Mercer Playground redesign process kicks off

Long View of Mercer Playground
At a spring public meeting, many local favored adding a skate park at Mercer Playground, above. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

BY GABE HERMAN | A public meeting was held in Greenwich Village on March 27 to get design ideas from the community for an upcoming renovation of Mercer Playground.

New York University has pledged $380,000 for upgrades to the playground as part of its Core Plan commitment to the neighborhood, which will invest in local community projects. It was agreed upon as part of N.Y.U.’s development projects in the immediate area, which were opposed by much of the community.

Mercer Playground is a thin strip that runs the length of the block’s western side between Bleecker and W. Third Sts.

A long view of Mercer Playground, which is mostly paved. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

Under former Planning Czar Robert Moses, the parcel was initially put under the city Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction as part of a plan to widen the street for the Lower Manhattan Expressway project. The cross-borough highway was defeated by Jane Jacobs and community advocates in the late 1960s, but the strip remained under D.O.T. control.

In 1991, the community group L.M.N.O.P. raised funds for the playground’s design and development for preteens.

The playground, which is mostly paved, currently has little in it. There’s a curving oval path intended for biking, scooters and running games. There’s a plot of daffodils at each end, each fully enclosed by metal bars. There are several benches and a water sprinkler.

Mercer Playground was officially mapped as city parkland in 2016 as part of N.Y.U.’s Core Plan, and is now managed by the city’s Parks Department.

Two gated fire paths currently cut the playground into three distinct sections.

The meeting this past Wednesday was hosted by the Parks Department’s Steve Simon, chief of staff to the Manhattan borough commissioner. Other officials there included a representative from N.Y.U. Community Engagement, and reps from Councilmember Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s offices.

The meeting kicked off the formal process for the park’s renovation. A schematic design will be developed based on community input, Simon said, and then go to Community Board 2 for public review no later than September. The public will then be invited back for a presentation of the plan and will be able to offer further comments and input.

Simon said he especially wanted to hear from kids about what they want for the park. Several youngsters attended and mostly said they wanted a skate park, with some adding it should also be for bikes and scooters.

What residents have dubbed a “daffodil prison” at the W. Third St. end of the playground, with a path running beside, partly hidden from view from some angles, that residents say attracts sketchy behavior. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

Other ideas raised by locals included an area for parkour — a recreational sort of obstacle-course training — and enhancing the playground’s water feature, especially because it could help offset noise issues.

A space for seniors was mentioned by numerous people, and a basketball court was also mentioned. One woman, however, said she was against a hoops court because it would be noisy. She also said a basketball court had been installed there years ago, but teens came in and drove away the younger kids and took it over, and the court had to be removed.

Several people noted that the park often attracts homeless people, who sleep on benches and wash clothes in the sprinkler. Some also said the side paths on either side of the park are partially hidden and invite drug use and other sketchy behavior. The more accessible the park is to the general public, people said, the less inviting it would be for vagrants.

Larry Maslon, chairperson of the Superblock Stewardship Advisory Committee, which represents the superblock’s 2,000 residents, said he hoped the park would be for tweens, to complement nearby spaces like a park in Washington Square Village for younger kids.

Maslon said he disliked the “prison for daffodils” at either end of the park. “It is useless. It is locked,” he said. He said he hoped those spaces would be opened up and integrated into the park.

There are two fire lanes that split the park into thirds, and people said they made good barriers for dividing the park’s use into three sections.

Local resident Steve Rodriguez, known as the “Mayor of New York City Skateboarding,” is a professional “skater” who has helped the city design more than 20 skate parks and spaces for mixed uses. He said he thought Mercer Playground was a great opportunity for having zones for different uses, including active and passive areas.

“I think you could have a great, complete park that checks many boxes for residents of the area. And I’d be willing to offer my services for free,” Rodriguez said to applause.

“I think we’re going to take you up on that offer,” Simon responded.