Peril in the parks

An uprooted bench tilts askew in Sara D. Roosevelt Park south of Houston Street downtown. Photo: John Surico / Center for an Urban Future
Amid the magnificence of Manhattan's green spaces, there is also decay, dilapidation and deterioration, a new report finds

Riverside Park can be a paradise for West Side joggers — except for its uneven pathways, degraded trails, displaced treads on stone stairways and pavements ruptured by cracks and potholes.

Corlears Hook Park can be a downtown oasis fanned by balmy breezes off the East River — until you need a comfort station. The facilities have been closed or non-functioning for two decades.

DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell's Kitchen can be a child's fantasyland with a dog run, frog fountain and trio of concrete play mules, Pal, Gal and Sal — but forget about getting in from 12th Avenue. Its two dilapidated entry staircases have been shuttered and inaccessible for years.

The East River Esplanade near Gracie Mansion can be a glorious place to watch the tugs, barges and pleasure boats – but you have to watch your feet, too. Sinkholes are common, and a chunk of the seawall last year collapsed into the water at 88th Street.

Those were among the findings of an exhaustive new report released last week by the Center for an Urban Future documenting hundreds of examples of crumbling conditions, infrastructure failures and urgent, unmet needs at the city's 1,485 parks, including the 282 in Manhattan.

The think tank's researchers cited inadequate or overdue maintenance, chronic and long-term underfunding and a cumbersome capital process for parks projects — all leading to sky-high costs and multi-year delays in making the fixes, which in turns exacerbates a collapsing infrastructure.

Bottom line: Horticulture dies, retaining walls disintegrate, drainage systems decay, recreation centers leak, bathrooms go without water, stairs vanish, benches are overturned, pathways are pockmarked, flooding is prevalent and puddles are deep, the report found.

To be sure, Eli Dvorkin, managing editor of the research institute and one of the authors of “A New Leaf: Revitalizing New York City's Aging Parks Infrastructure,” credits the de Blasio administration with upping investment, enlarging the central budget for repairs, adding staff for maintenance and taking a planning-oriented approach to grapple with future problems.

“We give the administration full credit for finally investing in chronically underfunded parks after decades of underinvestment,” he said.

But more can be done: “We're going to have to double down on this commitment to parks, go beyond what we've already committed to — and make new efforts to tackle unsexy, unglamorous and often invisible infrastructure needs,” Dvorkin added.


Based on an analysis of historical records from the city's Dept. of Parks and Recreation, as well as data on capital projects and site surveys of 65 parks, “A New Leaf” determined that:

• The average Manhattan park last underwent significant infrastructure rehabilitation work in 2002, or 16 years ago.

• Manhattan has the city's oldest parks – the average age is 86 – and of its nine largest parks, all of them covering more than 50 acres, eight of them, or an impressive 89 percent, received substantial capital upgrades in 2017.

• But the borough also has 105 medium-sized parks, defined as one acre to 50 acres in size, and of those, only 36, or 34 percent, were renovated last year.

• The island's 164 small parks, defined as less than one acre, received the least attention. Only 26 of them, or 16 percent, received upgrades.

• At least 46 mini-parks citywide, including triangles, traffic islands and plazas, haven't undergone capital work in nearly a century.

• One such site is Sherman Square, a fenced-in traffic triangle dating to 1891, where Broadway, Amsterdam and 70th Street come together. Long associated with the 1971 film “Panic in Needle Park,” it has been cleaned up, but it hasn't been significantly upgraded in 100 years.

• Another is Lafayette Square, a park since 1870, where Morningside Avenue, Manhattan Avenue and 114th Streets intersect. Its centerpiece is a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington shaking hands, and it looks splendid. But it hasn't been renovated in a century.

“This administration has invested in strengthening the city's parks system from top to bottom,” a Parks Dept. spokesperson said in responding to the report.

“Capital programs, including the $318 million, 65-park Community Parks Initiative and the $150 million Anchor Parks project, are bringing the first structural improvements in generations to sites from playgrounds to large flagship parks,” she added.

Indeed, in Riverside Park, for instance, the reconstruction of pathways and shoring up of retaining walls, as well as interior plumbing projects and general capital site work, is well underway.

Design work has been completed to reconstruct the Corlears Hook Park comfort station. Procurement, now 60 percent finished, is expected to wrap up in October, followed by a construction cycle that could take up to 18 months.

That means, after a two-decade wait, a new facility could open by 2020.

Meanwhile, a $1 million to $3 million project to rebuild the DeWitt Clinton Park staircases has been funded, but only five percent of the design work has been completed, according to the Parks Dept. website.

Neither procurement nor construction can begin until the scope of work for the project is designed, which means that the reopening of the western approaches to the park is still years away.

As for the East River Esplanade, a $15 million first phase of a city initiative to reinforce and reconstruct river-facing seawalls on the East Side is underway. But unforeseen design work has resulted in delays of several months on a project originally scheduled to be completed back in May.

The Parks Dept. spokesperson said that Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver has “streamlined the capital process” to bring infrastructure improvements online faster, a policy reform that is acknowledged in the Center for an Urban Future's report.

“Looking forward, initiatives like the newly funded catch-basin program and an ongoing capital needs assessment program will ensure that New York City parks needs are accounted for and addressed in the years to come,” she added.

Dvorkin said it's encouraging that the Parks Dept. has finally initiated a full systemwide assessment of its future infrastructure needs, better positioning it to address and anticipate problems down the road. But he questioned the time frame:

“At the current rate, we believe the assessment will take 20 years to complete,” he said. “At that point, major infrastructure categories will have exceed their natural lifespan.”

And Dvorkin added, “If we don't catch up now, it will metastasize into an even bigger problem.”