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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

December 2007 Issue

Parks Come to the Point
Two new parks in the South Bronx finally offer its residents green space and waterfront access.

By Linda McIntyre

Parks Come to the Point

How much power do parks have to help transform an industrial urban neighborhood into a happier, healthier place? Residents of Hunts Point are finding out.

Hunts Point in the South Bronx is a peninsula bordered by the Bronx River to the east and the East River to the south. This wedge of land was once sought after by New York’s elite as a place to live and enjoy the outdoors, but after the construction of subway and train lines in the early 20th century, the mansions gave way to apartment blocks and, later, industrial operations.

Now the neighborhood is best known as the home of the biggest food distribution center in the world, housed in a series of low-slung warehouses that stand among other industrial facilities between the residential section and the waterfront. Tens of thousands of trucks barrel over Hunts Point’s roads each week, their diesel fumes contributing to asthma rates four times the national average. Its residential population is about 75 percent Latino and 20 percent African American and, according to the 2000 census, more than half live below the poverty line.

Soon, however, Hunts Point may also be known as the home of two great riverfront parks: Hunts Point Riverside Park, a whimsical interpretation of a fishing village that serves as a gateway to boating on the Bronx River, and beachy Barretto Point Park on the East River, with spectacular views of Manhattan. Both were built on derelict vacant lots that are now beautiful, green, and inviting, with fun play features, cooling spray showers, lawns for lounging, and amphitheaters for events and performances. “They’re two of the most beautiful parks in the city, in an area that had few good parks,” says Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “They send a signal that every neighborhood can have parks as good as Madison Square Park or Bryant Park.”

The two parks are a testament to the enduring natural beauty that can still be found in New York City, to the tenacity and ingenuity of South Bronx community advocates, and to the design savvy of the city’s landscape architects. But bringing parks to a neighborhood that has more frequently played reluctant host to factories, garbage dumps, and prison barges is not a simple matter, and the task isn’t over when the ribbon is cut.

Down by the Riverside

Before these parks were built, the waterfront was not only difficult for residents to visit—of the six miles of waterfront land in the South Bronx, less than 300 feet was accessible to the public—but at the Hunts Point Riverside site, few people knew there was waterfront. The improbable urban legend is true: During a morning jog, South Bronx community activist Majora Carter was pulled by her dog into a weedy vacant lot strewn with trash at the dead end of Lafayette Avenue. As the pair plowed through the site they ended up, much to Carter’s surprise, on the banks of the Bronx River.

Carter, who went on to establish the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx (SSB), had cut her activist teeth during the “garbage wars,” in which South Bronx advocates joined with residents of other New York neighborhoods to push back against the disproportionate siting of waste facilities in their low-income areas. “We realized we could and should propose our own development projects,” she wrote in 2001 as she launched SSB. “And in my neighborhood, these projects would be connected to the restoration of the Bronx River.”

Carter secured a $10,000 grant from a New York City Parks Department program to provide seed money for projects in the Bronx. Working with other community groups and the Parks Department, over a five-year period she helped leverage that seed money into more than $3 million from the mayor’s budget to build Hunts Point Riverside Park.

In the meantime, volunteers cleaned up and adopted the site as an ad hoc riverfront gathering place. “There was a series of improvisational improvements,” says Linda Cox, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance. “We worked out of the park before it was a park,” says Adam Green, founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat, an environmental education group that also teaches teenagers how to build traditional wooden boats. “We didn’t expect to stay there, and we weren’t really directly involved in advocacy. We did show in a practical, though not intentional, way how to use the park.” Rocking the Boat had a boatbuilding facility on 134th Street, in the center of the South Bronx community but far from the water. The group had been launching boats at Classon Point Park, but that site was a 25-minute bus ride from the nearest subway station.

The group’s boatbuilding and launching informed the park’s marine-oriented design, says Parks Department landscape architect George Bloomer, lead designer on the project, as did the gritty industrial character of the surrounding community. “There wasn’t a lot of green space,” he says. Residents involved in the scoping process emphasized this need, and Bloomer and his colleagues obliged them with an oval central lawn area. “People need a place to lie on the grass or throw a football around,” he says. Bloomer also specified much heavier planting than most city parks have, for a feeling of lushness.

Trees such as poplar and English oak were used to screen views of a plastic and metal recycling yard on one side of the park and the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market on the other. Closer to the park entrance, a grid of honey locusts provides dappled shade without blocking the view of Rocking the Boat’s program site, which sits on land leased from The Point Community Development Corporation, where Carter had worked before forming SSB. The Point bought that site, which had been a fur and tanning facility, during the design process for Hunts Point Riverside Park. Early on, before it was clear that the acquisition would be successful, the designers had planned on a storage facility for Rocking the Boat inside the park, and taking that element out of the program freed up a lot of space, says Bloomer.

The original site was an awkward dogleg shape with only about 100 feet of right-of-way on the waterfront; the river was hardly visible from the park’s entrance and main play area. But the park’s supporters and designers were able to secure the use of an additional triangular parcel that was owned by the city and used by the adjacent produce market. This is the highest point in the 1.4-acre park and the location of the amphitheater, with curved cut stone seats set into the lawn, looking out over a gravel beach to the river.

For younger kids, the highlight of the park is a spray shower fashioned to look like a mooring pile, set in a stylized fishing village with boats made of glass fiber-reinforced concrete and seats shaped like conch shells. Bloomer sketched out these features and, working with Symmetry Products in Rhode Island, took them from clay models to finished products. The shell seats were especially hard to get right, says Bloomer, who kept a conch on his desk while working through the design. The early mock-ups looked more like turnips than shells. But the finished seats, whose inspiration is obvious, add a lot of maritime charm to the play area.

Unlike the black wrought-iron picket fences that surround most city playgrounds, the one at Hunts Point Riverside is made of heavyweight wire fencing, painted bright blue. “It brings down the eye from the street,” says Bloomer, “and adds a decorative industrial vibe.” The same fencing is used on a horizontal plane on a blue pergola planted with wisteria in the play area.

The park was sparkling and the plants were healthy and thriving during a Landscape Architecture visit to the park in early June. Cox says that at the Bronx River Alliance’s annual fund-raising bash in mid-September, held at the Hunts Point Riverside site for the second time this year, the impressive growth of the landscape and the wildlife it attracted, including egrets and throngs of monarch butterflies, were hot topics of conversation.

A few toddlers and teens were playing that day, but the park was fairly quiet. Most construction was finished in autumn 2006, but the park’s opening had been delayed until May by efforts to install a traffic light and by concerns about the safety of a freight rail line that runs near the park’s entrance, and its official ribbon cutting was held in late August. Since its opening, Hunts Point Riverside Park has drawn more and more attention. Workers take their lunch breaks there, and residents of all ages are embracing it, according to Cox. “It’s attracting a diverse crowd,” she says. Toddlers play in the spray shower, teens from Rocking the Boat haul their creations out to the launch, adults gaze at the river from benches lining the walkway through the park. Unlike most city playgrounds, Hunts Point Riverside Park has built-in grills on which visitors can cook as well as picnic tables where they can enjoy a meal with a view.

For Rocking the Boat and the high school students served by its programs, the impact has been especially strong. “Since the park opened, it’s brought the whole community to our doorstep,” says Green. “We’ve always had community rowing programs, but there wasn’t too much interest. This summer, over five Saturdays we had more than 500 people rowing.” There was so much demand that the program was carried into the autumn for the first time.

For Carter, the park has even more meaning. She had her wedding there in October 2006. But, she says, her favorite feature is the butterfly bushes. “If you had lived through the fires and the abandonment and the drugs and the deaths,” she told us, “you would have as hard a time as I do believing there would be butterflies here.”

Beach Plum

If Hunts Point Riverside Park, an attractive oasis on the edge of the warehouse district, is a happy surprise, Barretto Point Park is a shock. Not long ago, Barretto Point was an illegal dump on an abandoned brownfield site formerly occupied by an asphalt plant, a sand and gravel business, and a paint and varnish manufacturer. It abuts a sewage treatment plant and sits near a fertilizer factory. Groups of rowdy residents used to gather at a rocky and uninviting ad hoc beach on the site, known among its mostly Puerto Rican users as La Playita (the little beach), for weekend pig roasts and other revels.

Now it’s a verdant five-acre park, featuring a rolling lawn lined with benches, trees, and a wide paved promenade. A sandy volleyball area and an expanded beach honor La Playita, though swimming isn’t allowed. There are sports courts, playground equipment, picnic tables, a spray shower, and a storage facility for community groups’ boats.

As was the case at Hunts Point Riverside, the informal existing uses of the site as well as community needs had a strong impact on the design of the park. “Residents were involved in all aspects of the design, from determining the program elements to the character of the park,” says Ricardo Hinkle, ASLA, the landscape architect who designed the park for the Parks Department, highlighting specifically its pastoral quality, the waterfront promenade, and the basketball and handball courts. Hinkle, who is keen on the sport, suggested the sand volleyball court, and the notion was enthusiastically taken up by the community.

The sewage treatment plant, and its proposed expansion, drove a lot of the local activism that gave rise to the park project. It also drove some of the park’s design elements. “We were informed that two to four new 150-foot-high egg-shaped digesters (to process sludge) were going to be built just to the other side of the northern property line,” says Hinkle. “We decided that in any case we were going to orient the park in the other direction and turn its back to the treatment plant. We planted this edge very heavily, with native shade trees, evergreens, flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflower meadow mix.”

The design team even paid an homage of sorts to the planned digesters with “animal art”—during the design phase, this was a requirement put in place by then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern—centered on an egg theme. “We decided to make our animal art a symbol of rebirth of this site as a park and a playful reference to the digesters’ shape—hatching eggs,” says Hinkle. The park features precast concrete sea turtle, snake, and chicken eggs in various stages of hatching.

Before the park could be built, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection had to undertake extensive remediation at the site, including excavation and disposal of contaminated soil, installation of two feet of clean fill, and extraction and treatment of groundwater. The remediation strategy was complicated a bit by the designers’ desire to reshape the shoreline at the western edge of the park—widening a sliver of water alongside the Tiffany Street Pier, which had been built by the federal government in the early 1990s and turned over to the city a few years later—and to create a salt marsh habitat.

The team turned the challenge into an opportunity. “We knew the community was interested in a performance space for musicians and other artists,” says Hinkle. They delivered, with a new 12-foot-high hill with a cut-stone amphitheater carved into its southern side, creating a space with breathtaking views of the East River and the Manhattan skyline. But that still left a lot of brownfield fill, and the cost of removing and disposing of such fill is so high that the usual practice is to reduce the amount of excavation as much as possible, capping it with clean fill.

Instead, Hinkle and his colleagues decided to use the fill to mound up the central lawn a few more feet (it was already slated to be capped). “This additional mounding creates a subtle sense of enclosure and separation from the more urban half of the park, with the playgrounds, sports courts, comfort station, and boat storage facility,” he says. “It screens the more unpleasant aspects of the sewage treatment facility to the north and east. It also gives the lawn a gentle slope that is ideal for informal and passive use, while making it difficult to play a serious game of soccer, which would tear up the lawn very quickly.”

During Landscape Architecture’s visit in June, we didn’t really notice the treatment plant (though the digesters have not yet been built), and lingering thoughts of the industrial tableau just outside quickly fell away—we were drawn in by the views and inviting features. The beach-inspired features, including all of the sand, some wood and wire beach fencing, and plants such as beach grass and rugosa rose, seemed perfect for the setting on this bright sunny day.

A visitor’s connection to the water is strengthened by the fact that most of the promenade has no rail, a decision that has prompted some concern from visitors with small children.

“The decision to leave most of the promenade free of railing was made by looking at comparable revetments throughout the city,” says Hinkle, “including Lemon Creek Park in Staten Island, which I designed over 10 years ago.” There’s no railing in that park but, says Hinkle, “as yet, no problems or complaints.” The slope is not very steep—it’s 3:1—and there is a two-foot-wide concrete runnel providing some visually clean separation between the walkway and the revetment. In places where the slope is steeper, there is a rail.

During our weekday visit, the park wasn’t crowded, but the handful of visitors was making full use of it. Older kids raced around the promenade on foot, bikes, and scooters; younger ones frolicked in the spray shower and on the play equipment. Adults fished or lounged on the grass.

Skunks at the Garden Party

While Hunts Point now has a pair of beautiful parks, the story isn’t over. The parks’ location in an underserved neighborhood, and their ambitious designs, have meant there are kinks yet to work out, both small—some difficulties with the floating pier at Hunts Point Riverside, erosion of the volleyball court sand—and large. Some issues can be remedied in a straightforward manner (the sand erosion, for example, has been mitigated by a granite-block swale to divert stormwater), but some have been more difficult to sort out and continue to fester.

After a lavish opening ceremony, Barretto Point Park was essentially off-limits to local kids during the week. Its gates were locked at three o’clock in the afternoon because the park had been assigned no full-time staff. Finally, last April, a new Parks Department worker was assigned to Barretto Point, allowing it to be kept open, like most other city playgrounds, until dusk.

Maintenance is always an issue in urban parks these days. A pair of graduates of an SSB job training program is helping with the maintenance of the new parks, with a funding assist from the Clinton Global Initiative, but SSB is worried about the long-term situation. “This is just a stopgap measure until the city realizes its responsibilities to our community,” says Carter. The Parks Department’s Bronx Borough Commissioner, Hector Aponte, told us there was a lot of discussion about establishing a nonprofit group or conservancy to help with maintenance of the parks and the South Bronx Greenway project, which is still in the early planning stages. But, says Carter, “that’s not practical in poor communities.”

Access can be difficult. While Hunts Point Riverside is only a couple of blocks from a residential neighborhood, even the nearest residential neighbors to Barretto Point have to slog past seven city blocks and a lot of heavy truck traffic. The closest subway station is a mile away. For most visitors, both parks can be difficult to reach without a car or the guts to brave a longish walk from the nearest subway station through one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly parts of New York, labeled a “fatality cluster” in a 2006 study by four city agencies. Adam Liebowitz of The Point says the group is exploring possible solutions such as extending an existing bus route, and Benepe says that the Parks Department is working to bring a floating pool, like the popular one at Brooklyn Bridge Park, to Barretto Point next summer and to ensure there is a bus route to get swimmers there. Carter loves the design of Barretto Point Park but says that it might have been better to bring it on line later when more progress has been made on the greenway, which should help improve access.

Even when events are planned at the parks, they don’t necessarily go smoothly. Lisa Winters, executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, said that the group held its annual Gay Pride Cultural Celebration at Barretto Point Park. “It’s a gem of a park,” she told us. “But we had to hire private shuttle buses, and that cost us a lot of money.” The group was also unhappy with what they saw as a hostile attitude from Parks Department staff, despite the agency’s insistence during the application process that the event be held at Barretto Point. Such episodes do little to build community support and traditions for the new park.

Then there’s the smell.

Miquela Craytor, SSB’s deputy director, says the new parks are fabulous. “Here are beautiful parks, finally we have green space and safe recreation without dodging trucks,” she told us. “We want people to use them. But it’s hard when it stinks.”

Odors from the fertilizer factory and sewage treatment plant, she says, regularly plague the Hunts Point neighborhood, especially at Barretto Point Park. We didn’t experience the problem during our visit, but it’s been amply documented by the local press. Residents’ only recourse had been calls to the 311 city services hotline, usually resulting in 15 minutes on the phone. But during the process of approving the treatment plant’s expansion in September, South Bronx City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo insisted that the city’s Department of Environmental Protection undertake a comprehensive odor study of Hunts Point and specify an abatement plan.

Craytor, however, remains concerned. She says that the city could require the facilities to follow proper procedures for handling and processing waste, which would significantly ameliorate the odors. SSB and other groups don’t believe they’re getting a lot of help with their efforts to force compliance.

In the face of such challenges, how much of a difference will these parks make in Hunts Point? Liebowitz is optimistic and believes they will bring more momentum to the South Bronx Greenway project. “When we talk about open space and greening up Hunts Point, now we have something to point to,” he says. Carter is more skeptical. “The parks provide good photo ops,” she says, “and allow everyone to say, ‘Oh good, they have something (in the South Bronx); now they will be quiet.’” Aponte takes the long view. These parks and the greenway, he says, will over time make the neighborhood more attractive for a variety of uses beyond industrial warehouses and factories. “Slowly,” he says, “it will become more vibrant.”

But some Hunts Point residents, long deprived of natural beauty and recreation, are happy to live in the moment. “This place used to be a garbage dump,” a delighted Hunts Point resident enjoying Barretto Point Park told a dubious reporter from the Hunts Point Express last spring. “Now it’s like a suburban park, but in the South Bronx.”

PROJECT CREDITS HUNTS POINT RIVERSIDE PARK
Design: George Bloomer, Nancy Prince, ASLA, Aleksandra Szefke. Specifications: Susan Ellis. Engineering: Reza Mashayekhi, Dewberry Engineers. Survey: Dominick Cusumano. BARRETTO POINT PARK Landscape architects: Ricardo Hinkle, ASLA, Rachel Kramer. Landscape design team: Trish Clark, Marcha Johnson, ASLA. Architect: Carol Qu. Environmental engineer: Theo Kavvadias. Structural engineers: Reza Mashayekhi, Ghulam Miraki. Electrical engineer: Michael Enitan. Mechanical and plumbing engineer: Alexander Fakeyode.

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