses's heyday in the mid-20th century. Indeed, one of Moses's triumphs, Riverside Park, has spawned an archipelago of bold waterfront parks in all five boroughs.

Ten years ago, with smoke rising from the World Trade Center site, parks were the last things on New Yorkers' minds. But during his first year in office, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg lifted the death warrant on the High Line, a railroad viaduct that the city had been planning to tear down, signaling his intent to make parks a priority.

From then on, money for parks projects flowed like Central Park's Bethesda Fountain. Capital outlays reached as much as $500 million a year, dwarfing expenditures by previous administrations. Altogether, Bloomberg and his high-energy parks commissioner Adrian Benepe have spent more than $3 billion on parks renovation and construction. The achievements include adding 700 acres of new parkland (and not, Benepe points out, through Moses's controversial tools of eminent domain and landfill), bringing the city parks acreage to near 29,000. But to New Yorkers, the parks are a necessity. “There are eight million people in the city, and most of them live in houses without backyards,” Benepe says.

Even now, 10 years into the Bloomberg–Benepe era, park expenditures continue to hit record levels. Some 600 parks projects, worth about $1 billion, are in the design, bidding, and construction stages. That doesn’t include vast swaths of federal and state parkland within the city limits, the ingenious plazas created along Broadway by city transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the memorial grove at the World Trade Center site, the acres of parks planned by Columbia University for its new Manhattanville Campus, and other contributions to the city’s open-space bonanza.

Rosanne Cash
“I know a lot of people who complain about these new little pedestrian plazas with outdoor tables and chairs, but I really like the one by the Flatiron Building, where Broadway and Fifth Avenue split. It brings a breath of air to that very busy intersection.”
Rosanne Cash
and author

Benepe, a lifelong New Yorker who took his first parks job as a teenager in 1973, knows as well as anyone that parks don’t maintain themselves, and that public spaces that are allowed to deteriorate can be a liability to the city, rather than an asset. It was only 30 years ago that, in some parts of the city, proximity to parks decreased real estate values, which is almost unimaginable today.

Yet perhaps it’s important to imagine the new parks in 10, 20, or 50 years. At the same time that Benepe is opening and refurbishing parks at a feverish rate, the city has been cutting his budget by as much as 9 percent a year. Most of the impact will be seen in diminished maintenance. Already, there are signs of promises not kept in the form of threadbare lawns and overflowing trash pails. One New York Times columnist recently led a “requiem march” through the deteriorated archways in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

Though Benepe cites statistics to show that park maintenance is “holding its own,” the typical park looks nothing at all like Central Park and the High Line — the department’s manicured poster children, both of which depend on private funding. Critics say the city is creating a caste system of idyllic privately funded parks and struggling publicly funded ones. There is some truth to the charge: The High Line costs a staggering 50 times as much per acre to maintain as the typical parks department property. (The city kicks in only for security and structural inspections; private philanthropy covers the rest.)

Benepe has little patience with critics who say that by relying on public-private partnerships, the city is selling its soul, or at least its soil. Of the 5,000 sites the parks department maintains, only about a dozen have significant sources of private funding. The Central Park Conservancy raises $25 million a year, but the park borders some of the world’s most expensive real estate, creating sui generis fund-raising opportunities. The Prospect Park Alliance in Brooklyn, which has nearly three quarters as many acres to maintain, takes in just $5 million a year.

Making matters worse, Benepe concedes that no one knows how much it will cost to keep the new parks in good shape. And the waterfront parks are largely built on piers and pilings, which are “notoriously expensive to maintain.” In several interviews Benepe was candid about the possibility that the city won’t be able to maintain all the parks in the pipeline. His department has lost about 1,000 full-time jobs — one-eighth of its workforce — in the last three years, and faces an indefinite hiring freeze.

Still, the parks keep coming. And it takes more than money — coming from the record city budgets during the post-9/11 boom years — to explain it. By the time Bloomberg and Benepe took office in 2002, the city’s waterfront, no longer in commercial use, was ripe for transformation. Young New Yorkers were staying in the city and demanding playgrounds for their kids and more places to run or bike. The influx of immigrants has played a role, too, as parks begin to reflect the city’s ethnic diversity. A planned renovation will bring the mini-volleyball courts favored by Ecuadorians, for example, to a neighborhood park in Queens.

Not coincidentally, as the funds available for new parks burgeoned, landscape architecture was entering a golden age. Someday, James Corner, the lead designer of the High Line, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, the mastermind of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, may be as well known as their 19th-century idols Olmsted and Vaux. One of the features of the new Brooklyn park, a stairway to nowhere constructed from the remains of an old granite bridge, proves Van Valkenburgh’s talent for placemaking. Similar innovation has come from Thomas Balsley, at Queens’s Gantry Plaza State Park, which incorporates remnants of the area’s industrial past, and from Ken Smith, whose new East River Esplanade is a kind of upside-down High Line, with its smartly designed amenities beneath an elevated road.

Woody Allen
“The Meatpacking District has gone from a drab area of wholesalers to an exciting neighborhood, full of young people, art galleries, and high-end shops. It’s now an extremely desirable place to live or visit.”
Woody Allen

Architects, too, have had a big hand in the parks. Jean Nouvel designed the carousel house in Brooklyn Bridge Park; Toshiko Mori, the Poe Park Visitor Center in the Bronx; and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, a stunning new skating facility under construction in Prospect Park. Those projects will join Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s glorious High Line amenities, a playground designed by Frank Gehry for Battery Park (to break ground in 2013), and SHoP’s structures at the East River Esplanade.

Other architects engaged in the design of urban oases include Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, who have refitted the sculpture-studded Louise Nevelson Plaza in lower Manhattan with slumped-glass benches and Nevelson-friendly fixtures, and WXY, a young firm charged with reinventing Astor Place, just north of the Cooper Union, under the sponsorship of the city’s Department of Design and Construction.

In Brooklyn, the vast McCarren Park Pool, opened by Robert Moses in 1936, is undergoing a painstaking renovation by Rogers Marvel Architects. On Roosevelt Island in the East River, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial designed by Louis Kahn more than 45 years ago is finally being built, with an expected completion date of fall 2012.

Yet it is back up in the Bronx — the city’s poorest borough, where tourists rarely venture — that the parks renaissance is most apparent. In 2004, the city began tearing up a section of Van Cortlandt Park in order to install an underground water filtration plant. As compensation, it gave the borough $200 million for 75 park projects. The resulting gems include Pugsley Creek Park, a nature preserve where signs promise “Forever Wild” — unimaginable as a slogan in the Bronx just 15 years ago — and Concrete Plant Park, a former “batch mix” facility that is now a highlight of the new Bronx River Greenway.

But with all that good news, is it possible that Van Valkenburgh’s stairway to nowhere could become a symbol of over-reaching? Brooklyn Bridge Park is less than half complete, its future dependent on a complex city plan to rezone nearby property in order to generate new tax revenue. Phase three of the High Line, which would sweep around the Hudson Yards to 34th Street, is still owned by CSX Transportation. Most critically, will future city administrations have the money to maintain the parks that are completed?

Such questions don’t seem to dampen the ambitions of Benepe, who still has hundreds of green acres to create before Bloomberg leaves office in 2013. Was the commissioner wrong to build so many parks without guarantees of money to maintain them? After a pensive moment of silence, Benepe says he’s proud of his achievements. “No one can predict the future,” he notes. “But if there’s a chance to acquire parkland, you do it. Because you may never have the chance again.”

Fred A. Bernstein has degrees in architecture and law and writes about both subjects. He has visited scores of New York City parks with his two sons.

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