Inside SummerStage’s $5.5 million makeover in Central Park

View of the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

An elevated version of the outdoor venue known for its free Central Park concert series debuts this weekend with a new stage and elevated seating.

View of the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park in Manhattan.
View of the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Ceetay

Fans and performers returning to SummerStage in Central Park this season will find a less rugged version of the concert venue that’s been around in one capacity or another since 1986.

The 2019 season welcomes an elevated version of the outdoor space known for its free concert series — this time, its flashing $5.5 million worth of upgrades.

"I think fans will be really blown away when they walk into the new space," says Heather Lubov, the executive director of the City Parks Foundation. "It’s going to feel very different."

The City Parks-run venue packed up at the close of the fall 2018 outdoor concert season and announced its plans to spend the winter months revamping its layout, bleacher seating, bathrooms and more at an off-site location.

Bleacher seating areas are raised higher than last year at the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park.
Bleacher seating areas are raised higher than last year at the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Months of work has translated to an improved SummerStage, in its most member-friendly, comfortable form yet.

At its start, it was a gathering outside the Naumburg Bandshell. It moved to Rumsey Playfield and opened its own temporary venue in 1990. SummerStage began "as a way to bring positive activity into the park at a time when it was severely lacking."

This is the first major upgrade to the venue since its debut.

A chunk of the $5.5 million funds — donated by the City Council and Manhattan borough president as well as private individuals — has gone toward upgrading features for members, paying ticket holders and performers, including bathrooms with air conditioning, lounges with preferred seating and elevated views and green rooms decorated by West Elm-donated furniture.

But the venue, in its new form, still stays true to the bulk of its audience: the average New Yorker taking advantage of its free ticketed concert series.

A member area with a bar is raised higher than last year at the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park.
A member area with a bar is raised higher than last year at the newly refurbished SummerStage concert venue in Central Park. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Major changes to the layout of the venue have allowed fans to have an unobstructed view of their favorite artists. This year’s lineup brings Corinne Bailey Rae, Parquet Courts and Bloc Party performing "Silent Alarm," among others.

While much of the 5,500-general-capacity venue is standing room (now coated with fresh turf) 180-degree bleacher seating has been elevated 3 feet to ensure views over the heads of dancing New Yorkers. Bathrooms (still portable toilets for nonpaying ticket holders) and vendor stations have been moved behind the bleacher seats with walkways installed. Previously, the path to these amenities required a walk in front of fans trying to view the concert.

"The concert experience is different because it’s a real set up now where you don’t have people walking in front of or behind you, you just get to watch the show," Lubov says. "And if you’re in the bleachers, you get to see above the crowd in a way you couldn’t before."

New for all to enjoy: two LED screens on each side of the stage, and one centered behind the performer, to help give off an arena vibe.

In an effort to attract touring bands and artists with elaborate set needs, a new stage and overhead awning have been installed. The crumbling previous stage is what sparked the entire refurbishment project.

New air-conditioned dressing rooms and lounges for the artists were installed at SummerStage.
New air-conditioned dressing rooms and lounges for the artists were installed at SummerStage. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

"We were finding that as artists were coming through we weren’t able to support the full weight of their productions so we really wanted to design something that was state of the art and new and would help us to remain competitive," Lubov says. "Certainly, it should be able to support larger touring bands. Our goal is always to bring the best possible artists to New Yorkers free of charge."

Technical upgrades were also made to the venue’s sound and lighting equipment.

To the average fan, the physicality of the venue will seem comfortably familiar. A fresh coat of green paint helps its shipping container artist lounges, offices and green rooms almost blend in with the Central Park shrubbery behind them.

"Our color scheme is based on the fact that we’re in a park, in nature, and that’s very important to us," she says. "We wanted to blend in, so if you walked around the venue you’d see all the shipping containers we’ve repurposed as offices and dressing rooms blend into the background."

A change that can be most appreciated to the average fan was made, cost-free, to the venue lineup as it aims to feature a balance in gender.

"Right now we’re at 54 percent female performers, 46 percent male and we’re really proud of that … There’s a lot in the music industry going on in particular that makes it important for us as a women-led festival to take a stand and say 50/50 is what we need to be doing."

Most other changes will remain behind the scenes to the average New Yorker, though upgrades are seemingly in place to entice fans to become a member at a prominently placed sign-up booth near the venue’s entrance.

Members have access to two upgraded areas including a member lounge complete with a bar and two private seating areas, one of them is elevated for an ideal view of the stage. The second, known as the terrace, can now accommodate more than double the number of fans (60 plus) than it could last season. It gives fans access to seats, an elevated deck, private bathrooms and an outdoor lounge area. Two decks placed on opposite sides of the stage are available for fans to reserve for private parties and celebrations.

One of those decks is typically reserved for artists and their guests and directly connects to four new artist lounges and private bathrooms.

To reserve a spot and see the full SummerStage lineup, visit cityparksfoundation.org. SummerStage is currently New York City’s largest, free outdoor concert series, taking place in Central Park and 15-18 neighborhood parks around the city from May through October. 

Meghan Giannotta