Volume 18 • Issue 4 | JUNE 17-23, 20

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

A cyclist crosses near Canal Park, above. Left, photo of Canal Park in 1920 before it was taken over to build the Holland Tunnel.

Trees grow on Canal: Park to reopen 85 years later

By Josh Rogers

Maybe good things do come to those who wait — if you have 85 years or so.

The final tease from Canal Park emerged last week as residents, workers and even motorists stuck in traffic at the west end of Canal St. got a better look at what the rebuilt and almost forgotten space will look like when it opens within a few weeks.

The triangular park was closed “temporarily” in 1920 to construct the Holland Tunnel. What was supposed to be a four-year operation by the New York and New Jersey Bridge and Tunnel commissions (precursor to the Port Authority) almost became permanent in 1930 when “Power Broker” Robert Moses, ironically a former parks commissioner, decided to keep the park closed in the hopes of building an elevated Canal St. highway leading to the Manhattan Bridge, said Richard Barrett, one of the leaders of the Canal West Coalition.

Barrett’s group and the Tribeca Community Association sued the state Dept. of Transportation six years ago over a plan to change the traffic patterns near Route 9A and Canal St. The residents discovered the place where they were used to seeing parked garbage trucks was legally still a park. The state agreed to pay to rebuild the park in 2000 as part of a settlement with residents. They like the results.

“I think he did a great job,” Barrett said of Allan Scholl, landscape architect for the city’s Parks Dept. “The material, the plantings – it’s great.”

Heather Sporn, deputy director of the State Transportation Dept.’s Route 9A Project, said even though the park grew out of a lawsuit, there was no thought about skimping on the details.

“If you’re going to build a park, you got to do it right,” said Sporn, who added she’s a landscape architect and “sympathetic to parks.”

Contractors removed the protective fencing last week, opening up the triangle’s sidewalks and providing a better view. A worker doing some finishing touches said it might open next week, although a Parks Dept. spokesperson said it would likely be a few weeks.

The $2-million park sits in the middle of a street drivers use to go from Route 9A (West St.) to the Holland Tunnel. The triangular park was widened so Washington St. motorists can no longer travel across Canal St. Pedestrians crossing at the point where Canal St. widens – Washington St. – now have a safe island in the middle, just outside the park. Barrett said the traffic changes are an improvement and now that the park’s trees and grass are more visible, that should have safety benefits too.

“That intersection was a nightmare,” he said. “It’s still bad during rush hour, but it’s much more ordered. [The park] gives a cue to motorists that people are equally important. They are better behaved.”

Patrick O’Rourke, owner of Big Apple Lights, said he warns theater productions and other customers not to come pick up lighting in the late afternoon because of the traffic. He said he is happy he and his 12 workers will have a park.

“The trees will cut down the wind in the winter and visually it helps with the general feeling here,” he said. His storefront is covered in graffiti and, he said, now that there is a park across the street, he plans to fix up the front of the building.

Several luxury condos have opened near the park in recent months and more are under construction.

Caroline Aim moved to the neighborhood several months ago and plans to open a small gourmet food shop, The Tomato Store, across the street from the park. “Nobody here has anywhere to shop or to walk,” she said. She and her partners plan to open the store in a few weeks and think the park may help business. “People will cross [Canal] more.”

The new park is about 2/3 of an acre and has benches, a mix of evergreens, flowers, perennials and trees including metasequoias and lindens.

King James II established the park in 1686 and it underwent several changes through the centuries. Barrett, who has researched the history, said the area used to be submerged at high tide and at one point the park was drained and was known as Lispernard Meadows.

The park was a viewing garden, but in 1888, architects Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons added a path in the middle. Barrett said one of the things he likes so much about the new design is that the path is reminiscent of the 19th century design.

The pavement in the middle is also needed to service the river tide gate underneath the park.

Barrett and neighbors, including musicians Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, have formed the Canal Park Conservancy to help with annual maintenance costs. The group has raised $100,000 and plans to hire a part-time gardener for about $20,000 a year. This will mean an even better park in the future, Barrett said. “It’ll grow larger and lusher over time.”


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