By Alex Israel
During the Community Board 7 (CB7) Parks & Environment Committee’s April meeting, representatives from Central Park Conservancy (CPC) convened over video conference to review plans to renovate several park features.
CB7 hosted its first virtual committee meeting in March, and its first virtual full board meeting on April 7. The board has also facilitated two online community forums featuring Mark Levine and Gale Brewer, to tackle COVID-19 questions and other issues facing the Upper West Side district.
April’s meeting was the first remote gathering for the Parks & Environment Committee. Members of committee—along with at least three members of the community who shared feedback via phone—joined together via Zoom, the popular web conferencing platform. “I had a lesson yesterday, but I don’t think it really stuck,” said Klari Neuwelt, committee co-chair, regarding her Zoom prowess. CB7 Chair Mark Diller and fellow co-chair Elizabeth Caputo jumped in to assist throughout the meeting.
With minimal technical difficulties ironed out, the committee opened the floor to CPC Studio Director Bob Rumsey, who laid out plans to update the Conservatory Garden and the Central Park Dairy.
Located at 5th Avenue and 105th street, the 6-acre Conservatory Garden opened in 1937 and is broken into three unique styles: English in the south end, Italian in the center, and French in the north end.
There have been no major structural restorations to the garden since the late 1960s, according to Rumsey. The most recent work was completed in the 1980s to create the “horticultural excellence” still blooming there today, he said. (He later promised that while some hedges in the English garden will be replaced, the proposed reconstruction requires minimal impact to that excellence.)
The biggest design change is the introduction of four universal accessibility points within the French garden. The plan is to replace the stairs currently there by extending the brick walls to create an accessible ramp.
Additional modifications include a replacement of the currently concrete perimeter path that surrounds the garden, transforming it back to its original bluestone. To illustrate this, Rumsey presented an early photo—uncovered during CPC’s research—that showed bluestone on the outer bands, as well as a record drawing that identified when it was swapped to pavement.
The rest of the proposed reconstruction work on the garden will be “in-kind,” meaning there will be no changes to the existing design, and any restoration efforts will utilize the same materials and patterns. Rumsey said in-kind restorations are necessary to the garden’s pavements and curbs, retaining walls, stairs, drainage, and pergola in the upper part of the Italian garden.
CPC is planning to start the renovations in fall 2020, though it is unclear how timelines could shift given COVID-19. “Given current conditions, we hope [the work] will still happen,” said Rumsey. The privately funded, $10 million project would last roughly two years, and would operate in phases ensuring that the garden is not shut down in its entirety at any one time.
The pandemic has already impacted the timeline of the other project, the Central Park Dairy, which was set to begin imminently before all park work was put on hold.
The Dairy was constructed in 1870 at East 65th Street, and originally operated as a source of fresh milk for children during a time when it was difficult to come by. 150 years later, it is used as an information center and gift shop—and is in need of some repair, according to CPC.
Restoration of the Dairy’s access path is the second phase of a larger body of work (that’s already been approved) to restore the Dairy facility, Rumsey said. Like the Conservatory Garden, this phase would also involve improving universal accessibility.
The primary goal would be to lay in a ramp along the north side of the path, separated by a granite stone curb with handrails. The crosswalk on the closed East Drive to the east of the Dairy also requires realigning and regrading, as it is currently too steep.
Directly in front of the facility, CPC plans to restore the currently present asphalt hex pavers back to brick, the original material used alongside blue-stone in 1870. While no one knows exactly the pattern in which the brick was placed, CPC has chosen to use herringbone, as it “would have been an appropriate pattern for the time,” according to Rumsey.
The project is set to begin as soon as COVID-19 construction restrictions are lifted. The larger restoration of the Dairy is expected to last a year, with this $1 million, privately funded element taking place toward the end to ensure the facility is accessible from the closed East Drive.
One community member jumped in to share his perspective. “Glad you’re back to work on community board meetings after a month delay,” said Daniel Atha, Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden. As part of any new landscaping, “I would encourage you to use native plants,” he suggested, “to help feed the birds.”
After some clarifying questions, committee resolutions to approve both plans passed unanimously.
To conclude the meeting, the committee engaged Matt Genrich, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) manager for the district, in a discussion about social distancing in city parks, and to understand what was possible to help ensure public safety during this time.
While testimony from committee members was mixed—some reported feeling like social distancing rules were being followed, and others felt like it was a free-for-all—most agreed that anecdotally, visitors to Central Park were less consistent in respecting the rules than in Riverside Park.
Several committee members wondered whether opening park lawns might help or hinder social distancing. On one hand, more space might help people spread out; on the other, it might prompt more people to venture out, crowding the park further. Others suggested implementing visual guidelines of the six feet rule for those who are more spatially challenged.
In the last two years, DPR has opened lawns from Memorial Day through the end of September. But at this point there have been no discussions about opening early, Genrich said, adding that he would plan to get back to the committee in the near future with updates.
In the meantime, committee resolutions will be voted on during the next Full Board meeting, on Tuesday, May 5. Community members can check CB7’s website for updates and web conference registration links.