NY4P in West Side Rag: Riverside Park Is Undergoing Big Changes

Riverside Park Is Undergoing Big Changes; We Asked the Conservancy’s Boss All the Questions

By Michael McDowell

June 11, 2019

Central Park may get the headlines, and the Mandarin Duck, but Riverside Park is the neighborhood’s hidden gem. It’s the spot to fathom New York’s existential relation to the Hudson; Congressman Jerry Nadler’s favorite place for a stroll; critical habitat for urban species, such as coyotes and the West Side Little League; and home to an abundance of majestic monuments, glorious piers, and secret gardens. What more could a neighborhood ask for?

Many things, it turns out (shy the Upper West Side is not). Former City Council Member Dan Garodnick, who was appointed last year to lead the Riverside Park Conservancy, recently sat down with the Rag to discuss the Conservancy’s vision, and give updates on some of the major construction projects currently underway.

“We have a lot of priority projects for 2019-2020 that we’re working on, which include things like the restoration of the area between 72nd and 84th Street, the Hudson River Viewshed,” Garodnick began.

With sustainability central, the Conservancy aims to utilize strategic plantings in the area to re-vegetate slopes, fortify the landscape, prevent erosion, create habitat, and diminish pollution caused by runoff following storms.

Significant restoration work is also ongoing in Harlem, in the Woodland Restoration Area between 119th and 125th Street, and in Hamilton Heights, where a once-elegant park entrance at 148th Street is being renovated.

Closer to home, completion of some elements of Riverside Park South, between 59th and 71st Street, should occur by the end of this summer, and will include new recreation areas—a new playground, dog run, and lawns—as well as refreshed seating areas, new staircases, and pathways.

This phase of construction—Phase V—will also eventually include shade structures at 65th, 66th, and 67th Streets, bathrooms, and a kiosk, which will be added at a later date.

The next phase of work, Phase VI, will involve renovation of an area previously used for the staging of nearby construction projects, and will include multi-purpose athletic fields with lighting, basketball courts, and additional access points, as well as the separation of pedestrian and cyclists in the area. Unfortunately, this work is set to be rebid, and at present there is no timeline for that process.

And what about the bicycles? Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on the esplanade has recently become a matter of grave concern in the neighborhood.

“We’re taking steps to deal with it,” Garodnick assured. “We have a challenge. There is limited space that needs to occupied by a lot of interested runners, and bikers, and walkers. Expanding the area, of course, is not likely.”

The renovation of the 79th Street Rotunda, a project which appears to have stalled, is yet another major capital improvement.

“The role that we view ourselves in is to try to find ways to soothe the difficulties that will exist in the neighborhood as a result of this work. That means, advocating for minimal displacement on the ballfields, and that means sharing important information with the community about what’s happening and when. We view our role as pushing for faster completion of work, communicating with residents in the area, sharing resources, and smoothing out the impacts to the extent that we can use the weight of our office to do that,” Garodnick explained.

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, at 89th Street, has fallen into a shocking state of disrepair. And while some may find the appearance of a crumbling folly in the neighborhood an unexpected delight, the chain link fencing around the monument detracts from that sort of aesthetic reverie. Importantly, the fencing was installed to protect the public from falling debris. The monument is hazardous, and we’ve written about this previously.

“It’s a significant project with a $30-plus million dollar price tag. It’s a monument that people love and are proud of, that we want to celebrate. There hasn’t been a budget allocation to its repair, and we have told people that it’s important to voice their concern and get word out there, to let elected officials know that this is a public priority,” Garodnick said.

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ isn’t the only piece of Riverside Park that’s in need of some TLC.

“Right now, we’re focusing a lot of our attention on the area between 105th and 125th Street, where you have ponding in the middle of the park. We are asking the city to take urgent steps to fix the significant infrastructure problems in that part of the park, where you have pavement that is collapsing, and a half-mile of parkland which is always underwater. We need the resources to fix these problems, because otherwise they will stay the way they are forever,” he said, tapping his hand on his desk.

Although Riverside Park has significant needs, as seems to be the case when it comes to the majority of the city’s infrastructure—Exhibit A: The Subway—Garodnick is energetic and enthusiastic, and envisions a future in which the Conservancy may one day assume full stewardship of the park.

“We have a lot of growth opportunities in Riverside Park to care for six miles of parkland, we are stretched thin today, and we are looking for the resources and support to be able to do what we need to do,” he said.

The Conservancy, which is entirely funded by private contributions, provides half of the budget for operating Riverside Park, and its budget, between $7-8 million, includes 30 paid staff members—19 of whom work in the field. In 2010, the Conservancy started a Zone Gardener Initiative, which divided the park into zones and sections, each of which are maintained by a full-time staff member. Parks provides some support—lawn maintenance and trash pick-up—and conservancy staff fills in the gaps.

This staff is augmented by approximately 240 consistent volunteers, many of whom tend a specific area of the park, and new volunteers are especially needed north of 120th Street, which has suffered a history of neglect.

A new signage initiative aims to recognize those who have made Riverside Park what it is today.

“Part of this initiative includes signage that indicates a volunteer site, a volunteer-maintained space,” he said. “Our volunteer program is really what got this organization started in the 1980s, and is indicative of how much this neighborhood really loves this park.”

Beyond dedicated volunteers, funding is critical.

“We are part of a new coalition that was started by New Yorkers for Parks. They have a campaign called Play Fair, which is advocating for more city funding throughout all of NYC’s parks, because right now Parks receives less than 1 percent of the city budget,” Garodnick said.

Healthy parks and healthy cities are inextricably linked.

“The condition of a park is intricately related to the condition of a city, and its social health, and to get people out in the park is so important,” added Anastasia Galkowski, a development associate at the Conservancy.

A long-term master plan for Riverside Park is available here.

“We’re exploring ways to make Riverside Park into a truly twenty-first century park, with technology that allows us to properly measure the care of every inch of park: the frequency of pruning; the inoculation of trees for Dutch Elm Disease; the removal of invasives from particular areas; precise timeliness; plantings—what’s working in the park and what’s not. But most fundamentally, everything we do is about creating a sustainable urban park, improving the infrastructure, and allowing for a high level of enjoyment for the people who use the park,” he said.

Garodnick answered other questions, including how best to use resources like the 96th Street Clay Tennis Courts.

“These are public courts, and they need to be recognized as public courts. Private programming is a part of that, but not the predominant part of that,” Garodnick said. “We’re very proud of the work that the Riverside Clay Tennis Association is doing in keeping those courts in amazing shape. They are unique, they are spectacular, and they are well-maintained.”

What about dealing with rats?

“We are, like any other part of the city, trying to improve trash pick-up, and encourage people not to feed animals so as to create an opportunity for rats to get comfortable, but that is a constant challenge, and we know that Parks is regularly speaking with the Department of Health about addressing issues in particular areas,” he said.

And the defunct kayak dock at 72nd Street?

“That’s an ongoing conversation,” he shook his head.

Garodnick is more enthused when it comes to Council Member Mark Levine’s idea of ferry service between the Upper West Side and New Jersey.

“We love it. We think that would be a great way to activate the park, and an important transit opportunity for people in this area,” he said.

Although Upper West Siders may not always agree on how best to manage the resources we love, Garodnick is keenly aware of how important the neighborhood is to the park, and how important the park is for the neighborhood.

Most recently, the Upper West Side has fallen in love with the goats, which have taken up residence between 119th and 125th Street this summer.

What does Garodnick have to say?

“It’s the ultimate farm to table.”

Read the article on the West Side Rag website