Parks Department Details Plans For Seward Park, Tompkins Fence Controversy Resurfaces

seward park gate

A $6.4 million improvement project in Seward Park will create an inviting plaza in front of the public library, open up and expand the garden on the south side of the park and make entrances and fencing less foreboding. These were some of the details revealed by city designers during a meeting Feb. 16 of Community Board 3’s Parks Committee.

Seward Park was one of the winners of the Parks Without Borders competition last year, which is focused on, “reimagining the role of parks in communities by redesigning where they meet the streets and sidewalks.” A community visioning session was held last fall and landscape architect Chris Crowley and his team have been working on schematic designs. He expects to unveil them publicly in a couple of months.

The plans were generally well received. One sticking point could be the height of fences. Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver is determined to lower them in parks citywide, while some community members have pushed back against the idea for safety reasons.

Slide from Parks Department presentation.

Slide from Parks Department presentation.

Before launching into his presentation, Crowley said, “This is not the design,” but “just a little bit about what we’re anticipating to do.” The goal, he explained, is to make the park more welcoming, to “make it look great from the outside,” and to create “vibrant community spaces.”

The main focus of the project is what’s being dubbed, “Library Plaza,” a barren asphalt corridor created when a section of Jackson Street was closed off many decades ago. Designers are somewhat limited in what they can do in the area because there’s still a sewer system under the street and no actual construction can take place on the plaza. They’re envisioning new permeable surfaces, tables, chairs and, perhaps, an area for community performances.

The design is expected to include the removal of fences around the garden and an expansion of the greenery behind the neighboring bathhouse. The redesign will make it easier for people to walk from the library into the main park area. A series of chain link fences surrounding the bathhouse will be taken out and there will be better access into the basketball courts on the north side of the park.

seward park: library plaza

seward park: sidewalks

The project will also include replacing the sidewalk bordering the park, on East Broadway and Essex streets. Right now the crumbling surfaces on the two streets are different (hex-box on Essex, regular concrete on East Broadway). The new sidewalks will be made up of a single material and steps will be taken to alleviate drainage problems, especially on the southern border of the park.

The upcoming project will not include the restoration of Schiff Fountain, the broken down relic on Essex Street [the Seward Park Conservancy is in the midst of raising money for that multi-million dollar initiative). But Crowley said he hopes to set aside some money to improve the plaza area around the fountain. Top priorities include: reducing fencing, adding new foliage and repairing bluestones.

seward park: schif mall

Straus Square, located just to the southwest of the park, is another area that was at one point being looked at for improvements. Designers were evaluating whether it could be made more appealing (there’s no place to sit in the square and has always felt disconnected from Seward Park.) At last week’s meeting, it was announced that Straus Square will not become part of the current project. But as a separate initiative, the city’s Department of Transportation may close off Canal Street alongside the park to create an expanded pedestrian plaza. The plan would require the city to move an existing taxi cab rest area.

Most of the discussion at the parks committee meeting concerned the possibility of lowering fences at Seward Park. “We’re contemplating lowering the perimeter fence,” said Crowley. “We’re looking at that situation. We’ll listen to your feedback on that one.”

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A couple of public speakers pointed to child safety concerns in the middle of the park. “In the center there,” said one parent, “you have a very large children’s playground that will have no fence around it, so how do you propose to keep our children safe?” Crowley raised the possibility of keeping Seward Park’s southwest gate closed, so that kids can’t run out into the street. “We will work with you to make sure that the kids are safe,” said Crowley.  “The last thing I want to have is a hazard for children. Parents need to keep an eye on their kids but we don’t want a situation where children can run out in the street.”

Amy Robinson, president of the Seward Park Conservancy, noted that the park is currently operated on a “dawn to dusk” schedule. She asked if the hours might be changed if the fences are lowered. Crowley said the department would work with the community to determine hours but that the park would still be locked when it’s closed. Although it would be easier for people to hop the lower fences after hours, Crowley said police would be called on to step up enforcement in the park and to ticket trespassers.

Another conservancy leader, Linda Jones, said, “the fence is an extremely emotional issue in our community. I can envision the fence being lower or not even existing. It would be gorgeous. But I also think people are very fearful. We do have a homeless population. We do have drug users who use the park, and occasionally leave needles.” Jones added, “I’m not taking a position one way or the other, but it’s something we really have to think about.”

The issue of high fences has already become an issue elsewhere in the neighborhood. City Council member Rosie Mendez and the community board have been critical of the city’s decision to lower the fences in Tompkins Square Park. A public meeting will be held this evening on the subject. The Council member has started a petition, urging the Parks Department to reverse course. Earlier this month, the 9th Precinct’s commanding officer said he was opposed to the plan.

During the committee discussion, CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer said she didn’t understand why the Parks Department seemed open to having a dialogue about fence height at Seward Park when it resisted community input at Tompkins. “In other parks,” said Stetzer, “you’re forcing the community to have lower fences when they don’t want to and it makes no sense to me.” Stetzer said the department was being “inconsistent.”

Mitchell Silver (second from right) at a community meeting on the Lower East Side last fall.

Mitchell Silver (second from right) at a community meeting on the Lower East Side last fall.

Crowley said “Parks Without Borders” is a program, “calling for lowering fences (citywide). This is what we’re thinking the commissioner is going to want (on the Lower East Side).” He added, “we may have to adjust this one (if there’s community opposition). It may come down to a commissioner determination.”  Bill Castro, Parks’ Manhattan borough commissioner, also responded, saying, “You can call it inconsistent if you wish,” but fence height is determined on a case-by-case basis in each park. He also said NYPD leadership has been briefed on the “Parks Without Borders” plans and has offered its support.

Stetzer continued to press the issue, however. “I’m sure you heard us all gasp when you said the commissioner” would be the decider when it comes to fence height. “Are you saying that despite community input… if the community really wants something one way, the commissioner can still overturn it, or he may disregard the community input?”

Castro replied, telling Stetzer, “I am confident we can work it out. I don’t want people to get alarmed about this.”

“We want to work with the community,” the borough commissioner explained. “Community boards are advisory, however we like to work with them. We take their recommendations seriously. But the commissioner has the final say on things, which is appropriate. We have a very good track record working with the community.”

The Parks Department is expected to return to the community board with a schematic design for Seward Park in April.