Community Board 3’s Parks committee voted to support the plan for restoration
By Nora Bosworth
Two barbells lie beneath a peeling bench, bound by a rusty chain that allows just enough room to lift them if one should choose, though it’s such a forlorn sight it’s hard to imagine anyone has actually done so in recent years. This is the current “exercise area” of Tompkins Square Park.The weights are emblematic of the general disrepair throughout Tompkins, which is not immediately noticeable but lies in the details – or lack thereof – amidst the historical site.
The nature of the park may very well change, however, over the next few years. On Thursday, Community Board 3 voted unanimously to support the East Village Parks Conservancy’s preliminary efforts to plan a multi-million dollar renovation to the 10.5 acres of green space.
The Conservancy hopes not only to replace the park’s rundown and decrepit bits, but also to give it the “design integrity” that it had before renovations in the 1990s “stripped the park of its elegant historic character.”
Roland Legiardi-Laura, Co-Chair of the East Village Parks Conservancy, and Gail Witter-Laird, Landscape Architect for the East Village Parks Conservancy, presented the proposal, which is still in its very first stages.
Legiardi-Laura, who also lives right next to Tompkins, expressed their reason for appearing before Community Board 3 bluntly:
“After twenty-two years of use we really think its time to rethink [the park]. We know its a long process; we need your letter of support.” “We are just here to plant the seed,” added Witter-Laird.
She explained that the park’s original details were lost a couple decades ago, when the city took an industrial and utilitarian approach to fixing up the area – installing, for instance, a chain-link fence, which Legiardi-Laura called “prison-like”.
“A lot of the time when people see the park they don’t necessarily see it as a historical park, and I think thats to a large degree the way it was renovated in the nineties,” said Witter-Laird. “It didn’t give attention to the details that make it a historic park.”
The plan comes at a strategically wise time. The Landmark Preservation Council recently declared East 10th street between Avenue A and Avenue B, which borders the park, a landmark district. If part of Tompkins’ perimeter is officially a landmark then the park itself no doubt merits repairs and enhancements, the Conservancy reasons.
“None of us were around in the thirties and forties and fifties when those historic details were taken out,” said Witter-Laird. “I think its time to start to think about the park as part of that landmark district and something we want to preserve and protect.”
Moreover, during the last twenty years, almost all of lower Manhattan’s significant parks and squares have been reconstructed: City Hall Park, Union Square, Madison Square, East River Park, Washington Square, Battery Park, Sara Roosevelt Park and the recently renovated Stuyvesant Square Park. Sprucing up Tompkins would just be a continuation of this momentum.
The Conservancy’s plan currently has three stages, according to their presentation. In the first phase the park’s perimeter would be rebuilt, smoothing out the pavement, curbs, and improving the fencing. They would also fortify protections around the fauna, and plant more trees.
The second piece of the plan focuses more on aesthetic improvements. The organization proposes improving the soils and the drainage system, building decorative fencing, and adding granite curbs. The Conservancy also wishes to restore the lawns, increase lighting, preserve the monuments, and – East Villagers rejoice – “reduce rat habitat.” In the final stage the group envisions adding new outdoor fitness equipment, (lonely barbells do not an exercise area make), installing a bike share station, and rebuilding the “comfort station and maintenance area”.
“I’ve been into the bowels of the park house with the former supervisors, and everything there needs to be done from the ground up,” said Witter-Laird.
Prior to the Conservancy’s petition, the board spent over an hour hearing from Friends of Gulick Park, the organization that has been spearheading the reconstruction of Luther Gulick Park & Playground.
In his speech, Legiardi-Laura praised the progress that Friends of Gulick Park have made, saying, “We’re very impressed to see what you guys have done with Gulick park – we want to sort of model ourselves off of your model, in including the community. “
Perhaps this desire to garner community support is why the Conservancy’s current proposal is still quite vague; they are waiting to see how the public takes to the idea of fixing up Tompkins. The plan was already announced on an East Village blog, EVGrieve.com, where residents’ reactions were mixed. One member expressed concern that a beautified park would mean a spike in real estate prices. Another wrote: “I feel like I am in jail with all the tall black fences,” echoing Legiardi-Laura’s sentiment.
More practical matters, like where funding will come from – the Conservancy projected that the process would cost between ten and fifteen million dollars – remains to be seen. Yet the board’s approval of the Conservancy’s efforts to forge a plan may mark the beginning of an enormous opportunity. Witter-Laird ended her address with a hopeful nod toward the future.
“I think we’ve done so much in lower Manhattan, and I think this is a missing piece, and we’re just here to put that missing piece in everybody’s wish list, and have support going forward in advocating for the park,” she said. “The process of what we do first, and who we do it with – that’s all to come.”
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