City goes for the fences to increase parks access

A crocheted heart left on the fence on Passannante Ball Field's Sixth Ave. side before Valentine's Day.   Photo by Tequila Minsky
A crocheted heart left on the fence on Passannante Ball Field’s Sixth Ave. side before Valentine’s Day. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY ALBERT AMATEAU | A new design concept, Parks Without Borders, intended to improve access to city parks and better integrate them into their neighborhoods, could bring changes to public spaces in Greenwich Village.

Based on neighborhood nominations, the Department of Parks and Recreation will choose eight parks across the five boroughs as pilot projects for reconstruction using Parks Without Borders principles.

The Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee on Feb. 3 considered parks in the Village that could be improved by the new design concept. Among those discussed were:

• Mercer St. Playground between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. on the west side of Mercer St.

• Passannante Ball Field on the north side of W. Houston St. between Sixth Ave. and MacDougal St.

• Playground of the Americas on the south side of W. Houston St. at Sixth Ave.

• Jefferson Market Garden on the north side of Greenwich Ave. between W. Ninth and W. 10th Sts., with Sixth Ave. on the west.

• Jane St. Garden, at the corner of the south side of Jane St. and the west side of Eighth Ave.

The committee’s discussion was guided by Parks Department criteria.

The P.W.B. design concept aims to improve parks near high-pedestrian areas; parks lacking street trees or greenery along their edges; parks with narrow, gated or inconvenient access points; and parks with high fences that block eye-level views. It calls for fences to be lowered, redesigned or totally removed.

However, Tobi Bergman, C.B. 2 chairperson, stressed that neither the committee nor the full community board has taken a stance on the program yet — and that the board has not nominated any parks, playgrounds or gardens at this point.

“No resolution was submitted by the committee to the board, so no position was taken,” Bergman explained. “Any parks that were suggested were suggestions by members of the committee acting individually.”

Similarly, Rich Caccappolo, the committee’s chairperson, said, “The Parks Department team that presented Parks Without Borders asked for example spaces in our district to consider at the session — they wanted it to be a working session as much as presentation. These locations were suggested before or during the meeting. We did not pass a resolution.”

Asked if the committee would, at some future point, pass a resolution nominating a park or parks, Caccappolo said, “No, I don’t think so — unless there was a groundswell of interest by the community requesting support for consideration of a park in our district [for the program].”

Frederica Sigel, a member of the C.B. 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee who attended the P.W.B. presentation on Feb. 3, told The Villager that the city hopes to choose the eight pilot project parks this spring. If the neighborhoods get behind the projects, the reconstructions could be completed in three years.

Any potential change to the 0.36-acre Jefferson Market Garden is likely to meet opposition from preservationists.

Bordered on the north by the Jefferson Market Library, the garden was formerly the site of the infamous Women’s House of Detention, demolished in 1971. A devoted group of friends, helped by the Vincent Astor Foundation, convinced the city in 1974 to designate the site as a park and establish a garden.

For the past two decades, a 9-foot-tall wrought-iron fence with a gate on the Greenwich Ave. side has enclosed the garden. The fence, approved by the city Parks Department and the New York Public Library, was endowed by the late Brooke Astor and is much loved by neighbors.

But the height of the fence, and the fact that the gate is on the shorter Greenwich Ave. side rather than on the longer and more-trafficked Sixth Ave. side, make the site a likely choice for a P.W.B. treatment, Sigel said.

Moreover, the garden, which is open, weather permitting, from April (tulip time) to October, is attended by volunteers.

“It seems more like a private garden than a public park,” said Sigel. “It’s closed when it rains. I’ve passed it when it was closed because it was ‘too hot,’ just when people would most want to go in.”

Sigel compared the Jefferson Market Garden with the openness of the newest park in the Village, on the St. Vincent’s Triangle — though it still has not been formally named — on the west side of Seventh Ave. across from the former hospital site. A public park, the 0.36-acre space is maintained by Rudin Management, which is developing the residential condo complex at the former hospital location. The park has a waist-high fence, an inviting gate at the corner of Seventh and Greenwich Aves., another access at Seventh Ave. at W. 12th St., and a third access at its western corner on Greenwich Ave.

Nonetheless, the Jefferson Market Garden has a zealous constituency.

“The Jefferson Market Garden is cared for by an incredibly dedicated and hard-working group of volunteers and is used by an extremely appreciative community which has a real deficit of green space,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “The fence currently around the garden emerged from a long, deliberative process. Any contemplated changes to the garden or the fence must receive a full public vetting and should only result from a clear community consensus about the future of these spaces,” Berman added.

Passannante Ball Field, at 0.62 acres, is the largest of the five potential Parks Without Borders sites in the Village. The blacktop field, surrounded by a 12-foot-high chain-link fence, is marked out with a softball diamond with a backstop, a basketball court and other designated game areas. It has a small entrance on the northeast corner on MacDougal St., plus a large gate, often locked, on Sixth Ave., and a paving-block strip with park benches outside the fence on the Sixth Ave. side.

The field is frequently used by Village young people and serves as the recess-period playground for students of Little Red School House, the private progressive school nearby.

Phil Kassen, director of LREI (Little Red School House & Elizabeth Irwin High School), said he was not familiar with the Parks Without Borders program, but noted that the stark but open design of the field allows all sorts of possible uses.

The small Playground of the Americas, at 0.08 acres, across W. Houston St. from Passannante Field, has a 6-foot-high fence and a single entrance on Houston.

Mercer St. Playground is a long, narrow hard-surface strip of 0.43 acres separated from the sidewalk by a 5-foot-tall fence. It has two small access points, one near Bleecker St. near the entrance to Washington Square Village South and one near W. Third St. near the entrance to Washington Square Village North.

Jane St. Garden, the smallest of the potential Village P.W.B. sites at barely 0.04 acres, lies behind an old 6-foot-high chain-link fence and is open from April to October. A new fence, previously funded by the city, is already planned.

“A visitor has to ask at a nearby grocery store for the key to the gate, but almost nobody knows about it,” Sigel said.

She compared the five sites with the openness of Abingdon Square Park, at 0.22 acres, and Jackson Square Park, at 0.23 acres, both with 4-foot-tall fences.

The citywide Parks Without Borders program has been endorsed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

“New Yorkers will get the most benefit from our parks when they’re designed as welcoming spaces, fully integrated with the communities around them,” Brewer said.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Councilmember Mark Levine, who chairs the City Council Parks Committee, and Tupper Thomas, director of New Yorkers for Parks, also endorsed the design initiative.

“Parks Without Borders will open parks to users, weave green space into neighborhoods and create a flowing, welcoming public realm,” said Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has designated $50 million for Parks Without Borders, including $40 million for the eight pilot projects in the five boroughs and $10 million to incorporate the principles into current design and construction projects.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the new park at the St. Vincent’s Triangle site was privately owned but maintained by the city’s Parks Department. In fact, Rudin Management’s original was to create a “publicly accessible” open space on private land.  As a result of the insistence of Community Board 2, the land was instead turned over to the Parks Department and it is now under the jurisdiction of Parks. However, is maintained by the new Rudin condominium under an agreement with the Parks Department.

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