It will soon be easier to get into Jackie Robinson Park. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved changes that include reopening a long-closed entrance.
The 12.8-acre park is located between Bradhurst Avenue to the east and Edgecombe Avenue to the west, and between West 145th and West 155th streets. It was called Colonial Park before being renamed for the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. It includes a Works Progress Administration-era pool complex designed in the Art Moderne style by architects Aymar Embury II and Henry Ahrens, and work by landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke. Built between 1935 and 1937, the park, as well as the play center interior, were designated landmarks in 2007.
The first part of this project reopens the long-closed entrance, stairs, and path at the north end of the park, along Edgecombe Avenue. This will include rebuilding the top stairway with added handrails, adding a new asphalt path with seating and lighting, and repairing the stairway at the bottom of the path. At the end of that will be a newly repaved entry plaza, with its own seating and plantings. A portion of an existing chain link fence will also be removed.
The second part is along Edgecombe Avenue, from just south of West 150th Street to the park’s southwest corner. It involves replacing an eight-foot-tall chain link fence with a four-foot-tall decorative steel fence. The entrance just south of 150th Street will also get new granite piers. If further funding is made available, benches will be replaced and tree beds will be expanded.
The third part of the project focuses on the two southern entrances to the park, one at the corner of West 145th Street and Edgecombe Avenue and the other just north of 145th along Bradhurst Avenue. Both entrances connect to paths down to a plaza at the south end of the pool. Both entrances would see reduced fencing and some inner brick piers removed. New railings would be installed on repaired paths and stairs and the plaza would be repaved.
The third part — which can only go forward with additional funding — has a second element that would include replacing the existing eight-foot steel spiked fence along West 145th Street with a lower, decorative one. The existing brick piers would also be replaced with shorter ones. Additionally, the sidewalk would be repaved and tree beds would be expanded.
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron called the project a “wonderful initiative.” She was very enthusiastic about the removal of chain link fences and the restoration of paths, but not about the lowering of brick piers on the perimeter, which she called a “strange thing to do.”
Commissioner Diana Chapin said she would be okay with shorter fences, but the ones proposed were too ornate.
Commissioner John Gustafsson said the path changes and chain link fence removal are both fine, but he wasn’t okay with the lowering of other fences and piers. He said existing tall fencing isn’t perceived as non-welcoming by those who use the park.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said the pool is the thrust of the designation here, and the reduction of some historic fabric might be okay.
Commissioner Frederick Bland said society changes and the parks need to change with it. He called the proposed changes “carefully thought through” and “relatively minor.”
Commissioner Kim Vauss, however, was worried about the loss of historic material and suggested storing anything that would be removed.
Commissioner Michael Devonshire was “on the fence” about many of the changes. He called the Parks Without Borders program a “wonderful political concept” that sounds great, but isn’t so much when you actually get down to what removing those borders would mean for each park.
The proposal has the backing of Manhattan Community Board 10, but not of the Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough. She called the reduction of the piers “expensive and unnecessary.”
“The problem is not as simple as a reduction in height, though that is part of it. It is also about marrying a stylistically inappropriate iron fence design, ornamental, with a 1930s brick pier,” testified Patrick Waldo of the Historic Districts Council. “This would be like replacing Moderne windows with Victorian windows in an Art Deco building. From a visual perspective, truncating the columns is also clumsy design.”
Landscape architect Michael Gotkin said the park’s fencing is “completely integral” to its design. “We deserve as much preservation as more well-to-do neighborhoods,” he said.
Finally, activist Michael Henry Adams of Save Harlem Now! spoke of the function the fences serve. He pointed out that city parks do have hours of operation and said spending money to reduce fencing defeats the purpose of those hours. Additionally, he said the original design of the park perimeter should be determined and adhered to.
In the end, the commissioners voted to approve the proposal, but not the reduction of the perimeter piers and steel spiked fencing. Even the partial approval was not unanimous, with three commissioners voting against it.
The Parks Without Borders program includes eight city parks: Faber Park on Staten Island, Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, Van Cortlandt Park and Hugh Grant Circle / Virginia Park and Playground in the Bronx, Jackie Robinson Park and Seward Park in Manhattan, and Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.