Riverside Park Is Undergoing Big Changes; We Asked the Conservancy’s Boss All the Questions

Riverside Park Conservancy President Dan Garodnick.

By Michael McDowell

Central Park may get the headlines, and the Mandarin Duck, but Riverside Park is the neighborhood’s hidden gem. It’s the spot to fathom New York’s existential relation to the Hudson; Congressman Jerry Nadler’s favorite place for a stroll; critical habitat for urban species, such as coyotes and the West Side Little League; and home to an abundance of majestic monuments, glorious piers, and secret gardens. What more could a neighborhood ask for?

Many things, it turns out (shy the Upper West Side is not). Former City Council Member Dan Garodnick, who was appointed last year to lead the Riverside Park Conservancy, recently sat down with the Rag to discuss the Conservancy’s vision, and give updates on some of the major construction projects currently underway.

“We have a lot of priority projects for 2019-2020 that we’re working on, which include things like the restoration of the area between 72nd and 84th Street, the Hudson River Viewshed,” Garodnick began.

With sustainability central, the Conservancy aims to utilize strategic plantings in the area to re-vegetate slopes, fortify the landscape, prevent erosion, create habitat, and diminish pollution caused by runoff following storms.

Significant restoration work is also ongoing in Harlem, in the Woodland Restoration Area between 119th and 125th Street, and in Hamilton Heights, where a once-elegant park entrance at 148th Street is being renovated.

Closer to home, completion of some elements of Riverside Park South, between 59th and 71st Street, should occur by the end of this summer, and will include new recreation areas—a new playground, dog run, and lawns—as well as refreshed seating areas, new staircases, and pathways.

This phase of construction—Phase V—will also eventually include shade structures at 65th, 66th, and 67th Streets, bathrooms, and a kiosk, which will be added at a later date.

The next phase of work, Phase VI, will involve renovation of an area previously used for the staging of nearby construction projects, and will include multi-purpose athletic fields with lighting, basketball courts, and additional access points, as well as the separation of pedestrian and cyclists in the area. Unfortunately, this work is set to be rebid, and at present there is no timeline for that process.

riverside plans2
The various phases of Riverside Park South construction.

And what about the bicycles? Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on the esplanade has recently become a matter of grave concern in the neighborhood.

“We’re taking steps to deal with it,” Garodnick assured. “We have a challenge. There is limited space that needs to occupied by a lot of interested runners, and bikers, and walkers. Expanding the area, of course, is not likely.”

The renovation of the 79th Street Rotunda, a project which appears to have stalled, is yet another major capital improvement.

“The role that we view ourselves in is to try to find ways to soothe the difficulties that will exist in the neighborhood as a result of this work. That means, advocating for minimal displacement on the ballfields, and that means sharing important information with the community about what’s happening and when. We view our role as pushing for faster completion of work, communicating with residents in the area, sharing resources, and smoothing out the impacts to the extent that we can use the weight of our office to do that,” Garodnick explained.

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, at 89th Street, has fallen into a shocking state of disrepair. And while some may find the appearance of a crumbling folly in the neighborhood an unexpected delight, the chain link fencing around the monument detracts from that sort of aesthetic reverie. Importantly, the fencing was installed to protect the public from falling debris. The monument is hazardous, and we’ve written about this previously.

“It’s a significant project with a $30-plus million dollar price tag. It’s a monument that people love and are proud of, that we want to celebrate. There hasn’t been a budget allocation to its repair, and we have told people that it’s important to voice their concern and get word out there, to let elected officials know that this is a public priority,” Garodnick said.

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ isn’t the only piece of Riverside Park that’s in need of some TLC.

“Right now, we’re focusing a lot of our attention on the area between 105th and 125th Street, where you have ponding in the middle of the park. We are asking the city to take urgent steps to fix the significant infrastructure problems in that part of the park, where you have pavement that is collapsing, and a half-mile of parkland which is always underwater. We need the resources to fix these problems, because otherwise they will stay the way they are forever,” he said, tapping his hand on his desk.

Although Riverside Park has significant needs, as seems to be the case when it comes to the majority of the city’s infrastructure—Exhibit A: The Subway—Garodnick is energetic and enthusiastic, and envisions a future in which the Conservancy may one day assume full stewardship of the park.

Photo of the park in the West 70s by Eliane VanderBorght.

“We have a lot of growth opportunities in Riverside Park to care for six miles of parkland, we are stretched thin today, and we are looking for the resources and support to be able to do what we need to do,” he said.

The Conservancy, which is entirely funded by private contributions, provides half of the budget for operating Riverside Park, and its budget, between $7-8 million, includes 30 paid staff members—19 of whom work in the field. In 2010, the Conservancy started a Zone Gardener Initiative, which divided the park into zones and sections, each of which are maintained by a full-time staff member. Parks provides some support—lawn maintenance and trash pick-up—and conservancy staff fills in the gaps.

This staff is augmented by approximately 240 consistent volunteers, many of whom tend a specific area of the park, and new volunteers are especially needed north of 120th Street, which has suffered a history of neglect.

A new signage initiative aims to recognize those who have made Riverside Park what it is today.

“Part of this initiative includes signage that indicates a volunteer site, a volunteer-maintained space,” he said. “Our volunteer program is really what got this organization started in the 1980s, and is indicative of how much this neighborhood really loves this park.”

Beyond dedicated volunteers, funding is critical.

“We are part of a new coalition that was started by New Yorkers for Parks. They have a campaign called Play Fair, which is advocating for more city funding throughout all of NYC’s parks, because right now Parks receives less than 1 percent of the city budget,” Garodnick said.

Healthy parks and healthy cities are inextricably linked.

“The condition of a park is intricately related to the condition of a city, and its social health, and to get people out in the park is so important,” added Anastasia Galkowski, a development associate at the Conservancy.

A long-term master plan for Riverside Park is available here.

“We’re exploring ways to make Riverside Park into a truly twenty-first century park, with technology that allows us to properly measure the care of every inch of park: the frequency of pruning; the inoculation of trees for Dutch Elm Disease; the removal of invasives from particular areas; precise timeliness; plantings—what’s working in the park and what’s not. But most fundamentally, everything we do is about creating a sustainable urban park, improving the infrastructure, and allowing for a high level of enjoyment for the people who use the park,” he said.

Garodnick answered other questions, including how best to use resources like the 96th Street Clay Tennis Courts.

“These are public courts, and they need to be recognized as public courts. Private programming is a part of that, but not the predominant part of that,” Garodnick said. “We’re very proud of the work that the Riverside Clay Tennis Association is doing in keeping those courts in amazing shape. They are unique, they are spectacular, and they are well-maintained.”

What about dealing with rats?

“We are, like any other part of the city, trying to improve trash pick-up, and encourage people not to feed animals so as to create an opportunity for rats to get comfortable, but that is a constant challenge, and we know that Parks is regularly speaking with the Department of Health about addressing issues in particular areas,” he said.

And the defunct kayak dock at 72nd Street?

“That’s an ongoing conversation,” he shook his head.

Garodnick is more enthused when it comes to Council Member Mark Levine’s idea of ferry service between the Upper West Side and New Jersey.

“We love it. We think that would be a great way to activate the park, and an important transit opportunity for people in this area,” he said.

Although Upper West Siders may not always agree on how best to manage the resources we love, Garodnick is keenly aware of how important the neighborhood is to the park, and how important the park is for the neighborhood.

Most recently, the Upper West Side has fallen in love with the goats, which have taken up residence between 119th and 125th Street this summer.

What does Garodnick have to say?

“It’s the ultimate farm to table.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 30 comments | permalink
    1. Mark Moore says:

      I know it will never happen but bury the highway where it’s at grade level from 96th street up to about 125th. Imagine how nice the park would be with just a nice green slope down to the river instead of a noisy and ugly highway.

    2. Sherman says:

      They should put in an adult fitness station around 68th or so where the stairs are.

      I often see people working out in that spot and running up and down the stairs. Trainers give fitness classes there.

      They should put in pull-up bars, dipping bars, push-up and sit-up stations., etc…

      There’s a station like this on the East River near Chinatown that’s very popular.

      • Leon says:

        I think something similar to your request is being installed as part of the renovation of the basketball courts at Elephant Playground (roughly 76th Street in the upper part of the park). Not exactly where you want it but close enough – they are doing the construction now so it will hopefully be there fairly soon.

    3. Karen says:

      This is a small project, but the asphalt on the ramp heading down to the river from 84th street has been in terrible shape for as long as I can remember. Can’t that access be smoothed and repaved?! It’s a hazard.

    4. Juan says:

      I appreciate all of the great work being done by the Conservancy – the park is a gem and there have been a lot of nice gradual improvements over the years.

      I am still baffled by the price tag to fix the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument – you could tear it down and build a new one for less.

    5. It is a puzzlement why Riverside Park has no recycling receptacles and collection. Every street in New York and all the parks offer recycling. Of all the renovations to come, why not this long overdue and easily implementation?

    6. Anya Schiffrin says:

      This is a great piece and I love West Side Rag. Can we get more articles about efforts to help prevent cycling accidents in the park? What about speed cameras and those automated signs that tell you what speed you are going? I’ve seen them in Southampton. Has the city considered this? Do they help? What is the date? Would that be a short-term fix until the paths are separated? I know that Columbia University has lots of scholars who work on traffic research. Maybe you could interview them and city officials too? Thanks for your continuing efforts to report on our beloved neighborhood (50 plus years on the UWS)

      • Thomas R Lansner says:

        Anya makes a great point. The park’s paths are shared , and cyclists cannot consider them theirs alone for training for the Tour de France. Yet pedestrians’ right of way does not include a right to obliviousness… walkers or runners with headphones are willfully unaware of their environment and also a danger to all.

        • Michael Hobson says:

          I relate very well as I NEVER navigate L/R from my walk with checking for converging bikers. But disagree that it must be normal; you refer to a ‘conditioning’ that ought to be unnecessary leaving parks a Utopian refuge as intended. The solution is simple. Relegate by LAW all ‘sport’ cycling to a narrow lane on a prescribed stretch of the West side Highyway. Family and kids can continue to cycle they are not the safety issue involved. If the Lance Armstrong wannabes no like they can use Central Park for their death wish speed cycling. Furthermore propose, if any bikers are involved in a cycling/pedestrian accident you are grounded for 6 month by law no appeal regardless of circumstances. If you injure a child for whom parks should be a unequivocal safe space, it should rate a Felony charge. An example must be made therein. Stay safe all.

          • Woody says:

            You have a very warped outlook on controlling people’s behavior for safety reasons. I’m surprised you haven’t advocated for the amputation of cyclists’ arms and legs after each infraction.

    7. Robin says:

      I consider and use Riverside Park as my backyard and am a contributor to the Conservancy fund. One of the most serious issues, which has been mentioned often but not yet addressed, are the cyclists competing with runners and pedestrians. I walk and race walk in the park and cannot tell you how many times a cyclist has come within an inch of me. God forbid I should take a step farther to the left or right and I’m a dead woman. Many cyclists are extremely aggressive and careless.

      I know this is radical but until the Conservancy can figure out how to deal with this, I would suggest banning all bicycles in the park or only allowing them in designated area where the rest of us can take our chances if we want to go there.

      I hope Mr. Garodnick and other members of the Conservancy are reading this.

    8. Cathy says:

      Garodnick is doing aa great job and Riverside Park is indeed a very special gem!

    9. marci says:

      I think the developers of the west end ave should not be granted permits that don’t include some phase of renovating the park near them. Their tenants will be the ones that use it

    10. UWS_lifer says:

      Farm to table?!?

      Are…are they going to eat the goats when they are done? I don’t know how I feel about this.:)

    11. Jeff Cohen says:

      Kudos to Dan Garodnick for his enthusiasm and smarts in taking over stewardship of the Conservancy. I have had the pleasure of meeting with him several times and find him to be refreshingly accessible and interested in what the park’s constituents have to say. Whereas Central Park belongs to the world, we who use Riverside Park understand that it is a hidden gem – more of a neighborhood park. Bringing the goats to Riverside Park was a brilliant move, not only environmentally, but from a public relations standpoint – those goats have captured the imagination of the city and beyond.

      One area that still needs to be addressed involves the tennis facilities in the park, both the red clay courts at 96th St and the hard courts at 119th St. The clay courts should not exploited as a money making venture , especially when that exploitation is in direct violation of RPC’s contract with the Parks Department. And the hard courts were due for a complete makeover three years ago when state funds were allocated for their resurfacing, and that money has yet to be spent as the courts continue to deteriorate.

      But those are fixable problems. The important thing is that Dan Garodnick has so far brought the kind of leadership and vision that Riverside Park has needed for a long time.

    12. Carolyn says:

      Glad to see there are improvements planned, but between 119th and 96th Streets in Riverside on the street level, I see nothing planned to fill in and repave potholes and restore broken pavement areas, especially necessary around the playgrounds near 112th Street and south. This area seems abandoned by restoration efforts, and has more than a few spots hazardous to children and adults alike. Is there anything scheduled for these problems?
      Also, a happy Second! to the suggestion for an adult fitness area: wouldn’t that be nice adjacent to a toddler playground, so parents could work out as they watch?

    13. DorothyT says:

      We appreciate Riverside Park and frequent it daily especially between 97th & 125th Sts. There’s a major problem with broken glass in the pathways and in bald patches in the grassy areas. The rains appear to uncover broken glass that has been buried in the dirt and brings it to the surface. Our dog and another got shards of glass in their paws necessitating vet visits recently. Not safe for children, runners, walkers either. Does the Park Dept. have tractors (?) that could turn over the pathway dirt and capture the glass periodically? People drinking from bottles in the park seem to like to break the bottles. More trash cans would help too. Thank you. (Especially bad in the area around the 100th St. Firemen’s Memorial.)

    14. Janet Wasserman says:

      I hope the Master Plan and the Mr. Garodnick address the more immediate problem of dead and dying sycamore and other kinds of trees along the Promenade from 99th Street northward inside Riverside Park. I am fearful that a strong wind and/or rainstorn will bring down dead branches and topple dying trees onto those of us who use the park. I pointed the situation out to a park employee in a small truck. She said that there was awareness of the conditions but I saw no intervention efforts underway. This is the type of issue that cannot wait implementation of a Master Plan but should be the subject of immediate steps to prevent a tragic and needless incident.

    15. Steven Goldstein says:

      The article did not mention the beautiful community gardens in RSP at 91st Street, but I do hope that there are plans to clean the benches (power wash) and prune the surrounding trees so that the garden can get the morning sun it used to get some 25 years ago. Volunteers have worked so hard in this area for so long and year round.

    16. Jan Lindemann says:

      In addition to ferries to Jersey, why not extend the NYC ferries that connect Manhattan to the outer boroughs to the UWS?

    17. Dr. Jill Poller says:

      we need noise buffers on the Westside highway facing the river. Sometimes the din is painful,especially at the 72 street Pier and below.

      • Stephen says:

        Dr. Jill is so Right.
        The West Side Highway should be fitted with 21st Century technology to LESSEN THAT UN-PARK LIKE TRAFFIC NOISE!
        It’s not enjoyable to appreciate the Naturalistic beauty of the Hudson River or the Park landscape…nor the outdoor Cafe at the foot of the 70th Street Pier with the horrible noise being generated by thousands of cars from the highway.
        You’d think Parks Dept. and D.O.T. would partner with sound engineering firms who can adequately fix this worsening problem.
        Have they done it?
        If New York City’s tech industry can’t solve this, I’d bet there are engineering firms in Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Japan that can!

    18. RS says:

      I love Riverside Park. It is my backyard and I am a donor. So I am stunned to see so many park benches in disrepair stripped of paint and covered by lichen. If you truly want to this gem to be a 21st century park then seating needs to be maintained and recycling receptacles and pick-up is a must.

    19. Vince says:

      Those anyone know whatever happened the plan by the Parks Department to complete a separate pathway for cyclists in River Park (72nd & 83rd streets)? The plan was that cyclists would no longer be able to travel on that pedestrian path. I noticed a new bike path near the steps (at 72nd Street) but it’s not diverting cyclist from entering the path from 72 to 83rd streets.

      • Steve says:

        The problem of Riverside Park mixing pedestrians and bicyclists along the riverfront esplanade north of 71 Street has been extremely problematic.
        Why hasn’t this been properly addressed?
        Even a slight configuring of this Promenade WITH A PAINTED YELLOW LINE (like every bike/pedestrian path in cities around the world!) …to make it more enjoyable and safer for pedestrians who rightly worry about speeding cyclists.
        It’s a simple fix!
        Why not a YELLOW PAINTED LINE for bike separation and the re-positioning of the benches? A cost effective and long overdue smart solution!

    20. Shelley says:

      Riverside Park is wonderful and it is nice to know about future projects…yet when people do not follow rules posted on simple signs, one would think you might need to improve the signs. When on the ramp down to the Cafe (68th St area) the sign shows that those on bikes must dismount. Very few do and it is a huge issue. I believe signs may need to be larger and posted on both sides of the ramp.