Needed Help for Downtown Oasis Comes with Controversy: Lawn Access

DeLury Square Park, the 8,500-square-foot plaza to the southwest of the Southbridge Towers apartment complex, was created in 2010 out of a former traffic triangle. The lawn at right, fenced off since 2013, is slated to be replaced with plantings and ground cover. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jul. 08, 2018

Since 2013, Veronica Ryan-Silverberg has led the Friends of DeLury Square Park, a small band of volunteers who help keep the greenery healthy and the trash and vermin out of this pint-sized oasis at Fulton and Gold. With its heavy use by residents and workers in the area, that has not been easy.

“Our concern is trying to keep the park from going further downhill,” Ryan-Silverberg said, standing on the bluestone walkway that runs beside shaded shrubs, a gurgling fountain, and a small, fenced-off lawn. “It’s at a point where it’s already at capacity.”

Now the group is getting its park-saving wish, with just enough money from the city’s Parks Department—$210,000—to pay for the infrastructure improvements they have requested. Last month, Community Board 1 approved a plan that includes, among other things, an irrigation system and repairs to what often is a poorly or non-working fountain.

But then there was the matter of the lawn.

Ryan-Silverberg formed her group, three years after the park opened, to protect it from the overuse and abuse by people, especially people with their dogs. With the plants destroyed and the grass long gone, the Friends went to work replanting, cleaning and rejuvenated the green space. And to protect the lawn and a plant bed, the Parks Department installed a light “temporary” fence.

That fence “just looks trashy,” said Alex Hart, the former Parks Department landscape architect who designed the park and has returned, pro bono, to oversee its improvements for the Parks Department.

Hart’s plan includes replacing the temporary fence with a sturdy, lower version of the one that surrounds the park. The lawn would be replaced with plantings and ground cover “to make it lush and even striking,” Hart said last month, speaking before CB1’s Parks, Waterfront and Resiliency Committee that was considering the proposal.

“We want self-sustaining, low-maintenance green space that we can take into the future for the community,” Ryan-Silverberg told the group.

But proposed changes to the park opened the gate for debate over the restricted access to the lawn area. “All of a sudden,” Ryan-Silverberg said, “there’s this idea that somehow you should have paths through there.”

At the June committee meeting, residents from both sides—most from nearby Southbridge Towers—spoke out about reopening the precious patch of green.

“It was never meant to be a grass museum,” said one woman. “And maybe grass isn’t the right medium. There are plenty of other alternatives that could be proposed.”

The mother of a Peck Slip School pre-kindergartner said she was “really depressed” over the closed-off space because it prevents children from getting close to nature. “I don’t like the idea of a just-look-but-don’t-touch park, because how do the kids get to actually experience it?” she said.

“This [the grassy area] was never conceived as a viewing garden. It was an open part of the park, which is about 6,000 square feet. That’s not a little piece of land,” said committee member Alice Blank, adding that just because it is difficult to maintain the lawn, “that does not mean that it is impossible.”

“I so understand what people are saying,” responded Rona Kluger, a member of the Friends group. “I would love to see the lawn used more. The problem was they used it and in six months it was dead.”

Cynthia Crane was more direct. “We don’t need people to sit on the grass,” she said. “Go to Central Park if you want to do that!”

As a compromise, Hart presented a plan that, he said, “probably doesn’t make anyone perfectly happy.” Although access to most of the lawn will remain restricted, a path will be built through the now fenced area that would lead to the park’s tiny pool and what will be a new single bench overlooking it. In its resolution approving the plan, the board called on the Parks Department to “explore additional funding” for a way to provide public access into the fenced area, as originally intended. Hart agreed, saying the discussion needs to continue.

“There should be healthy debate in the community as to how this park continues to evolve,” he said. “There’s no landscape that stays static.”