“Any place can become a park” – thoughts from Adrian Benepe

If Robert Moses rained mountains of rubble to create his orderly greenways, Adrian Benepe is finding specks of green within the rubble that neighbors want to use for recreation. Benepe, the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation since 2001, switches tacks often in an interview: how quick his canoeing stroke has gotten or how fast the flowers in a Central Park copse are growing. But Benepe always places these genial asides within a hunt for new parks – anywhere. “Other peoples’ useless land is often something we covet,” he says. “With a lot of design and a great deal of expense, any place can become a park.”

Here’s a look at some of the most inspiring parks the city has started building on some formerly industrial or otherwise unlikely sites.

 

Bushwick Inlet

“The only place left to build new parks is on the former industrial waterfront. Developers are benefiting from the upzoning to build parks as amenities, and the city is committing public money to develop 28 acres at Bushwick Inlet, with the brownfields included.” - Adrian Benepe

Ground was broken in early July for this 28-acre space on Greenpoint/Williamsburg’s waterfront. By winter of 2010, the athletic field, multi-use building, and playground should be completed. Wetlands will follow as part of the second phase of development for the northern portion of the park, expected to be completed by the summer of 2011.

Bushwick Inlet

View of East River from N. 9th St. and Kent Ave., Williamsburg. Photo courtesy of Will Fernia.

Bushwick Inlet

Facing north at river’s edge, East River State Park, Williamsburg. Photo courtesy of Will Fernia.

 

Calvert Vaux Park

“PlaNYC includes [long-mapped] parks that were never developed or semi-developed. We’ve done community visioning sessions and construction has started at Calvert Vaux Park, near the Coney Island inlet.” - Adrian Benepe

Calvert Vaux Park, originally named Dreier-Offerman Park after a home for unwed mothers that stood on the land, was rededicated in 1998 for the architect Calvert Vaux, whose body was mysteriously found in nearby Gravesend Bay. The 77.98-acre park is bounded by the bay on one side and Shore Parkway on the other, and stretches from Bay 44th to Bay 49th Streets. Completion of phase one of project construction, which includes two synthetic turf soccer fields along with wetlands construction, an entrance garden, and additional trees, is estimated for January 2010. Further phases of construction will bring three baseball fields, six soccer fields, a recreation center, an amphitheater, and a playground along with picnic areas, nature trails, and a bike path.

Calvert Vaux coast

Facing northwest from western tip of Dreier Offerman park, photo courtesy of Timothy Vogel

Calvert Vaux Fog

Facing southeast at the southern side of Calvert Vaux Park looking across Coney Island Creek towards the Coney Island parachute jump, photo courtesy of David Hogarty

Calvert Vaux Geese

Facing north from the southern corner of the soccer field at Bay 44th St. and Shore Parkway. Photo courtesy of Joe Brown.

 

Concrete Plant Park

Concrete Plant Park: “The Bronx River, when you get up north, gets quite bucolic. Our idea, with the Bronx River Alliance, is to have a continuous greenway. Concrete Plant Park incorporates old silos like architectural follies and around the bend in Hunts Point is a five-acre park on the lot of a former paint factory.” - Adrian Benepe

Recently opened, this former concrete batch mix plant has been re-established as a 2.7-acre park of salt marshes on the western shore of the Bronx River between Westchester and Bruckner Boulevards, along the Bronx River Greenway. This new amenity for Crotona Park East retains some of the plant’s silos and mixing bins, integrating the industrial relics with new benches and green space facing the waterway.

Concrete Plant Park Accross Hway

Taken from the elevated 6 Whitlock Ave subway station, facing east. Photo courtesy of Maestro5ive

Concrete Plant Park

Facing north from the north side of Bruckner Blvd between the railroad and the river, photo courtesy of Jacob Mason

 

Fresh Kills

Fresh Kills: “It will be open soon, certainly the southernmost section, where they’re building a series of athletic fields. This is a magical moment, the biggest expansion of parks in generations. It’s never a bad idea to acquire land for parkland- they’re not building any more of it.”

“Design ideals for the 19th and 20th Centuries, some are still valid, but people now want to do skate parks and mountain biking and surfing and kayaking…so we throw caution to the wind about lawsuits and put up signs that say ‘play at risk.’ We have an obligation to get kids more exercise, to build facilities for people in wheelchairs…the more we can do to engage kids in one sport or another, the happier they’ll be.” - Adrian Benepe

In an estimated 30 years time, Fresh Kills Park will cover a mammoth 2,200 acres, an area three times the size of Central Park and one big enough for the planned “fives parks in one.”  The Confluence will be the center of waterfront and cultural activities, with 20 acres of waterfront land at Creek Landing and 50 acres of athletic, event, social, and artistic program space at The Point. Natural wetlands, meadows, and creeks will cover much of the North, South, East, and West Parks, with additional recreation space, trails, and the natural wetlands and Plans for the North, South, East, and West Parks offer vast tracts of natural settings, with trails, scenic routes, and recreational space throughout.  The West Park will be finished last and will include a 9/11 memorial.

Fresh Kills Aerial

Photo: Alex Maclean, courtesy of the City of New York

Fresh Kills

Photo courtesy of Michael Falco

 

Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir

Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir: “We have outreach coordinators who do listening sessions and conduct opinion polls. People say: you didn’t listen. Well no, we did listen but we had to make a choice that we hope will satisfy 51% of the people. Everything we do is in the public realm, but you also try to go beyond to incorporate things that people want to do in the 21st Century.” - Adrian Benepe

Situated high on a plateau between Brooklyn and Queens, Highland Park has afforded views of both boroughs and the ocean for over 100 years.  The Ridgewood Resevoir was drained a decade ago and a young forest has grown up in its place. Infrastructure for this 50 acre site is currently in the works, which will include perimeter lighting and path restoration. A master plan will follow.

Highland Park Children's Garden

Facing a children’s farm operated from 1907 to the 1960′s by the Board of Education on what is now the site of the Highland Park Children’s Garden by Jamaica Ave and Warwick Street, photo courtesy of NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

HP Ridgewood Reservoir

Facing the southwest edge of the central reservoir basin looking northeast, photo courtesy of Greg Bugel

“Unless you get beyond putting in a bench, parks won’t succeed. It’s an old saw that good uses drive out bad. There’s tremendous psychic reward in knowing that even our scut work goes to making people happy. There are very few public services that focus on happiness.” - Adrian Benepe

 

Alec Appelbaum writes about how cities can become greener and fairer for the New York Times, the Architect’s Newspaper and others. He lives on the Lower East Side.

Additional reporting and image research by Nick Buccelli and Rachel Aland.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



8 Responses to ““Any place can become a park” – thoughts from Adrian Benepe”

  1. An absolutely beautiful assemblage of photographs! You are on a wonderfully effective trajectory to bring the imagination to these wonderful parks back into the psyche of our daily appreciation of New York.

  2. brian cook says:

    It is great that the city has begun to engage their urban fabric, and put money toward new construction projects in it. And while I’m sure that this project has best intentions, and is probably changing the city in a positive way, it sheds light on a key idea that is currently ingrained in our culture. If we consider that landscape design as a management strategy, updating lands to fit their new responsibilities, then we see that these projects are simply updating the park for a new perceived version of users. Maybe these places are becoming ‘better’, maybe not. But we must first lose this romantic IMAGE of a park. The land is always being used. It always has a purpose. To call these new spaces a “park” is simply discriminating. Just because the previous user is not a middle to upper class white business person with yearnings of a comfortable “nature” experience does not mean it should be negated. It does not necessarily mean it needs reprogramming, like a lost teenager not fitting in with a bourgeoisie culture. This idealist project endeavors to create a pastoral, romantic vision of a city, and of what a park is. But the plain truth is that your ideal is not mine, and that there are many versions of life that are important and should have a place in our world. Let’s think about this as we design, as we change our world. Do we really want everything to be for the same type of people, and is it really important that they be for people anyway? Can we spend this money to construct other types of environments or promote some other enjoyment or life that progresses the city? Can we re-think the ways that we cultivate, and what or who we are cultivating for, and with what materials? This is a great project, but can we imagine an even better one?

  3. Thanks for the comments. Benepe argues persuasively that most of these new parks emerge to serve exactly the people who need them. He puts money behind that claim, paying staff as outreach coordinators and using their input to rig parks for the sports (cricket, soccer, BMX) their neighbors want. The design of these new parks and many new playgrounds reflects input from low-income, immigrant or marginalized neighbors, and nearly all of them include ample seating for the elderly. All Brian’s questions are rich and haunting, but let’s not oversimplify the object of critique.

  4. Rob Jett says:

    Regarding Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir – Mr. Benepe has summarily ignored nearly all the input from the community, this includes changes to the phase 1 design asked for by the local community boards. The $50M originally set aside for the reservoir project would not have included ANY improvements to Highland Park despite the fact that the baseball fields at HP are in horrible condition. The commissioner’s own ecological assessment describes the reservoir habitats as “unique to New York City”, yet he has no problem destroying its wetlands and forests. People need to take a closer look at Mr. Benepe’s record, not just his spin.

  5. Tom Dowd says:

    The development of the Ridgewood Reservoir has been totally mishandled by the Park’s Dept. This is where we stand
    1. Listening sessions with the results ignored.
    The will of two community boards and a Borough President ignored. Manipulation of the survey results to satisfy one politician with an environmental record of zero.

  6. Keith Rodan says:

    Take a look at the third picture down from the top. that’s a remaining piece of North Brooklyn’s post-industrial abandoned waterfront. Yes, it would make a good park, of sorts, but only if its wildness can be preserved.

    All too often, when a place like this is turned into a park it loses its soul. Asphalt paths, railings, non-contextual plantings and overwrought concern for ‘safety issues’ will turn this little pocket into yet another tame and boring waterfront park. Witness the former rail terminal site along North 12th-14th Sts, now a state park, fenced in, tidy lawns, two guards on scooters to tell you what not to do (no cameras!) and a shadow of the informal and increasingly natural community waterfront park it had been for years in the eighties and nineties.

    Mr. Benepe and company may be well intentioned, but why not let the communities themselves have more input as to how they like their park? Particularly, let the artists and gardeners take on the project – witness the success of some of the locally-run Green Thumb gardens around the city. And leave those chunks of concrete, the remnants of piers and patches of beach. It’s fun to ‘discover’ a forgotten place that invites exploration – a hideaway where one can read or have a picnic, or enjoy the view without feeling scrutinized by Big Brother in an official public park.

    ‘Let it be” may be a good guideline in these situations.

  7. Rob Cummings says:

    I applaud the Parks Department and Mr. Benepe’s efforts to open up more of these underutilized spaces. Parks offer the greatest utility to the greatest number of people.

    As a younger New Yorker, I enjoyed exploring these off-limits places. Williamsburg Beach, Gravesend Bay, and even the McCarren Park Pool when it was mostly a homeless encampment, were all great places to go and hang out. But usage of those spaces was limited to the young and curious and the poor and desperate.

    The comments above that vaguely argue for a policy of benign neglect are misguided. It’s an argument for the sensibilities of the few over the enjoyment of the many.

  8. katharine says:

    Bushwick Inlet Park needs a lot of work before it is completed. The city will need to buy a relatively large piece of property (or take it by eminent domain), conduct an environmental study that might take years, and conduct environmental remediation that may also take year before the park actually reaches Bushwick Inlet.

    Which, of course, is not to condemn the partial completion. A partial park is still a park. Though this one does use artificial turf.

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