Checking in on Riverside Park


The Riverside Park Conservancy and the Natural Areas Conservancy are launching a new initiative to promote the health of Riverside Park’s 60 acres of forests. Photo: Russell Bernice, via Flickr
As spring blooms in New York City, the Riverside Park Conservancy looks ahead to launching new forest management initiative — and securing funding to meet other challenges
By Michael Garofalo

The Riverside Park Conservancy’s stewardship of its four-mile stretch of green space along the West Side waterfront encompasses a host of responsibilities — from the brilliant seasonal flower plantings now blossoming throughout the park to the upkeep of public tennis courts and playing fields to the youth camps and free programming that enliven the park throughout the summer.

But one aspect of the conservancy’s work that even avid users of the park may not have considered is forest management. Riverside Park contains 60 acres of natural woodlands, the ecological health of which are threatened by invasive species, as well as increased heat and drought driven by climate change.

“Right now we have many stately canopy trees that are getting choked out by invasives that just don’t belong in the park.” Dan Garodnick, the president and chief executive officer of the Riverside Park Conservancy, told Straus News. “They have the potential to keep the native trees from regenerating.”

The Riverside Park Conservancy is seeking to bolster its efforts and secure the long-term health of its forests through a new partnership with the Natural Areas Conservancy, or NAC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting, restoring and managing the 7,300 acres of forested parkland throughout New York City, among other natural areas. Beginning this year, NAC scientists will work with Riverside Park Conservancy staff and volunteers to provide training and on-the-ground support, implement best practices and produce a five-year management plan for the park’s forests.

“We’ve been giving our own attention to our natural woodland area with private philanthropic support,” Garodnick said. “But at the end of the day we are practitioners and they are scientists, so we will benefit from getting a master class in forest management from the Natural Areas Conservancy.”

Helen Forgione, senior ecologist with the Natural Areas Conservancy, said that some of Riverside Park’s characteristics — in particular, it’s long, narrow shape — pose unique ecological challenges. “Along the edge you have a lot of wind and light exposure, and invasive plants that are spread by wind can get a foothold there,” she said.

The NAC, she said, will work with the Riverside Park Conservancy to remove invasive vines and encourage healthy native undergrowth that prevents soil erosion and promotes the forest’s sustainability. “You want those young trees that will replace the older ones as they get to the end of their lifespan,” Forgione said.

The forest management project aligns with the Parks Department’s 2016 master plan for Riverside Park, which identified improved care for the park’s woodlands as a top priority.

Capital Needs and Upcoming Projects

The Conservancy is hopeful that this year’s city budget will include funding to rectify another major issue highlighted in the master plan — persistent flooding that affects large portions of the park on a regular basis, particularly between 105th and 119th Streets.

“Parts of this park are simply flooded year-round, inaccessible to walkers and bikers, and it demands urgent attention,” Garodnick said, adding, “You can see with your own eyes how problematic it is.”

Garodnick, whose 12 years of experience in the City Council were a key qualification when the conservancy tapped him to fill its leadership role last year, said that the conservancy’s advocacy during ongoing city budget negotiations is focused on securing capital funding to improve Riverside Park’s drainage infrastructure.

“The Parks Department certainly shares our concern, and our hope is that that will result in an investment this year to repair this huge problem,” he said.

A significant infusion of city capital will also be necessary to restore the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which is now fenced off from public access due to the risk of falling debris.

“It is a result of decades of neglect, and the monument has been allowed to fall into disrepair,” Garodnick said. The cost estimate for the necessary repairs is $32 million. “We believe that the city should step up and fix what has become very embarrassing, to say the least,” he added.

While repairs to the monument are likely far on the horizon, work is expected to begin later this year on the reconstruction of the 79th Street Rotunda, a major project with a target completion date of 2022. The city has discussed using nearby ballfields in Riverside Park as a staging area for construction equipment. “We are going to ask for the city and the contractors to respect the activities that we have going on in the park and to be as minimally disruptive as they can in the context of a very complicated project,” Garodnick said.