The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) met on November 28 to discuss the fate of a few of the neighborhood’s prehistoric residents. For the time being, it seems that the dinosaur statues at Riverside Park’s Dinosaur Playground are safe from extinction, however, it’s still unclear if the current species will endure.
The City’s Department of Parks & Recreation presented its $8.66 million plan to reconstruct the playground nestled into the former Strycker’s Bay area along Riverside Drive between West 96th and 98th streets. Amongst a number of goals – including increasing and diversifying play opportunities, addressing drainage issues, improving ADA access, and upgrading site furniture – the Department hopes to “preserve character of the site,” so it would seem obvious to ensure the existing fiberglass triceratops and a hadrosaur are included.
However, Stephen Whitehouse, a landscape architect and urban planner from Starr Whitehouse, could not provide any certainty as to what form the dinosaurs would take once reconstruction is complete. He could only state that the Parks Department is “investigating retaining or restoring or replacing the existing dinosaur sculptures and moving them to be a feature position at Northern end of the park.”
If the plan is approved, Whitehouse was sure of several other changes locals could expect. Two of the most important ones are fixing the ongoing (and often extreme) flooding and making the playground ADA-accessible. Other anticipated changes are increasing planting areas, alterations to the spray shower area, and moving the swings to an “open, continuous, and flowing play area.” The number of swings will also be increased and ADA accessible swings will be added. New play equipment would also be installed.
The largest structural change will be to make the area ADA accessible as a whole. The stepped ramp would become an accessible ramp and another ramp would be created between the two staircases.
Two rain gardens are proposed near the playground’s northern corner to manage storm water. However, the Parks Department was candid that this would not eliminate flooding. When asked directly if the two rain gardens “will take care of flooding,” Whitehouse replied with a simple “no.” He went on to explain that the rain gardens would increase permeability throughout the reconstruction plan, and that a “fairly complete rebuild” of the playground’s drainage system would help alleviate some of the flooding issues.
Whitehouse also reported that the play area’s concrete would be replaced with safety surface (rubberized tile to accept falls from certain heights to prevent cranial injuries) and that the plan is to drop the height of the current seven-foot chain-link fence to a four-foot steel fence. The 12-inch steel rails will also be removed in favor of a parapet fence. Most of the fencing around the spray shower area will also be removed, though additional fencing will be added to protect some of proposed planting areas.
LPC’s commissioners and various organizations all weighed in once the presentation (view here) was complete. A representative from Landmark West emphasized that it was pleased to see the dinosaurs being preserved in some form and for the playground to get up to code, but was concerned that the chronic flooding won’t be sufficiently addressed.
Victorian Society of New York and Historic Districts Council echoed one another in their concerns about retaining the historic design of the playground including the shape of planting beds, fencing proposals, size of lampposts, and bench substitutions. Both organizations asked for LPC to require the Parks Department to return with revised plans before a report is issued.
The Art Deco Society of New York essentially shared these concerns and requested that the city agency “refine and resubmit proposed details of this unique playground to better uphold the integrity of (Gilmore Clarke’s) pioneering vision for a grand modern children’s play garden.”
Community Board 7 did not offer any live testimony, but LPC noted that the Board did record its approval of the project.
In response to the feedback, Whitehouse confirmed that the proposed plant bed curvature – most of which houses the original plantings – would be designed to maximizing space around trees for growth and maintain the six-foot safety zones necessary for play equipment. The Parks Department will investigate the fencing concerns but could not promise any alterations to the spray shower area or benches. Whitehouse informed those present that the LPC is advisory only on this proposal, and will issue a report for the Public Design Commission, which has binding jurisdiction. However, the LPC’s motion to approve the reconstruction plan passed with a 10 to 1 vote. Specific information regarding when the project would start or how long it would take was not discussed.