The mission of the Central Park Conservancy of New York City is to restore, manage, and enhance Central Park in partnership with the public. On September 18, 2019, they demonstrate just how seriously they take the “restore” part of that mission.
That was when Elizabeth W. Smith, President & CEO of the Central Park Conservancy, joined with New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP, to unveil designs for a transformative project that will create a beautiful new recreational facility seamlessly integrated into the landscape around the Harlem Meer.
The project will repair the damaged landscape, improve the ecology of the north end, and re-establish long-severed connections to one of the Park’s most picturesque areas. The new facility will replace the aging pool and rink, which has suffered from systemic problems since it was built and obstructs the flow of people, views, and water through the Park.
Smith said, “With our partners at NYC Parks, I’m thrilled to offer the public a design that achieves one of the Conservancy’s highest goals: connecting recreational activities with the restorative and uplifting experience that is the essence of Central Park. This sensitive and inventive design will give New Yorkers the greatly improved amenity they deserve, while returning to them the free and open use of one of the most scenic areas in the Park.”
“Since the Conservancy was established in 1980, we have invested more than one billion dollars in the Park and have restored, renewed, and preserved virtually every corner of this urban treasure. I am enormously proud that we’re capping the 40-year makeover with this wonderful, impactful project,” she added.
For the Conservancy, this momentous project will cap a decades-long restoration of the Park’s north end. The announcement revealed the vision of the Conservancy’s design office, led by Chief Landscape Architect Christopher J. Nolan, FASLA, with the architectural team of Susan T. Rodriguez Architecture | Design in collaboration with Mitchell Giurgola. More than a year of extensive community engagement contributed toward the design. The unveiling of the design for the north end project initiates the process of public review and regulatory approvals.
Built in 1966, Lasker Rink and Pool now stands as a massive concrete barrier between the Harlem Meer and the scenic Ravine to the south. The project will remove this blockage, so the watercourse that runs through the Ravine will once again flow overland into the Meer, instead of being diverted into a culvert behind the pool and rink building.
The path beside the watercourse will likewise be re-established, restoring the lost pedestrian connection and view through Huddlestone Arch toward the historic landscape. The project team’s design calls for the new recreational facility to be shifted to the eastern portion of the site rather than straddling the middle, with the pool house built into a slope in the topography. A landscaped berm will envelope the elongated oval pool and rink, fully integrating the facility into the setting.
Expanding the recreational opportunities at the Meer, the design also provides a boardwalk across a series of small islands and the freshwater marsh where the restored watercourse will flow into the Meer. By making the facility more open and accessible, the project will support year-round programming for the first time while enabling connections among the communities of Park users, from casual strollers and picnickers to recreational runners and birdwatchers.
Thomas L. Kempner, Jr., Chairman of the Central Park Conservancy Board of Trustees, added, “This design unveiling begins a new chapter in the decades-long partnership between our organization and the City of New York—one of the oldest and most successful public-private partnerships in the world. We are proud to have earned the public’s confidence through our 40 years of restoring, managing, and enhancing Central Park and are excited to see how this project will transform the lives of New Yorkers.”
Susan T. Rodriguez said, “It’s an honor to be collaborating with the Conservancy to re-imagine this part of Central Park at the intersection of history, landscape, recreation, and the City. Building upon the site’s unique topography and historical underpinnings, the project will transform the site, reopening it to the rest of the Park to create a new recreational experience that is integrated into the Park’s magnificent landscape and accessible to the public throughout the year.”
A Look at the Transformed Site
Located within the curvilinear frame of the original design of the Park Drive at the north end of Central Park, the project proposes to replace the aging and flood-prone existing recreational structure with a new swimming and skating experience that is seamlessly integrated into the Park’s landmarked landscape.
Inspired by the visionary design of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and keeping in line with the Park’s tradition of building that fuses architecture and landscape (as in Bethesda Terrace), the new facility will be built into the topography of the site along its eastern slope.
The park landscape and paths extend across the roof of the new building, effectively covering the entire facility. This green roof will include public space for gathering as well as amenities, staff, and mechanical spaces that support the operations of the pool and rink. Built in such a way, this rooftop area creates an exterior overlook with views of the park and the pool and rink below.
The light-filled gathering space below opens onto the deck of the pool. During the summer season, large floor-to-ceiling glass doors punctuated by slender wood columns along the entire length of the space open up to create a shaded area (a covered porch, in effect). Amenities are located behind a curved wall made of locally quarried stone washed by daylight from a skylight above. These amenities include changing and locker rooms, rentals, and concessions, as well as public restrooms. The building will be open to the public year-round.
The shape of the pool, an elongated oval, integrates the structure into the landscape and maximizes its size. To improve its accessibility and integration into the site, the restored pool will be built at a lower elevation than the existing pool. The pool is enveloped by a landscape berm, creating an outdoor room set within the Park’s landscape. The deck around the pool includes a splash pad at its southern end, expanding the variety of accessible water play experiences and extending opportunities for water-based recreation beyond the public pool season. The pool will be transformed seasonally into an ice-skating rink.
Building into the slope and elongating the pool will open up the site, making it possible to reconstruct the watercourse and pedestrian connection between the Ravine and the Meer. Emerging from the Ravine through Huddlestone Arch, the watercourse and park path meander along the west side of the vegetated berm that wraps around the pool, stitching together the severed landscape across the site. Where the watercourse flows into the Meer, a freshwater marsh and several small islands will enrich the scenic and ecological diversity of the transition from stream course to lake.
Traversing the freshwater marsh and wrapping around the islands, a curvilinear boardwalk will facilitate exploration and enjoyment of the Meer and its natural systems. The boardwalk will provide access for wildlife observation and fishing and support community programs, including nature education and canoeing. During the winter months, it will be converted into a skating ribbon operated by the Conservancy as a program for the community. An open-air pavilion on the shoreline will serve as an anchor and gathering spot for waterside programming.
The fundamental premise of the design derives from the restoration’s leading objective: repairing the damaged ecology and hydrology of the site, a goal that filters through every aspect of the project’s commitment to sustainability and the highest standards of environmentally responsible construction practices. By building into the slope to insulate the interior of the pool house, orienting the structure and its overhangs to shade the interior in summer and admit sunlight in winter, and providing “stack ventilation” through the operable glass façade, the design’s passive climate control minimizes the use of energy for heating and cooling.
The vegetated roof eliminates the “heat island effect” associated with traditional building materials and absorbs stormwater, reducing the impact on NYC’s treatment systems. High-efficiency plumbing will minimize the use of potable water. The facility’s natural materials of stone, wood, and glass will be locally sourced, and demolition debris will be recycled and reused on site to the degree possible. Low-reflectivity bird-safe glass will be used to prevent collisions, and fish habitats will be created in the Meer. The project is designed to achieve a LEED Gold rating and will comply with the stringent new requirements regarding energy use in City-owned buildings.
Background to the Design
Among the flagship projects of the Central Park Conservancy during its early years was the restoration in the 1980s and early 1990s of the 11-acre Harlem Meer and its surrounding landscape. The Conservancy restored areas suffering from long neglect and in 1993 created the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center on the edge of the Meer, offering a wide variety of free community and education programs, seasonal exhibitions, and holiday celebrations. Other important projects in the north end of the Park included the restoration of the historic fort landscapes on the bluffs overlooking the Meer and the restoration and improvement of the North Meadow Ballfields and the playgrounds at East 108th and 110th Streets, and West 100th and 110th Streets.
Engagement of the local community in planning and programming was critical to the success of this work. In 1995, the Harlem Meer restoration was recognized with a silver medal in the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, specifically for the Meer’s community-building and participatory process. That same year, the Conservancy began working with West Harlem neighbors, organizations, and elected officials to create a public plaza and monument at Frederick Douglass Circle, at the northwest corner of the Park.
Most recently, in 2016, the Conservancy completed the restoration of the Ravine landscape and Loch watercourse in the North Woods. This major project included a complete reconstruction of paths and infrastructure, restoration of the historic watercourse (which had been degraded by erosion and sediment), the restoration and reconstruction of rustic bridges and stone steps, and revegetation of a landscape impacted by severe weather events.
With the restoration of the Ravine landscape finished, the way was clear to reconnect the Loch watercourse to the Harlem Meer and repair the flow of pedestrian circulation, so the public is once again welcome to explore the picturesque landscape that runs through the North Woods down to West 100th Street—all this, while creating a vastly improved pool and rink to replace the deteriorated facility.
Project Schedule and Support
The north end project has a budget of $150 million, which includes a $40 million maintenance and capital repair fund, to ensure that the new facility continues to serve the public at the highest standard. The City has allocated $50 million to the project, and the Conservancy has committed to raising $100 million and overseeing the design and construction. An enthusiastic response by donors is bringing the campaign for the north end close to its goal, with the Conservancy seeking to raise additional funds that will make the facility less reliant on revenue from concessionaires and better able to provide free, year-round programs to the community.
Silver concluded, “I am so grateful for the incredible partnership between the Central Park Conservancy and NYC Parks. I congratulate the Conservancy’s team on this brilliant design, which fully meets Central Park’s unsurpassed standard for public engagement and urban beauty. Millions of New Yorkers will benefit every year from the investment we’re making to realize this extraordinary project. As an urban designer, I can’t wait to see this transformation.”
The Conservancy and the City anticipate that groundbreaking will take place in spring 2021. Construction is expected to be completed in 2024. The Conservancy is working with NYC Parks to develop a plan to minimize inconvenience during the construction period.
All renderings courtesy of Susan T. Rodriguez / Central Park Conservancy.