Great Park Visions: From Central Park to the Adirondack Park to Harbor Park

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Eye from Albany
August 2000

Great Park Visions: From Central Park to the Adirondack Park to Harbor Park
By Paul M. Bray

A New York Times’ editorial on August 9, 1864 called the Adirondacks, New York’s great north woods, ‘a tract of land fitted to make a Central Park for the world’. In 1892 the State Legislature created the Adirondack Park which today includes the largest wilderness area west of the Mississippi River and attracts 9 million visitors a year to the north country.

The park making focus is back in New York City. New York’s Harbor estuary is a vast expanse of open space and the City’s core natural system fitted to follow the model of the Adirondack Park and become a world class park.

In fact, little known to most people, New York’s Harbor has already been designated to be a park. New York City’s Harbor Park, a unit of the State’s 17 unit Heritage Area System, was created jointly by the State Legislature and the New York City Council in the 1980s.

An explanation is necessary as Harbor Park exists in a realm of public mystery like the Adirondack Park did in the late 19th century and in some respects continues today to be beyond the public’s ability to fully grasp because of its vastness and complexity.

Harbor Park encompasses an area of four hundred and fifty square miles of water and valuable estuary system together with related upland area. Its designated portals include South Street Seaport and Battery Park in Manhattan, Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn and Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island, the Stature of Liberty and Ellis Island. In 1985 a writer of a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker noted Harbor Park’s potential for turning the New York waterfront ‘into a living panorama of more than three hundred years of human experience’.

The Adirondack Park like Harbor Park is distinguished by its size. At six million acres this Park without gates is as large as the whole state of Massachusetts. It is a park of nature and people. Slightly more than half of the Park is in private ownership while the public portion is wild forest land. It has 130,000 full time residents. This all adds up to making it the ultimate challenge for park makers and administrators.

A year before the Adirondack Park was created in 1892, the State Forest Commission declared in its annual report that, ‘Nobody imagines this Commission, or any other representative of the State, can call the Adirondack Park into existence by the touch of a wand. It formation must necessarily be progressive….’

It has been progressive with incremental addition of public land (the large Whitney and Champion properties being the most resent acquisitions under the Pataki administration), development of public campgrounds and trails and protection, sound management of the Park’s public and private lands to protect natural values and creation park educational centers occurring in fits and starts throughout the Park’s 108 year history.

Similarly, Harbor Park will not realize its potential as a park by the touch of a wand. It will require great vision and hard work in building all kinds of human, institutional and physical connections.

Harbor Park is the type of park that is called a ‘partnership park’. The State designated Harbor Park and the State Parks Commissioner approved the park management plan that the City prepared. New York City is responsible for implementation of the plan.

Primary responsibility for making Harbor Park work rests with the City’s Park Department which so far has acted as if it doesn’t have a clue for how to develop and manage Harbor Park.

Most recently City Park Commissioner Henry Stern handed off the baton and challenge for Harbor Park development to Warrie Price, President of the nonprofit Conservancy for Historic Battery Park, but without operating or program funding.

Price’s primary job has been the development of a first class Harbor Park visitor center in Pier A with a four million dollar grant from the State. Pier A is just above Battery Park. The visitor center that is taking shape will be a creative facility fitting a grand and unusual park still in its formative stage. It should generate new approaches to opening up the Harbor’s marine environment for recreational uses.

If the Adirondack Park story is replayed in Harbor Park, as I believe it will be, look in the decades ahead for Harbor Park to progressively evolve as a vehicle for holistic thinking about the Harbor. This will lead to increased protection of the Park’s diverse natural and historic assets, greater waterfront public access, growing recreational opportunities on the water and better communication of the natural and cultural history associated with the Harbor. And in turn, these developments will have positive economic benefits for the land side communities with waterfronts on the Harbor and for the City, its region (including New Jersey) and our own State.

The National Park Service is now seeking to hire a big picture person to oversee its three holdings in the Harbor, Ellis Island, the Statute of Liberty and Gateway National Recreation Area.

In addition, key elements of Harbor Park or parks within Harbor Park are moving along. Hudson River Park has received the necessary funding and the Federal permits necessary to repair the seawall and 13 rotting piers along 5 miles of Manhattan riverfront. Planning for increased public access and recreational opportunities along 1.3 miles of Brooklyn’s East River waterfront from Atlantic Avenue to just northeast of the Manhattan Bridge is underway. Battery Park is being refurbished and plans for Governors’ Island that will include park uses are also moving ahead.

Tie these initiatives and the many more efforts now going on in the Harbor together and the result is a major step towards one grand Harbor Park.

The park idea realized in Central Park created the lungs for Manhattan, the model for the 19th century urban park used in many cities across the nation and the inspiration for the Adirondack Park which itself has become an international model for an inhabited open space park.

Only time will tell if New York’s evolutionary line of park legacy will offer the inspiration and galvanize the vision and leadership to realize the world class potential of the New York Harbor Park. In the meantime it is interesting to think about linkages between New York City and the Adirondack Park.